I picked up Marcel Theroux’s latest novel “Far North” because of a personal recommendation from his father, the well-known travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux.
Marcel is the second of Paul’s three sons. The younger two sons were born to Paul and his English wife Anne Castle, and were brought up and educated in the UK following their parent’s divorce, while the eldest son was born to a different, American woman – but that’s a long story I won’t go into here.
The youngest, Louis, is active as a TV journalist and writer, based mainly in the UK. He is in a way the British equivalent of Michael Moore, and has many fans. A Japanese translation of his non-fiction book “The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures” has been published by Chūōkōron-shinsha and received quite favourable reviews. It is a uniquely fascinating book covering America’s underside from the eyes of a Brit, and well worth reading if you get the chance.
Marcel, his elder brother, also worked as a TV documentary reporter / presenter at the same time as writing novels. It was Louis who first found nationwide popularity, as Marcel had a somewhat low-key profile, with a rather more subdued style. Their father Paul apparently worried whether he would be all right – but things really took off with “Far North” and he became highly rated as a novelist. This book was a finalist in the American National Book Award, and won the Prix de l’Inaperçu in France. When I visited Paul’s house in Hawaii, he told me about it, full of joy. “It really is an interesting story,” he enthused, and I replied, “I’ll be sure to read it” – but to be honest I was somewhat sceptical, as I was aware that even National Book Award Finalists were sometimes a mixed bag. Everyone knows how trying it can be to read a novel out of a sense of obligation even though it doesn’t suit your own tastes. But I bought a copy in a bookshop, and once I started to turn the pages I found it so entrancing that I read it all in one go. A short while after reading it, it struck me that I had to translate this book. Among all the novels I have recently read, this was the one that grabbed me the most, emotionally. The story keeps driving forwards, and when you finish you’re left with a heavy feeling in your stomach. Above all, it is full of otherworldliness. As I see it, otherworldliness is essential in a novel. If the readers think, “Yeesss, it’s interesting, but it reminds me of something similar I’ve read elsewhere before” then the novel has lost some of its force.
Some brief biographical details: Marcel Theroux was born in Kampala, capital of Uganda, in 1968. This was because his father was teaching there at the university. Later they moved to Singapore, again due to his father’s work, where they spent two years. After this they returned to the UK, and Marcel took English Literature at Cambridge before going on to read International Relations at Yale, with a particular focus on Soviet and East European Studies. According to his father, “Thanks to a good university education, he even ended up able to speak Russian”. He often appears on television, mainly handling topics connected with Russia or environmental issues, and visited Japan in 2009 as presenter for an in-depth feature called “In search of Wabi-sabi”. As a novelist, he won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2002 with his story “The Paperchase”.
Looking at his career, the epithet ‘genius’ does seem appropriate, and there seems to have been no reason for his father’s worry… but parents never cease to find cause for concern, of course. Apparently he “worked in television because novels don’t pay the bills”. As it happens, the Theroux family is full of talented people. Marcel’s uncle Alexander Theroux is also a famous writer, still active, and his cousin Justin Theroux is a well-known young actor, who has written several scripts while appearing in films.
I don’t want to go into too much detail here about the storyline or content of this novel. Some people probably read the afterword before the main text – there’s nothing wrong with that – and I don’t want to reveal how the story develops. With this novel in particular, it is hard to predict how it will develop, or rather, the story keeps extending in unexpected directions, so knowing the situations or storyline in advance would make it less interesting. If possible, I would like readers to enjoy it with no preconceptions.
However, I do think it is important, to a certain extent, to take note of the history behind Marcel Theroux’s coming to write this truly unique novel. Knowing its origins will probably change your understanding of the book quite significantly.
According to Marcel’s own introduction, the idea for the work came to him on a trip to Ukraine in December 2000. He was there to cover former Soviet areas for a special feature being made by a UK television studio, and visited Russia four times as part of that production. He travelled through bleak northern Siberia by aeroplane and on reindeer sleds, reported from Grozny, the Chechen capital that had been destroyed by bombing, and additionally went to Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, still in turmoil.
He also interviewed a woman living near Chernobyl, called Galina. Nobody is allowed within a 30 km circle around the site of the nuclear accident, yet she had ignored this prohibition and returned to her small village to continue farming independently. The number of people who have done this is not small: they are called the Returnees. Galina was a widow in her late fifties, keeping a cow and chickens by herself, and growing cabbages in soil polluted by radiation.
In Marcel’s eyes, hers was an exceptionally primitive existence. Her simple life on the edge was as if she had atavistically reverted to the ways of her ancestors. Yet through meeting and talking with this woman, and observing her way of life, he becomes totally convinced by her bold and independent nature, practical approach and competence, and absolute lack of self-pity.
Marcel later ends up involved with the production of another feature-length programme for UK television on the theme of global warming. He writes of the acute awareness he developed through these activities as follows: “It’s hard not to feel that many of us have lost a once instinctive relationship with fundamental natural processes. We have come to accept the extraordinary unhesitatingly, and to give ourselves too much credit for the pure accident of our birth at this historical moment, when centuries of technological expansion, of investment, and sacrifice — and the profligate use of the planet’s wealth — have allowed us to live blindly, without feeling the cold, or the heat, or understanding the engines in our cars, the microprocessors in our phones, or the food in our refrigerators.
“Returning to Chernobyl in 2004 I began to wonder if I had got things the wrong way round. Galina might be ignorant of the benefits of the world-wide web, mobile telephony, and sushi restaurants, but in a reduced world, a world of hardship brought on by famine, or disease, or war, or the kind of industrial accident that had happened in Chernobyl, or the upheaval envisaged in the direst of Lovelock’s predictions, my specialized kinds of knowledge would be of very limited value, while the ability to recognize edible mushrooms, grow cabbages, or preserve food, would be precisely what was needed to survive. And since women are naturally more long-lived than men, it struck me that the endgame of human existence on this planet might resemble life in the Exclusion Zone — wildlife reinvigorated by human absence, a woman with no heirs, past childbearing age, growing food on poisoned land.”
It was in the summer of 2010 that I finished reading this novel and thought “I have to translate it”. In other words, it was before the huge earthquake that hit Tōhoku in March 2011. For Japanese people who read this book now, however, it will without doubt immediately conjure up that tragic megaquake and tsunami, and the devastating accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Needless to say, 11 March 2011 brought about a change in our perception of the world.
As a novelist myself, I don’t really want to advocate what we should sense or learn from this book. It is after all a well-crafted, tough, but fictional story (if one had to categorize it, it would probably come under “near-future novels”). Even if some kind of revelation or moral lesson were included, I would definitely rate that as being something personal, and of secondary importance.
Some of the realistic depictions that appear in this novel will probably end up making many readers shudder. We already know that the events portrayed are not just a fictional device, but an aspect of reality from which we find it impossible to divert our gaze, or something ancillary to reality, something that illuminates reality. What we discover as we slip through the medium of a story is surely a common feeling, albeit a painful one. More specifically, in this story we find a hot, wide, pulsating, agonizing artery linking Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Yet when you finish reading this book, you are left with a feeling of heaviness. This weight was present even before the earthquake, but re-reading the novel on the other side of March 11’s bitter watershed, there is obviously a new dimension to the weight, a different sense of poignancy. Great stories always contain an element of premonition, but when this premonition is projected into an atmosphere of reality, it becomes a three-dimensional mirror on the soul, and gives rise to new premonitions in turn. It’s a special kind of cyclical reaction that is probably only ever found in literature.
Never before have I found a book where I wanted to ask people for their reactions quite so much as this one.
March 2012 Murakami Haruki
Copyright © 2012 Haruki Murakami
All rights reserved.
Posted with permission of Haruki Murakami.