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Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, The City and its Uncertain Walls, serves as his love letter to magical realism and the transcendent power of the written word. The novel traces its origin to a short story of the same name, published in a Japanese literary magazine in 1980. Murakami was unsatisfied with the story and never included it in his anthologies. Nevertheless, its main premise of a time-bending alternate reality served as the starting point for one of the two storylines in his 1985 novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. However, the original short story still nagged at Murakami, and he decided to return to it decades later as a more mature, experienced writer. Murakami began work on the novelized version of The City and its Uncertain Walls in 2020, forty years after publishing his original short story. The novel became a pandemic project for Murakami, which feels apropos for a story steeped in isolation.

The City and its Uncertain WallsLike many of Murakami’s tales, The City and its Uncertain Walls is told from the first-person perspective of an unnamed male protagonist, conventionally known as “Boku,” one of the Japanese words for “I.” The novel begins as a love story between the seventeen-year-old Boku and his schoolmate, a sixteen-year-old girl who seems detached from reality. She tells Boku that her true self is not in this world, but in an alternate plane of existence, working at a library of dreams in a town surrounded by an immensely tall wall. She tells Boku that he can meet her in that world, becoming the Dream Reader at the library, but when they meet she will have no memory of having known him from outside the walls of that world. One day the girl disappears without warning, and Boku can only assume that she has gone to the fantastical library of her dreams.

In the second part of The City and its Uncertain Walls, we follow Boku into his isolated middle-aged existence. Unsatisfied with his career, he quits his job to become the head librarian at a privately endowed library in a rural community, where he starts to form meaningful attachments to other people. Of particular note is an autistic boy who devours books at the library and seems to retain all the information he reads, essentially becoming a library himself. The relationships that Boku forms at the library may also be key for him to understand what happened to the girl who captured his heart as a boy.

The fantasy world in The City and its Uncertain Walls will already be familiar to anyone who has read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It’s a land where unicorns roam the streets and an imposing Gatekeeper forces people to separate from their shadows. While Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World paid much more attention to the shadows and unicorns, The City and its Uncertain Walls is more concerned with the nature of time, which ceases to have any meaning in this parallel world.

The City and its Uncertain WallsAlthough the back-of-the-book blurb describes The City and its Uncertain Walls as “an ode to books and to the libraries that house them,” I believe a more accurate description is that it’s Murakami’s ode to magical realism itself: the coexistence of the real and unreal, the living and the dead, the physical and the metaphysical. As in many of his other novels, Murakami uses magical realism to address the universal human desire for finding deeper meaning in a shallow and uncaring world. Murakami even includes a fitting tip of the hat to Gabriel García Márquez, the late Colombian author who was a pioneer in the magical realism genre.

Reading The City and its Uncertain Walls evokes similar feelings as watching a Hayao Miyazaki movie. Murakami includes several direct references to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. But I think the more fitting comparison is with Miyazaki’s last film, The Boy and the Heron. As in this final opus from Miyazaki, Murakami is not treading any new ground in The City and its Uncertain Walls. Rather, he distills many of his favorite themes, including loneliness, aging, and the quest for spiritual transcendence, into one career-encompassing story.

The connections to Murakami’s other works are numerous. Given its shared world, Murakami’s latest novel links most closely with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Both novels start with the same basic idea, but Murakami takes them in two very different directions. The City and its Uncertain Walls lacks the “hard-boiled wonderland” part of his previous work, giving it a more authentic, sentimental feel. As in Murakami’s most popular novel, Norwegian Wood, The City and its Uncertain Walls features young love doomed by sudden disappearance. The new novel also includes Murakami’s requisite Beatles reference, this time to “Yellow Submarine.” But the deeply introspective nature of the novel most closely recalls that of his greatest masterpiece, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Murakami’s writing has aged like a fine wine, with eloquent ruminations on the nature of time and memory that recall one of his own literary heroes, the incomparable Marcel Proust. In terms of more recent literature, The City and its Uncertain Walls is recommended for fans of The Book that Wouldn’t Burn by Mark Lawrence. Both of these beautifully written novels pay homage to books and libraries, delivering insights on the nature of time and aging within a love story set across parallel worlds. However, while Lawrence delivers plenty of fantasy action, Murakami slows the pace down dramatically with meditations on isolation and social interaction. Although this is probably Murakami’s slowest-paced book to date, I savored every moment.

Altogether, The City and its Uncertain Walls is a well-earned victory lap for the marathon-running Haruki Murakami, forty-five years into his distinguished literary career. This is Murakami’s most refined and eloquent work to date, a Proustian novel full of nuance and emotion that leverages magical realism to take on the tyranny of time itself.

The City and its Uncertain Walls

The City and its Uncertain Walls

The City and its Uncertain Walls

The City and its Uncertain Walls

The City and its Uncertain Walls

The City and its Uncertain Walls

The City and its Uncertain Walls

The City and its Uncertain Walls

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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