Ah, I replied, fishing around frantically for the correct conjunctive, then would it possibility be for you to be ringing the other shops, and to check them all if they are having the same something? Frau Verkauferin raised an eyebrow skeptically and replied, do you know how many shops we have?
It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so compelling and mysterious as The Wind up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. In print since 1994, and available in English since 1997, I have to admit ignorance of this brilliant writer until I chanced across this volume on the English Shelves in my local Bücherhalle in Hamburg, Eimsbüttel.
The library itself is in a community centre called the Eimsbüttler Haus. The centre is comprised of a complex of low-slung Modernist buildings of concrete slab construction. Automatic entrance doors open onto a vestibule with highly polished grey linoleum floor: this entrance space is dominated by the main notice board to which the current course program is pinned. The course list on the notice board affords a snapshot of the local community, alongside activities for the elderly and less mobile it is dominated by such offerings as Yoga für stillenden Müttern (yoga for breastfeeding mothers) and offene Treffpunkt für werdende Vätern (meet up for prospective papas).
The German birth rate (at 1.36%) is one of the lowest in the European Union but judging by the courses on offer, the Eimsbüttlers are doing their bit to buck the trend. Indeed, with its mix of lefty and conservative voters (31.2 % of Eimsbüttlers voted for Frau Merkel's Christian Democratic Union next to the Green’s 26.1 % in the 2009 election). The kindergarten and playgroup waiting lists are long, and the sidewalk cafes on the high street are filled with designer Daddies enjoying their parental leave, Freitag courier bags bags stuffed with organic spelt crackers and containers of homemade sweet potato puree.
Back at Eimsbüttler Haus, the adjoining café offers what is probably the cheapest snack in town, at least in this suburb. For eighty cents you can enjoy a slice and add a cup of tea to that and you’re getting away with around two euros, including tip. Despite the value for money factor, this café is so consistently poorly patronised that I can always be sure of a quiet seat as I steal a moment on a Saturday morning to browse the latest yield from the English Shelves.
With the constant ebb and flow of borrowing and returning, the contents of the English Shelves, like the magic porridge pot, are refreshed on a regular basis. Because of this element of chance, I have discovered and enjoyed books that I would probably never have bought. These pleasing reads I enjoy doubly for the quality of impermanence that they bring to my life. I don’t have to find a home for them on my already overloaded bookshelves or stack them guiltily in the to-be-read-one-day pile n my bedside table. Moreover, if I do happen to take a chance on something of dubious literary merit then I don’t have to shove it behind my complete set of Grantas when I’ve got company, I just return it when I’m done. Being a library regular has made me more adventurous as a reader, and it was in this spirit of discovery that I stumbled over Murakami’s work.
The Wind up Bird Chronicle is an extended meditation on the nature of being and how inner and outer worlds collide and converge. It suavely deals with the mystical and the mundane all at once. I can only speculate how closely the English mirrors the original Japanese, but the tone of the text is so smooth and meticulously crafted that I didn’t feel any disadvantage for reading a translation. The act of reading this book, was probably made more mysterious or at least a bit more atmospheric by the fact that I read some of it by candle and torchlight, (well ok, by bike-lamp), as I waited for my much missed Leselicht replacement to be delivered to my local bookshop.
The 'Leselicht' reading lamp is a neat little black number that clips into your book and when switched on creates a discreet cone of halogen light to read by. It had become my constant readerly companion since I bought it from my local bookshop on Osterstrasse. A few weeks later and at a crucial point of narrative intrigue in The Wind up Bird Chronicle, it gave up the ghost. Of course the option was there to simply turn on the big light and keep reading. But being so cosily ensconced in my reading cone, I was loathe to flood the room with 100 watts of incandescent light. Rummaging around for a torch and finding only a bike lamp, I decided to augment that with candlelight and read on. After half an hour my eyes were feeling so grainy that I had to put Mr. Murakami to one side and admit temporary defeat.
And so, it was in a determined frame of mind that I presented the defunct Leselicht to Frau Verkäuferin at the information counter of my local bookshop on Osterstrasse. The lady in question was studiously avoiding eye contact with any customers, being as she was, deeply engrossed in checking a pile of paper work against her screen. I stood and waited for her to look up and politely ask me, with just a hint of a smile, how she could help. Such was my socialisation that it still takes me a few seconds of standing and waiting until I remember that not only will she not look up of her own accord, smile and ask me how she can help, she’d be totally within her own parameters of correct behaviour to carry on with her paper work. And so with a short Entschuldigung Sie, bitte, I launched into what I hoped was a relatively understandable tale of being unable to read my book to its conclusion (on a snowy winters night with the wind howling outside) because of the sad demise of the Leselicht. She stared at me with a slight frown as I spoke. Recognising this look as the I’m-not-making-sense-in-German look, I reiterated my basic message.
Mein Leselicht, I explained, ist Kaput! and waved the offending article at her.
She took the Leselicht and after examining the receipt closely she looked over to the shelf where the Leselicht had been and after a moments reflection pronounced, die gibt’s nicht mehr, (we don't have those anymore) with a finality that indicated the end of the matter, or at least her interest in it. With that she returned to her screen and papers.
When I first moved to Germany I was flummoxed by exchanges such as this, but these days I am prepared and had already rehearsed what I would say in the face of exactly such a situation. I took a deep breath and waded into the swamp of insecurity that is negotiating a good outcome with my average German skills.
Hmmm, I said thoughtfully, is it then possible to you to please order this lights? She looked at me with genuine surprise, NO!, she barked, of course we don’t order them one at a time. I had expected something like this and not to be put off I smiled at her engagingly and said, Achsoo … then can you ordering a batch, please? Impossible!, she said, we don’t do that until all of our shops in Germany have finished their stock.
Oh, I replied, fishing around frantically for the correct conjunctive, then would it possibility be for you to be ringing the other shops, and to check them all if they are having the same something? She raised an eyebrow skeptically and replied, do you know how many shops we have? I knew this was a trick question so I smiled at her, waiting for the answer. In Germany we have twenty three affiliated shops, and, she went on, warming to her theme, all of the shops have different opening hours! It’s going to take a very long time to contact them all.
I nodded sympathetically to show I had grasped the magnitude of the task ahead of her and replied, yes, this I understand, and managing to stay on message I reiterated, but I would like very much for me to have a replaced lamp again.
I think it’s better, she replied, when we give you your money back.
At this point, I would have normally thrown in the towel but the thought of returning home empty-handed after so much psychic strain was unthinkable. And so, spurred on by bad-service-rage I looked Frau Verkäuferin in the eye saying, I wanting my lamp, and I waiting so long as it is for a new one, so how long is that please will be? That is not possible to know, she replied enigmatically, turning back to her paperwork. Go now to the front desk where you can leave your details and we will call you. At that moment it dawned on me that I had prevailed, kind of, so I thought to push my point home once more by asking, can you please be giving me like an idea of when that might to be? She looked at me and said very slowly as if to a child, when the lamp is there.
I had mixed feelings as I walked home through slushy streets. I was without a replacement Leselicht but had the tantalising promise of a new lamp in sight. Like King Pyrrhus of Epirus, I had sustained egregious injuries, mostly to my pride and yet I felt strangely elated and, it must be said, victorious. I resolved to muddle on with my bike-lamp and candlelight arrangement and to keep my visits to the English Shelves up, despite the temporary set back.
And so, on a Saturday morning several weeks later I was browsing those very shelves when my phone rang. Frau Verkäuferin was on the line, yes, we have your light, yes, you can pick it up today. I picked up the book I’d been wistfully imagining reading by Leselicht and took it to the self-service issues desk. I swiped my card and laid Jane Austen’s Persuasion triumphantly on the sensor table. Victory, I whispered to the computer screen, is sweet. I slid the book into my bag and hurried out of the Eimsbüttler Haus in the direction of Osterstrasse to claim my spoils.
Until next time,