First Person Singular (Haruki Murakami) 1: “Creme”

The short story “Creme” is the first in the recently published Haruki Murakami collection, First Personal Singular (Ichininshō Tansū), translated to English by Philip Gabriel. The story’s title hints at the French expression crème de la crème, which refers to the very best part or the very best instance of something. We could, therefore, regard the story as an attempt at describing what is best in life. But this strategy only amplifies the strangeness of this story.

Let’s begin with a summary. A narrator is telling a friend a story from his past, from when he was a young man of about eighteen years old. He had finished high school and been trying to study for the national university entrance exam. He wasn’t studying well and he wasn’t optimistic about the entrance exam. Rather than concentrating on his studies, he was drawn toward reading novels.

Out of the blue, our narrator received a postcard inviting him to a piano recital. The invitation came from a girl, a distant acquaintance from the narrator’s high school. Aside from their minimal interactions at school, the two had practiced and performed some music together. The girl had been a more skilled piano player and our narrator had felt inferior to and judged by the girl. Given that background history, he was puzzled by the invitation and decided to attend the recital if only to discover the motive behind the invitation (“Does she like me?”, “Does she want to show how much she has improved?”).

He buys an expensive bouquet of flowers, puts on his best clothes (although there is a mismatch between his jacket and his pants, one being too new, the other being too old) and gets on the bus. He is self-conscious and feels like others are staring at him and his clothes. The bus takes him far, to a peripheral part of the city and by the time he reaches his destination he is the only passenger on the bus. He finds himself in an affluent neighborhood and discovers that there is nobody else there for the concert. There is, indeed, no sign at all of a concert taking place. He finds the building and rings the doorbell, but nobody responds. It seems as if the girl intentionally misled him into believing there was going to be a recital.

Confused, our narrator goes to a small park nearby and sits on a bench. Then he hears, from a distance, the sound of a Christian preacher coming from the speakers attached to a car. The voice gets louder and clearer as the car approaches his location and he hears segments of the speaker’s message, about death, judgment in afterlife, and acceptance of Jesus Christ as the way to redemption. The car never enters his field of vision, and turns away before reaching him, the voice of the speaker slowly disappears. At this point, he is attacked by anxiety. He closes his eyes and concentrates on his heartbeat. When he opens his eyes, an old man is sitting in front of him.

The old man is aware of his state and instructs him to imagine something — a circle with many centers and no circumference. Imagining this many-centered circle is offered as a kind of solution to his current circumstances. They talk about the difficulty of imagining such a shape, and the old man emphasizes that the difficulty of imagining that shape is part of what makes it the best thing in life (crème de la crème). Anyone can imagine a circle with one center and a circumference! What is now demanded from him is to imagine something that is hard to imagine. This cryptic message isn’t interpreted in the conversation — or anywhere else in the story.

After remembering the episode, we return to the narrator and his friend in the present time, and the two continue talking about the many-centered circle, the strangeness of that memory, and in general the unintelligible events that occasionally take place in life.

With that summary in mind, let’s now attempt an interpretation. First, I try to make sense of the old man’s cryptic message, and second, I take that understanding of the cryptic message back into some of the events of the story.

If we take a circle to represent a worldview, we could assume that each person is the center of his or her circle. Each person looks at reality from a particular position (center of that particular circle) and, furthermore, each worldview has a boundary. What is within a given worldview (inside the circumference) is intelligible by that worldview, whereas what is beyond a given worldview (outside the circumference) is unintelligible. With this presupposition, we can ask: What does it mean for a circle to have multiple centers? And, what does it mean for a circle to have no circumference?

We could read the multiplicity of centers as multiplicity of perspectives. The more centers our circle has, the more perspectives we have within that piece of the world. This could mean perspectives that belong to different individuals or different perspectives available to one individual. To transfer this idea back into the story, let’s consider three episodes: (1) the time the narrator and the girl were practicing music and he wasn’t doing well, (2) the time the narrator received the postcard invitation, and (3) the time he realized nobody was at the concert and that perhaps there was no concert. The story gives us access to these episodes only through the perspective of the narrator (with the narrator is at the center). Thus, we read about how she seemed annoyed at him, perhaps regretting the fact that they had to perform together; we read about the invitation to the recital, while not knowing why she had sent the invitation; and, we find — along with the narrator — that there was no concert. We get confused with the narrator. We join him in asking “Why?”. The events in the story are beyond the limits of our narrator’s understanding, i.e., outside of his circle’s circumference.

If we had we access to the girl’s perspective, if we could read about how things seemed from her “center,” we would have read a different story and more facts would’ve been intelligible to us. We would have found out how she felt while practicing music with our narrator, we would have known the reason behind her invitation, and we might have even received an explanation for why our narrator found no a sign of the recital (Did he, for example, fail to go to the right address? Did he get the days mixed up?). With two centers, more facts would have been within the reach of our understanding, which (to follow the circle metaphor) we could describe as the circle having a larger circumference and being more inclusive.

Our narrator’s confusion is due to his exclusive reliance on his own point of view, i.e., his mistaken belief that the circle only has one center. He didn’t have enough interaction with the girl to see things from her position. The old man — which we could regard as the narrator’s inner archetype — finds our narrator in a state of confusion and his advice, accordingly, is to go beyond a single perspective that divides reality into things that either do or don’t make sense. Instead, the old man is urging our narrator to consider how everything can make sense, if only you consider the multiplicity of possible perspectives.

What is Murakami (or the narrator’s) reaction to the old man’s advice? There are, at least, two available options . First, the narrator could become more active and try to connect with others, increasing the number of “centers” within the circle, considering as many perspectives as he can. Or, second, he could imagine how he already is one center among many centers in an infinite circle. With that realization, he could simply let go of the desire to understand everything from his center. The narrator chooses this second option, consistent with Murakami’s general style (tending toward isolation and independence, sacrificing connection with others). As a result, he embrace the occasional unintelligibility of experience. He tells his friend how he goes with it, rather than trying to make sense of a confusing situation. He describes the situation as him being caught in a wave and he decides to simply move with the wave.

Let’s return to our question: What are the best things in life? In my reading, Murakami regards the best things in life (crème de la crème) to be the outcome of letting go of control and accepting the mysteries of experience. This means accepting the occasional failures of understanding. We could, of course, go a little beyond his attitude and add a complementary component, namely the decision to connect with others and try to understand other perspectives. With this strategy, the best things in life could, at least sometimes, result from understanding what was initially beyond our grasp.

Davood Gozli is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Macau.