"Although just now and then, in the depths of the night, I'll think about barns burning to the ground."
Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
Barn Burning is a short story written by Haruki Murakami in 1983 and published in The New Yorker in 1992. It is included in The Elephant Vanishes, a collection published in English in 1993 and translated by Alfred Birnbaum. The literary afterlife of Barn Burning is particularly interesting, as the movie Burning directed by Chang-dong Lee has brought the story even more attention. Without a doubt, Barn Burning is one of Murakami’s best short stories. Here is some of what is happening in the haunting tale.
Background of Barn Burning
The story borrows its name from American author, William Faulkner’s 1938 short story, “Barn Burning.” On the surface, there is no direct connection between the two stories written 50 years apart aside from the title.
William Faulkner’s work concerns a father who was exiled from a community for burning a barn and once he and his family settle in a new area, he feels compelled to burn another barn. The focus, though, remains on his son’s hypothetical betrayal related to the first crime and real betrayal related to the second crime.
Murakami’s story, on the other hand, is about three characters, one of whom likes to burns a barn every two months, and he confesses this to the narrator. The connecting link between the narrator and the barn burner is a female sexually involved with both of them. By the end of the story, there is not trace of the female and barn burning is read as a metaphor for murder.
In the original Japanese version of Murakami’s story, the protagonist reads William Faulkner’s short story collection while waiting the four hours for the girl’s plane to arrive from Beirut. In the English translation, this changed to “three magazines cover to cover.” This omission forces the reader to look elsewhere for clues for understanding the many layers of the story. There is a profound correlation between Faulkner’s Barn Burning and Murakami’s Barn Burning that requires us to revisit the early 20th century that I will tease out for you now.
The Banality of Evil
Not only is this story well-written, it includes some of the key ideas that are developed in many other works concerning memory, time, and metaphor.
The married narrator meets a young girl at a wedding and they begin a relationship. As readers, he does not seem entirely trustworthy because when he’s explaining that the girl makes up for her lack of income with the goodwill of a number of boyfriends, he assures the reader:
“Still, I’m not suggesting there was even a glimmer of a hint that she was sleeping with guys for money.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
And in the very next sentence, he contradicts himself:
“Though perhaps she did come close to that on occasion.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
For some reason, the reader is ready and willing to suspend his judgement of the girl, if only to see where the story leads. And naturally, mandarin oranges are what follows. As a trained pantomime, she peels mandarin oranges for him, an act that creates a sensation that sets the mood for the story that unfolds:
“I felt the reality of everything around me being siphoned away. Unnerving, to say the least.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
And in the very next line, Murakami, in his subtle way, conjures up the mass murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust without batting an eye.
“Back when Eichmann stood trial in Israel, there was talk that the most fitting sentence would be to lock him in a cell and gradually remove all the air. I don’t really know how he did meet his end, but that’s what came to mind.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
Not only does this moment hint at what follows in the story, the Eichmann reference also reappears over two decades later in Murakami’s 2002 novel, Kafka on the Shore, when Kafka reads a book about Adolf Eichmann while at the cabin in the woods. Adolf Eichmann was the face for the Nazi Germany as a point man responsible for organizing the systemic evil within Nazi Germany. It is likely, though not explicitly stated, that the book Kafka reads is Hannah Arendt’s work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she coins the phrase “the banality of evil.”
In Barn Burning, then, we are directed early in the story to think of the way evil hides under surfaces that are so often read as banal. After building a bit of momentum and filling in backstory, the narrator receives from the girl on the Sunday afternoon in October, and recalls,
“A pleasant day, bright and clear, it found me idly gazing at the camphor tree outside and enjoying the new autumn apples. I must have eaten a good seven of them that day — it was either a pathological craving or some kind of premonition.”
Apples? What do apples symbolize that suggest eating seven of them is some kind of premonition? Well, it harkens back to the Garden of Eden, but at the core of the myth is a linguistic pun inserted into the narrative in the fourth century. Jerome, a Latin scholar, decided to translate the Hebrew word for fruit with the Latin word for apple because malus means both apple and evil. Once again, evil is delicately hidden in a common piece of fruit, and this only scratches the surface of complexity in the narrative.
The young man confesses his tendency toward barn burning, he admits no one else knows. When asked why he reveals this secret to the narrator, the man responds:
“You’re someone who writes novels, so I thought, Wouldn’t he be interested in patterns of human behavior and all that? And the way I see it, with novelists, before even passing judgement on something, aren’t they the kind who are supposed to appreciate its form? And even if they can’t appreciate it, they should at least accept it at face value, no? That’s why I told you. I wanted to tell you, from my side.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
This rationale is actually one of Murakami’s key novel writing tips to aspiring novelists. The following excerpt is from an essay titled, “So What Should I Write About?” from a periodical called Monkey Business that was published in 2015.
“Next, before you start writing your own stuff, make a habit of looking at things and events in more detail. Observe what is going on around you and the people you encounter as closely and as deeply as you can. Reflect on what you see. Remember, though, that to reflect is not to rush to determine the rights and wrongs or merits and demerits of what and whom you are observing. Try to consciously refrain from value judgments—don’t rush to conclusions. What’s important is not arriving at clear conclusions but retaining the specifics of a certain situation—in other words, your material—as fully as you can.
Some individuals decide what or who is right or wrong based on a quick analysis of people and events. Generally speaking, though, (and this is purely my opinion) they don’t make good novelists. Instead, they are better suited to becoming critics or journalists. Or possibly academics of a certain kind. Someone cut out to be a novelist, on the other hand, will stop to question the conclusion he or she has just reached, or is about to reach. “It sure looks that way,” he or she will think, “but wait a minute. That might be only my preconceived notion. Maybe I should consider it more carefully. After all, things are never as simple as they seem. If down the road something new pops up, it could become a completely different story.
That’s the type of guy I seem to be. Of course, my brain doesn’t work that fast in the first place, so when I do voice a quick opinion on something it often turns out to be wrong (or inadequate, or completely off the mark), a failing that has led me into countless painful experiences. Over and over again, I have been embarrassed, or put in a tight spot, or sent off on a fool’s errand. As a result, little by little, I have developed the habit of questioning my immediate response to things. This pattern of behavior is not natural to me; rather it is acquired, the result of a long list of disastrous decisions.
That is why I don’t leap to judgment when something happens. My mind no longer works that way. Instead I strive to retain as complete an image as possible of the scene I have observed, the person I have met, the experience I have undergone, regarding it as a singular “sample,” a kind of test case as it were. I can go back and look at it again later, when my feelings have settled down and there is less urgency, this time inspecting it from a variety of angles. Finally, if and when it seems called for, I can draw my own conclusions.
Nevertheless, based on my own experience, I have found that the occasions when conclusions must be drawn are far less numerous than we tend to assume. Indeed, the times when judgments are truly necessary—whether in the short or the long run—are few and far between. That’s the way I feel anyway. This means that when I read the paper or watch the news on TV, I have a hard time swallowing the reporters’ rush to give opinions on anything and everything. Come on guys, I feel like saying, what’s the big hurry?
There is a general expectation in the world today that choices should be laid out in black and white terms as quickly as possible. Of course some questions have to be answered right away. To take a couple of extreme examples, “Should we go to war?” or “Should we restart our nuclear reactors tomorrow?” require us to take clear and prompt positions. If we don’t then all hell could break loose. Yet occasions like those that compel us to come to a firm decision are not all that frequent. When less time is taken between gathering information and acting on it, so that everyone becomes a critic or a news commentator, then the world becomes an edgier, less reflective place. And probably much more dangerous, too. Opinion surveys allow you to check the box, “Undecided.” Well I think there should be another box you can check: “Undecided at the present time.” Haruki Murakami, Monkey Business
I share this lengthy passage with you because even though the reader suspects there might be evil lurking just beneath the surface, he is also directed to question the conventional notion of that same sense of morality. Before we move on to question the morality of barn burning, the text reveals one more clue for how we are to interpret the meaning of the story and even has us looking in the mirror by the end.
All Reality Is Memory
The next clue has to do with how the girl’s boyfriend articulates memory when he describes the weed they are smoking:
“I brought it from India. Top of the line, the best I could find. Smoke this and, it’s strange, I recall all kinds of things. Lights and smells and like that. The quality of memory…” He paused and snapped his fingers a few times, as if search for the right words. “completely changes. Don’t you think?” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
The weight of this moment is lost if you take it at face value. Haruki Murakami often packs the most profound philosophical moments into the most mundane circumstances.
When you think of memory, you typically imagine something related to the past. Similarly, the narrator immediately revisits a school play from when he was younger to help illustrate the boyfriend’s point. The profundity of this moment is really in how it affects the future – most of which only occurs to the narrator and the reader after the final word of the story is uttered.
Without the backdrop of William Faulkner’s earlier story, Barn Burning, the philosophical underpinnings echoed in this moment might not exist. Intertextuality is powerful – and as Haruki Murakami teaches us again and again: all reality is memory.
The memory that “completely changes” is not the narrator’s experience that Sunday afternoon in October, but his entire recollection of his knowing the young girl before her disappearance. In other words, his understanding of the duration of their relationship changes based on a collection of moments just like this one. That moment alters the memory of her and it does so in what Gaston Bachelard calls “the intuition of the instant.”
The narrator’s intuition in this moment, even if not understood in this moment, echoes the intuition of the son in Faulkner’s story for discerning evil. The narrator in Faulkner’s story describes the father as “wolflike” whereas Murakami’s more interested in the wolf in sheep’s clothing in figures like Adolf Eichmann and the girl’s barn burning boyfriend.
“There was something about his wolflike independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
Intuition, as a form of knowledge, is only understood in retrospection, which means that it is utterly dependent on memory, and Bachelard uses Roupnel to assert that “time’s true reality is the instant.”
“Duration is but a construction lacking any absolute reality. It is forged from without by memory, the preeminent power of the imagination which seeks to dream and relive, but not to understand.” Gaston Bachelard, Intuition of the Instant
For Bachelard, intuition operates in specific moments, or instances, within time as duration. Murakami drives this idea home in the final conversation between the narrator and the girl’s boyfriend.
Intuition of an Instant
“Time ticked on in impossibly minute polyrhythms.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
Similar to the unfolding of Murakami’s story, the narrator in Faulkner’s story transcends horizontal time and reveals future thoughts of the son. He does this in a few instances, maintaining a clean narrative line throughout the story, right after his father hits him for his almost-betrayal in the court that day:
“Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, “If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.”
Murakami follows Faulkner’s lead in revealing to the reader the way intuition requires history — horizontal time — to unfold. Morality, too, is culturally dependent, and in this way, the girl’s boyfriend attempts to contextualize and justify his impulse to burn barns by assuring the narrator the barns were “just waiting to be burned.” After all, he chooses barns that cause “No grief to anyone.” When the narrator challenges his authority to judge the necessity of these barns, the guy responds,
“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain. The rain falls. Streams swell. Things get swept along. Does the rain judge anything? Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals. I wouldn’t doubt if morals weren’t the very balance to my simultaneity.”
“Right, I’m here, and I’m there. I’m in Tokyo, and at the same time I’m in Tunis. I’m the one to blame, and I’m also the one to forgive. Just as a for instance. It’s that level of balance. Without such balance, I don’t think we could go on living. It’s like the linchpin to everything. Lose it and we’d literally go to pieces. But for the very reason that I’ve got it, simultaneity becomes possible for me.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
The word “simultaneity” conjures up a host of thinkers from the early 20th century, starting with Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein’s articulation of simultaneity is refining the 1892 thought experiment of Hendrick Lorentz.
The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, was one of the most vocal challengers to Einstein’s ideas about time because they did not account for how time was experienced. A debate took place between Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein on April 6, 1922, in which they discussed the nature of time.
Following this confrontation, Bergson wrote an essay called Duration and Simultaneity to challenge Einstein’s theory by suggesting it is not the only way to understand time. Gaston Bachelard followed a decade later in an attempt to challenge Bergson, and rather than revert to Einstein’s definition, he attempts to synthesize art and science and offers a new approach to appreciate the experience of time.
At first glance, Murakami seems to invoke Einstein’s definition of simultaneity which suggests that while two events might occur at the same time, this is always dependent on the observer’s frame of reference. In other words, the time in which an event occurs is relative to position of the observer.
When the girl’s boyfriend says “I scout out ones ripe for burning in advance,” the narrator’s intrigue increases. He asks if his next target is near his home. What follows after the couple leaves is the narrator mapping out his area and regularly running past the barns, waiting to see the charred remains of this man’s compulsion. In Faulkner’s story, the son warns the barn owner of his father’s anticipatory crime. Right and wrong is perfectly clear.
In the concluding thoughts of his 1932 work, Intuition of the Instant, Gaston Bachelard comments on reversing the affective axis of time by placing hope within a memory. It is with the same power that we experience the bitterness of regret when circumstances unfold and simply leave no room for hope:
“The bitterness of life is the regret of not being able to hope, of no longer being able to hear the rhythms that beckon us to play our part in the symphony of becoming. It is then that the “smiling regret” advises us to invite death and to welcome the monotonous rhythms of matter, like a lullaby.” Gaston Bachelard, Intuition of the Instant
The Metaphor is Real
When the narrator runs into the guy over a year later, he asks about the barn burning and explains he mapped out the potential targets in his neighborhood. To which the guy responds, rather coyly, that he did indeed burn it and adds,
“All I can says is, you must have missed it. Does happen, you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
To some extent, the reader starts out questioning the morality of one man’s impulse to burn barns, and shifts to questioning the narrator himself. Unlike the son in William. Faulkner’s story, the narrator makes no effort to warn any of the barn owners that someone might ignite their property.
He waits to see the flames and their residue, and in turn, we wonder if he is all that different from Adolf Eichmann, a man found guilty of organizing the holocaust. Barn or no barn, what does the narrative suggest about the narrator’s complicity in the boyfriend’s crime? And what haunts the reader most is not the banality of evil but the reality of metaphor.
While the burnt barn never materializes, the girl disappears without a trace. The reader is left wondering, and likely convinced, that the barn was a metaphor for the girl. We remember her father passed away, leaving her an inheritance.
If she were to go up in flames, so to speak, like the barns her boyfriend scouts out in advance, her disappearance would cause “no grief to anyone.” This also suggests these murders are where he gets his money.
“Although just now and then, in the depths of the night, I’ll think about barns burning to the ground.” Haruki Murakami, Barn Burning
He never finds her, but he still runs by these barns everyday. Is he still waiting? Or is it possible the reader’s intuition of the instant the most active of all, but the hope we insert into the narrative reveals the banality of evil in our own hearts?