“I have in me like a haze, which holds and which is nothing, a nostalgia for nothing at all, the desire for something vague.” ~ Fernando Pessoa
Don’t worry. You don’t have to have read much of Mr. Murakami’s work to understand the gist of this. I certainly haven’t. But to ensure we’re all on the same page, here’s a proposed Wikipedia entry:
“To live Haruki-Murakamily a person should ideally be living alone in a generic modern apartment in a large metropolis, eating mostly spaghetti, listening to Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, etc, and be seemingly content with the solitude (y’know, alone, but not especially lonely), as if loneliness is taken for granted. For the sake of having a plot, he’ll be involuntarily drawn into a surreal adventure, possibly involving a cat and/or an idiosyncratic woman [disputed].”
I suppose some of you might ask why I, or anyone, would want to live Haruki-Murakamily. Well, you see, a few years ago, I had a breakdown in Hanoi. As it happens, I moved there in autumn. Little did I know, this increases the chances you will fall for that city by about 3,000%. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened to me if I’d landed in Hanoi on a damp and dreary March day…
As my arrival was early October, I didn’t stand a chance. I swear at that time of year, one walk around Hoan Kiem Lake is enough to put you under a spell. The still, green water beneath a pollution-free blue sky. A smattering of red and yellow leaves under your feet. A cooling breeze on your face. It felt so pleasant and poetic and required nothing of me – all I had to do was be there, and observe.
But even humdrum activities in Hanoi can be an enchantment of sorts. As I got to know the city, I used to spend hours doing the same ordinary things in between bowls of noodles: sitting outside cafes, right on the edge of the Old Quarter, sipping on a frothy iced coffee, smoking cigarettes, and shooting the shit with the staff or shoeshine boys, admiring the endless stream of pretty local women as they scooted past on mopeds and disappeared into traffic, over and over, as if on a loop.
For a period, everyday felt like a Tuesday afternoon to me. It was pure bliss. My long term plan was to work part-time (read: as little as possible) and write a book, a murder mystery set in Lisbon, where I had lived before. It was going to be an ‘existential literary thriller’ in which Fernando Pessoa was the sleuth investigating the death of his own heteronym. Or was it the other way round?
Either way, the book quickly lost its relevance to me in Hanoi. I couldn’t focus on writing, or even reading. Sitting at a desk felt impossible. Rude even. I felt compelled to wander the streets, day after day, week after week, a passive participant in the mix, wondering if I’d ever want to live anywhere else.
I read once that there is no mystery to a place or thing. It’s in one’s eye. So I guess it was just timing. The age I was, the stage of life I was at – Hanoi just had that feel. Without making a decision, it became clear I was staying there indefinitely. I rented a room and a scooter, found some work, made some friends. At times I drank far too much but had fun every time I did. There was just one problem. On a physical level, the city began to reject me. After my honeymoon phase ended, I noticed my health deteriorating, almost at an exponential rate. Skin rashes, acne, sebaceous cysts, regular stomach issues, near-constant sweating. Even when the weather was ‘cool’, the humidity gripped me like a fist. Male pattern baldness (I swear chemical-tainted water accelerated my hairline’s demise). Besides the two- to three-week period of idyllic weather in late September and early October, I just couldn’t handle it. Month on month a feeling of fatigue grew. Then the insomnia kicked in. Breathing issues joined the fun. Inevitably my love for the city waned. I only persisted in living there because of a woman. That and I suppose a fear of not knowing where in the world I could go next.
My girlfriend was a Hanoian with two bachelor degrees (one in law, another in business) and a master’s that signalled a very bright professional future. The way she dressed. The way she spoke – smart, classy, ambitious.You could tell this young woman was destined for success. When we first met, she was just starting her career and she made plenty of time for me. In those days we might have been seen eating crispy eels on glass noodles in the Old Quarter, or eating snails in some barn of a restaurant by West Lake, but, as time went by, I realised we were more likely to be eating sushi or tacos on weeknights, and eggs Benedict or shakshuka on weekends. Rather than me continuing to adapt to the local culture, she started to adapt to my gentrified version of her backyard.
My part-time jobs had also left me devoid of any kind of true vocation. Private lessons with Korean kids. Business English lessons for mid-level managers at a language school. Three shifts per week as a sub-editor at a newsroom, where there were two kinds of expat colleagues: cynical old hacks (all incorrigible piss-heads who looked 20 years older than they were) and a younger, irreverent crew, all of whom treated the place like a classroom – instead of passing notes to each other, they’d try to slip innuendoes into print (e.g. ‘German manager gets head job at Hai Phong Cement FC’, ‘Cunning linguist comes to town’).
At a time when I was really struggling physically (nothing I ate was digesting in a ‘regular’ way; I’d break out in a sweat, seemingly for no reason; my back was covered in acne), I remember being halfway through a hard-hitting report on rising exports of urea and realising that I was pissing my life away.
My relationship was the only thread I had left but I knew that would soon end, too. It was increasingly obvious my girlfriend was going to have a stellar career, which only accentuated my flatlining existence. I would never get promoted. I would never get a raise. I didn’t have a credit card or insurance. When I noticed that she had stopped inviting me to meet her work friends, I didn’t even care. If anything, I was relieved by the feeling of erasure.
Then one night we went to have dinner at an Italian joint (a very safe bet with my digestive issues), where I ran into some expat pals of mine. They were the sort of folk who would regularly announce, when tipsy and surrounded by other expats, how much they loved Hanoi, but they also had zero qualms about sitting in a foreign restaurant and cataloguing the faults of the locals for hours. We ended up joining their table and someone started to joke about all the places they have boycotted around town for various ‘Hanoi-ing’ minor crimes i.e. ripping them off by less than $5; not parking their motorbike with sufficient care; being unable to serve a noodle soup without two thumb nails being stuck into the broth. Everyone else then took turns to tell a story about which petrol station, cafe, restaurant or bar they refused to go to anymore and why. I got a good laugh when telling a story about someone trying to charge me exactly VND200,000 for three beers (yeah, you do the math).
My girlfriend said she was feeling sick from something she’d eaten earlier in the day, apologised and left. She was so polite no one suspected a thing. But when I got home, hours later and quite drunk, I texted her and she replied: “You know what I am boycotting? You and your stupid fucking friends.”
To be honest, I am not sure how she fell for me in the first place. She was a smart, well-read woman. She’d read all those Russian and East European novels that I just pretend to have read. My guess is that she initially liked the idea of being in love with a writer. Maybe it would have worked better if I was having some success. Or at least being published. But my creative writing had basically been reduced to the odd Twitter thread and some longwinded Instagram posts (I was probably a little bit too proud of some of them).
Anyway, after she confirmed that I had been dumped, I decided to call time on Hanoi. As I had just a few grand to my name, the only place I could afford to relocate was Saigon, a city which seemed big enough for me to find work and lie low until I got my act together. After I flew south, things went pretty well. I soon found a part-time gig as a copywriter for a major international company. Also, thanks to the first wave of Covid, which had been and gone, I didn’t have to go to the office – basically, a dream job. Working remotely, and with zero social obligations, I was free, free to be utterly alone, and yes – free to live Haruki-Murakamily.
I moved into a generic apartment without much of a view. In fact, the view from my apartment was a whole bunch of other identical apartment towers. The whole place was like something out of the Truman Show, except surrounded by marshes and idle constructions. Like the first completed kernel of Tomorrowland. All around the shabby perimeter, there were billboards advertising even more luxurious and sterile-looking communities from the future, apparently a future with no street food, or motorbikes. In the zone where I lived, each symmetrical block seemed to have one clinic advertising perfect white teeth or perfect skin, one Italian or Nordic furniture shop, one Korean-owned bakery with a French name, three convenience stores and two generic cafes, none of which offered any clues to what country I was in.
Thanks to a multitude of delivery apps, I didn’t have to leave this little urban bubble for anything. When I ventured out to CircleK, or sat in one of the nearby cafes, it didn’t seem like many people lived there. But at sundown, legions of joggers and cyclists were everywhere. I would also see clusters of young Instagrammers/ TikTokkers, moving as one entity, snapping photographs of each other, as if in a professional fashion shoot, striking poses not only as if they were someone else, but living somewhere else, too. I couldn’t help but notice that they never seemed to be having much fun. Staging this fantasy existence appeared to be serious business. But, in a way that sort of felt like the most authentic thing a person could do there, considering the whole place felt like a prop.
Don’t get me wrong. I was never judgmental. Indeed, I was also pretending to be someone else. To supplement my role as an invisible editor for a corporate firm, I sought out work as a travel writer, pitching ideas for pure fluff to inflight magazines. But I just copied everything from the internet. I even wrote dozens of articles on street food as if I were quite the expert when everyday I ate toast for breakfast, nasi goreng for lunch in a bland café-restaurant on the ground floor of my apartment block, and for dinner, well, as I was living Haruki-Murakamily, naturally I cooked spaghetti. For the record, I did vary the style of pasta and sauce but my signature fix – let’s call it ‘spaghetti alla Murakami’ – was a poor man’s amatriciana washed down with cheap Chilean wine.
And for a while nothing happened. I just existed, editing and writing ‘content’, and that felt pretty good. I wouldn’t say I was healthy but most of the issues that had blighted me in Hanoi faded. Even my hair loss slowed down. When my working day was over, I spent my evenings at home, drinking wine, listening to music on Spotify, and watching forgettable shows on Netflix. I also downloaded all the usual dating apps. Mostly I was just fantasising about what was out there. If I matched an actual human (rather than a crypto scammer, a pimp or a pointlessly fake profile), more often than not, the back and forth exchange would fizzle quickly. Turns out there’s as much a skill to chatting online as there is in person and I had just as little ‘virtual’ game.
Nonetheless, I had the odd visitor; sometimes that was my idea, sometimes it was theirs. I’d invite them to have a drink in the cafe downstairs from my apartment. If that went okay, I’d invite them upstairs and, on confirming we didn’t have much to talk about, we’d have sex. Not a single one ever wanted to stay over, which was fine by me, and, I am pretty sure, fine by them. “You know where to find me,” I’d assure them as they left at midnight or 1am. But I never saw the same woman twice. I’d give it a day or two, then I’d delete their contact details. Sometimes I’d realise they’d beaten me to it. ‘Touché,’ I would say out loud, even though there was no one to ‘touché’ anymore.
But eventually I ‘met’ a young woman that appeared both interesting and somewhat interested in me, even if she was reluctant to visit me. “I am not into casual sex anh oi. I have had enough of that,” she texted me, tantalising me from the get-go with the double whammy notion of a promiscuous past and a celibate present.
As usual I had described myself as a writer, and mentioned I was working on a novel, hoping that would make me appear interesting in her eyes. But she didn’t seem too curious. When we chatted, I mostly quizzed her. Her answers were usually vague but she still revealed some personal details. She told me she was Vietbodian (her dad was from Cambodia, her mum from Vietnam). She told me she worked in one of the most modern Grade A office towers in town (but she wouldn’t tell me the name of her employer). She told me she was a manager and everyone in her team hated her. The older ones resented being told what to do by an ‘em’ (young sister). But the younger ones — in her words: “apple mac bimbos who spend all day looking at themselves on their phones” — weren’t fans either. “They think I’m ugly as fuck, anh oi, cos my skin is dark all over and I don’t like wearing a bra.”
She also told me I asked too many questions. I took the hint and tried to ease off the texts. But if I ignored her for too long, she would send me snippets of herself singing her favourite songs on WhatsApp. “Old Man” was one of her favourites.
♩ “Old man, take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…”♩
Oh, and by the way, like Neil Young in the song, she was 24 but me… well, I was so much more. In fact I was 42. I don’t know what some of you will think about that age difference, not much maybe, but more than anything, I thought of our palindromic digits, and pondered how we were – at nearly a whole generation apart – somehow mirroring each other, and perhaps searching for the same thing. A vague, reassuring feeling, I guess. A sense that we weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The weird thing is, I didn’t really think much of her personality. She was blunt, almost cruel at times. She also had an incredible instinct for what bugged me. Ageing, for starters. “Anh oi. I am going to an amazing island this weekend. A writer like you, you’d love it,” she’d text, getting my hopes up. “I’d ask you to come but an old man like you doesn’t want to hang out with my twenty-something friends.”
Sometimes, and always close to midnight, she would send pictures of her body art. She had my attention anyway but I guess she wanted to be sure. One of her life goals seemed to involve getting tattooed on a semi-regular basis. “This is number 4. I’ll stop at 8 or 9. Or 12.” One tattoo was a quote: “If I am a bird, you’re a bird”. When I found out it was a line in a soppy romance starring Ryan Gosling, I downloaded the torrent. Naturally I was hoping a knowledge of the film would boost my prospects of meeting (and seducing) her. But when I told her I’d watched it, she shot back: “Anh oi. You just watched a chick flick.” She also added the crying laughing emoji.
I told her that I had nothing better to do because I was living Haruki-Murakamily. “That’s really sad old man. You need to get a fucking life.”
When I asked if she was a fan of Murakami’s novels, like many young Vietnamese women seem to be, she had a ready-made burn: “Nah. He’s like Starbucks coffee, anh oi. Good branding, but no depth.”
With all these putdowns, I came close to calling time on our virtual friendship a few times. But she had an uncanny knack for reeling my intrigue back in. Like when she told me she ran one-woman charity missions to the delta, bringing toys, clothes and medical supplies to a town where scores of children lived in poverty. She also had a convincing spiel on why NGOs can’t be trusted. Ducking another invitation to meet up on a Saturday, she’d reply: “Sorry anh. Gotta go see my kids.”
Sometimes she would text me really late at night and tell me stories in a flurry of texts. Like, how she discovered the local beggar was a con artist who owned a car and how she exposed him. Like, how, while travelling on a bus, she pick-pocketed a pickpocket and gave what the pickpocket pick-pocketed back to the pickpocket’s unsuspecting victim, a poor cô (aunt), who was sound asleep, snoring and unawares.
Even if I suspected she was making everything she told me up, I found these tales entertaining. That is until the night she told me she’d started to write a book.
You see there was another old man – “Way older than you, and anh oi… you’re so old.” – and this old man, who lived somewhere in the delta, was dying. “Cancer in the brain.” She had stayed with him for a while, when she was doing her charity runs. Just him and her, all alone together. “He was a real ladies man. I can see why. He’s sexy, you know? Not like you anh oi.” He told her of his past, his womanising exploits and escapades during the war, and how he rallied the farmers in his hometown to fight corruption, and how his one true lady love, the one who would have changed everything, died in a fire that was proved to be arson.
She told me she would write down everything that he’d revealed about his life before he passed away. When I referred to him as the Don Juan of the Mekong, she didn’t miss a beat. “Jealous of an old guy that’s dying from cancer. You really need to get laid anh oi.”
Over the next week, she only texted me whenever she took writing breaks to smoke and feed her cats (or rather her neighbours’ cats who gravitated to her place). It was like she wanted to show me how easy it was for her to write a book. At times I literally bristled. I felt like she’d sensed what bugged me most of all. Being a writer who never writes. Knowing I’d pissed it all away.
But was she really writing a book, or just winding me up? Either way, I started to feel like this had gone on long enough. I decided to stand up for myself, which at this point of human evolution means not replying to someone’s texts. But I could only manage a week of radio silence. Predictably, after downing a bottle of Chilean plonk one night, I cracked.
“Hey, em… whatcha doing.”
Days passed before she replied.
“I’m on a bus, anh oi.”
“Heading to the delta?”
“Yeah. I finished the book. I want him to read it.”
“Not cool anh oi. He’s about to die any day now.”
I told her I was sorry. I tried to say something comforting, as if I was a wise man. But she didn’t buy it. She replied with the vomit emoji then disappeared into the ether. When she finally resurfaced, days later, she wrote: “Anh oi. He hates it.”
I told her that it didn’t necessarily matter that he hated it. A publisher certainly wouldn’t care. It’s the story that counts. And anyway, sorry to say, but soon he would be dead. No one would be suing her for damages.
“Anh oi. You don’t get it. This story was just for me and him. Now he has read it, I will just burn it.”
I felt like she was doing this just to piss me off. And I was pissed off. So I told her that I remembered everything she’d told me. I would write a story about her and the old man and the book being burned. The story would still get to be told.
“Anh oi. I just realised something…”
I asked her what.
“You really are a complete loser.”
Like a predictable fool, I immediately went to work, writing down everything she’d told me about her and the old man. I had thrashed out a couple of thousand words in one sitting before abruptly stopping. I began to be suspicious that this was the plan all along. To spin me a bullshit tale and then sit back and wait for me to write it all up. What made it worse was, even though I was the one writing the story, I could see that I – the distant narrator who clearly has no life – came out badly.
So, I gave up. I deleted her number, deleted what I had written, and went back to living Haruki-Murakamily. As it happened, that was just before Covid jumped the fence in Saigon. The whole city soon went into lockdown. Millions of people were freaking out but… well, nothing much changed for me. I had trained myself to be utterly content when staying at home 24 hours a day. I even had enough ingredients to make spaghetti alla Murakami every night and plenty of cheap wine to wash it down. Sorry to be a little smug, but for once in my life, I’d had the last laugh and that felt pretty good.
It wasn’t until all the restrictions had been lifted that I got a text from you-know-who. “Anh oi. Where are you?” I told her I was exactly where I had been when we first texted. Literally, the exact same spot. She told me: “Yeah, that’s good. An old man like you still has to be careful these days.”
At that moment I realised I was 43 and she was 25. We no longer mirrored each other numerically. Our loneliness, longing, lust, whatever it was we had felt, whatever motivated us to text each other in the first place, no longer chimed. The weird spell that masked our incompatibility had been broken.
Before she disappeared into the ether again, part of me wanted to ask her if she really wrote and burned that book. But another part of me wanted to let the mystery endure. Truth be told, aren’t we all constantly filling in the blanks of other people’s lives and probably getting nearly everything wrong? And maybe life is just easier that way.
Anyway, after that exchange, I decided it was time to live less Haruki-Murakamily. For one thing, I am really sick of spaghetti. In fact, last night I managed to cook a pretty decent mushroom risotto, and after a couple of glasses of wine, I also decided to write this story. The only thing is I’m still not sure how it all ends. Maybe I’m hoping a neat conclusion will present itself somehow, that someday soon, I’ll see her somewhere downtown, and whether it will feel like stepping into a dream, or out of one, it’s hard to know. But maybe we’ll see each other, stop and laugh. Then maybe we’ll go for an afternoon drink or three and end up in bed for the evening. Or maybe, I’ll step inside a bookstore only to see a stand advertising a new bestseller: Lão già nhìn tôi này. It’ll take me half a minute to pull up a translation on Google: ‘Old man take a look at me now.’ What else can I say but ‘touché’?
And if that should happen, I’d happily buy a copy then go to one of those cafes where young Vietnamese sit in the window, taking turns to look lonely and alluring while holding a book that they’re not actually reading as their friend snaps photos. I’d join the fun, too. Why not. I’d take a picture of the novel alongside my cappuccino and then send it to the author, congratulating her, asking if she’d like to meet up and sign my copy.
But if I know her well, as well I can know someone that I have never even met, someone who might have made up everything she ever told me, well, I’m pretty sure she’d just reply:
“Seriously old man, you need to get a fucking life.”