Haruki Murakami: “Samsa in Love” from TNY, 10/28/13

TNY Art by Javier Jaén

TNY Art by Javier Jaén

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” the woman said in a pensive voice. “Everything is blowing up around us, but there are still those who care about a broken lock, and others who are dutiful enough to try to fix it. . . . But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”

Who better to reverse Kafka than Murakami. I’m a little miffed, because I did it first. Then again, I’m not Murakami. But more about that later.

I just re-read “Metamorphosis” this summer for a class; this helped me notice a few things I might’ve otherwise overlooked. For the sake of clarity (which will get convoluted anyway, but so be it), I’ll refer to the original character as Gregor, and the character here (the story’s available online sans Page-Turner commentary) as Samsa, which is how Murakami refers to him throughout.

From the first sentence, role reversal is the name of the game. “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Murakami preserves a symmetry to the original, which (depending on the translation) reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Bugs don’t have names, of course, and people do, so the process of going from bug to human includes going from unnamed to named. Yet from then on, it’s “Samsa,” not “Gregor,” a more formal name for self-reference. The kind of name by which an outsider might call him; Samsa is, after all, a stranger to himself. Nice.

As in the original, Samsa begins his new state with a detailed examination of physical environment and body. He doesn’t see the pleasant room furnishings that awaited Gregor-the-bug on his awakening; instead, he finds a bare room, where “all vestiges of human life had been stripped away”; he even finds the ceiling disappointing: “It fulfilled its structural role but aspired to nothing further.” Much as had Gregor Samsa in his original incarnation. Again, nice.

We follow Samsa through the process of learning how to walk and figuring out what’s going on, just as with Gregor. He’s naked, feeling exposed, and terribly concerned about his vulnerability, to birds in particular. I’d never thought of bugs as being specifically concerned about birds, but birds do eat bugs, and perhaps to the roach scuttling along the floor, the bottom of a shoe smashing down from above, perhaps accompanied by the shrieking scream, is a giant bird.

This isn’t the novella-length story the original was, but we see enough from the course of this one day that Samsa is becoming more human, just as Gregor became more roach-like.
As the title promises, he falls in love, the ultimate human experience. It’s a nice little dance, the cross-communication with the locksmith. A locksmith! Murakami’s choice to make her hunchbacked, and give her a defensive personality, speaks to her own means of protection, the equivalent of a hard chitin shell. Very nice.

The story is not without humor – particularly when Samsa discovers the male human’s propensity to unexpectedly sprout an erection – but that humor ultimately serves the plot purpose of moving Samsa and the locksmith together:

While he stood behind her, watching her move in that fashion, Samsa’s own body began to respond in a strange way. He was growing hot all over, and his nostrils were flaring. His mouth was so dry that he produced a loud gulp whenever he swallowed. His earlobes itched. And his sexual organ, which had dangled in such a sloppy way until that point, began to stiffen and expand. As it rose, a bulge developed at the front of his gown. He was in the dark, however, as to what that might signify.
…The young woman craned her head at Samsa. “Are you saying you want to see me again?”
“Yes. I want to see you one more time.”
“With your thing sticking out like that?”
Samsa looked down again at the bulge. “I don’t know how to explain it, but that has nothing to do with my feelings. It must be some kind of heart problem.”
“No kidding,” she said, impressed. “A heart problem, you say. That’s an interesting way to look at it. Never heard that one before.”

They’re using the term “heart” in different ways, of course; she thinks he’s declaring love for her, he’s honestly bewildered about what’s happening in this unfamiliar body. If she thinks he’s the one who cares about the lock, she’s wrong about that as well, as he didn’t even know it was broken. But it’s enough to get them started, and sometimes, that’s all you need; the human need to connect with an other, to feel belonging, takes over from there, whether you’re a hunchbacked locksmith or a transmigrated bug.

Despite the obvious references to the original, I find myself tangled up trying to connect the tiny details. Gregor-the-bug died and his family went on, under much improved circumstances; has Samsa transmigrated, reincarnated through that bug, or a different one? Samsa awakes in a bed, on a mattress, but the mattress had been removed from Gregor’s room; all that had remained was the couch under which he died. There’s a breakfast table set for four places, but no people; is this Gregor’s family, his parents and sister Grete? Who is the fourth place? And where have they gone? They did go for a tram ride to the country to celebrate Gregor’s death at the end of the original, but why would four places have been set? Have they been rounded up? Is this a much later time and a completely different family? A completely different house? If so, why the empty room with the boarded up windows and broken lock, so reminiscent of Gregor’s room?

We get few specific time-markers. No cars or telephones are mentioned, though absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence. We do get references to military turmoil in Prague, people being “taken in”, tanks and machine guns. I can’t find any reference to tanks in Prague in WWI, the approximate time of the original (written in 1912, published in 1915), but I wouldn’t rule it out based on that. It sounds more like the Prague Spring, though that seems too future to be plausible. The uncertain time may be an intrinsic element of the story rather than my confusion: to read a story is, after all, to be suddenly metamorphosized into another world.

I’m not able to parse it, but neither am I willing to get bogged down in such details; it’s an enjoyable story that makes its point, even without that resolution.

I think everyone has tried his or her hand at reversing Gregor’s plight in some way; as I mentioned earlier, I gave it a shot in a “creative paper” assigned for this past summer’s Fiction of Relationship MOOC out of Brown University: “How does Kafka’s ‘law of metamorphosis’ bear on the ‘fiction of relationship’?…The form your creative paper takes is yours to determine. It is the work of your imagination, but you should make every effort to connect it to the week’s reading and the questions set out in the prompt.…” We were given a limit of 500 words, and could include a 200-word “rationale statement.” My submission:

Rationale Statement: I’ve written an alternate ending to “Metamorphosis” in which Gregor “turns back.” I tried to retain some of the voice of the original text.
I decided to focus on the idea that it was the family that underwent a metamorphosis, emphasize Gregor’s sacrifice. Now that he had been a bug, he knew what it felt like, so seeing someone kill a bug would have extra impact. I wanted to show him as going “back” to being a bug by choice (I used the word “back” three times in the last paragraph), because he could not endure human life, knowing what he now knows about himself, and his family.
Because of the word limits I took some liberties. I just imagined the story without the death scene at all, with the family picnic following their locking him in the room and forgetting about him. There’s a logical flaw in his unlocking the door, but that’s not something I can deal with in 500 words. If I had another few hundred, I’d love to expand the scene where he realizes the door has been locked, goes out the window, and peers into the parlor from outside.

“Aftermath”

Gregor woke up one evening to discover the pain in his back was gone. He savored the relief a moment before he noticed other changes. A hand lay beside him on the floor, a familiar hand.

‘What is this,’ he thought. The floor, which had felt fine to his chitin exoskeleton, felt hard and rough against a fleshy soft belly; numerous nerve endings in soft skin protested the weight pressing on them. He tried to move his many legs to scurry out from under the sofa, but all he had now were two arms and two legs, clumsy and enormously heavy, laden with bone and muscle and fat. As he struggled out from under the sofa, his back, unprotected by carapace, was raked by splinters.

It took him several minutes to clamber to his feet and find a vertical axis instead of the horizontal plane to which he had become accustomed. ‘How do they manage these bodies,’ he thought, ‘so sensitive, so difficult to balance?’ He took a step, and fell. ‘One thing about crawling on the floor,’ he thought, ‘I never had to worry about falling.’

He spend a quarter of an hour practicing this upright walk, then unlocked the door to his room, the door Grete had locked days ago. He approached the parlor carefully, using a wall to steady himself. He stayed in the shadow of the hallway and peered into the brightly lit room.

Oh, his first sight of his mother, chatting with one of the boarders, as cheerful a look on her face as he had ever seen! His father in a glowing silk jacket, smoking a carved pipe. And Grete! She was setting up her music stand, laughing gaily with a young man who appeared quite smitten with her charms.

His mother cried out in alarm. At first Gregor thought she had seen him, but she had instead seen a small insect crawling above the mantelpiece. His father patted her hand, chuckled affectionately, rose and drew his handkerchief from his pocket. He went to the mantel and plucked the creature from the wall. “There, I’ve crushed it,” he called out. “All is well.”

Gregor saw a greyness fall over them, starting at the edges of his vision and moving inwards. This was the man who had thrown the apple. This was the woman who had not come to see her son. This was Grete – the Grete whose dreams of Conservatory he had cherished, the Grete he imagined would happily join him in his room forever until the key turned in the lock and he heard those terrible words, “At last!”

He backed away into the shadows, back into his room. He saw the apple that had until today been rotting in his back. He saw the dim, barren space, the dirty floor, the bowl of garbage that had been left many days before the lock turned.

He returned to his place under the sofa, and waited.

As I’ve already admitted, I’m not Murakami, and I took a somewhat different path, but it was great fun. I’ll bet Murakami had fun with his, too.

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