Thursday, November 17, 2005

Haruki Murakami's "The Year of Spaghetti"

"The Year of Spaghetti," by Haruki Murakami, appears in the 11/21/05 issue of The New Yorker. It is a puzzling little story; puzzling because one wonders why The New Yorker would publish it, other than the name recognition of the author.

I'm going to try to find something redeeming in this piece. The story begins with the first-person narrator telling us that in 1971 he cooked a lot of spaghetti, daily it seems, in a pot "big enough to bathe a German shepherd in." The narrator lives in a tiny apartment, alone and lonely: "Steam rising from the pot was my pride and joy, tomato sauce bubbling up in the saucepan my one great hope in life."

The narrator eats spaghetti every day, imagining at each meal that someone is coming to visit: different people, ranging from an old girlfriend, to the narrator himself from a different era, to William Holden. No one actually visits.

Murakami next explains the deep meaning of the cooking of spaghetti: "I cooked and cooked, as if cooking spaghetti were an act of revenge. Like a lonely, jilted girl throwing old love letters into the fireplace, I tossed one handful of spaghetti after another into the pot.

"I’d gather up the trampled-down shadows of time, knead them into the shape of a German shepherd, toss them into the roiling water, and sprinkle them with salt."

So, you see, it isn't just spaghetti he's obsessing over; it's past regrets, mistakes, the detritus of an unhappy life.

The first actual plot point occurs when, one day, the phone rings. After several paragraphs of listening to the phone ring, the narrator answers. The caller is a girl looking for her ex-boyfriend, a friend of the narrator.

The narrator refuses to tell the girl where to find the boy. They argue briefly. The narrator says he's too busy cooking spaghetti to help her. Ah, but he's not cooking spaghetti, not really, so he pretends too, pantomiming the act. Eventually, the girl gives up and the narrator lies down on the floor.

The narrator reflects on his unwillingness to help the girl. Maybe it was wrong, but he didn't want to get involved.

And finally, the heartstopping final paragraph:

"Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be if they knew that what they were exporting in 1971 was really loneliness?"

Sorry, I can't find anything redeeming in this. It's like a parody of modern fiction. Or really bad college fiction. Or both. Someone suggested that it's intended to be funny, and maybe so, but I don't think it's fair for a writer to publish something laughably bad and then say, "Oh, I meant for it to be bad. Isn't that funny?" Harumph.