Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

This novel is the epitome of offbeat unicorn-ness!

Hard-Boiled Wonderland is made of two entwined story threads. In first story thread, the unnamed protagonist receives a mysterious skull from an eccentric scientist that he deduces belongs to a unicorn…a realization that soon gets him into trouble. In the second story thread, the protagonist enters a mysterious Town, that has a herd of unicorns. The protagonist is tasked with reading old dreams from skulls…unicorn skulls. With these two versions of the protagonist decode the meaning of the unicorns? And if they can, can they stop the End of the World?

Behold my terrible photography skills…and the original US cover of Hard-Boiled Wonderland. I just want to point out that NOTHING in this cover is remotely related to the book! In fact, the leaden egg-moon thing hanging in the air has more to do with Tanith Lee’s Black Unicorn than it does this novel.

Well, can they?

If you’ve ever read a Haruki Murakami novel, you’ll know that stopping the end of the world is beside the point.

And I’m not going to spoil the ending, because we’re here to talk about unicorns.

Murakami ensures readers that he’s done his research on unicorn mythology. As a unicorn nerd and book nerd, one of my favourite parts was the protagonist’s trip to the local library where he enlists the librarian to help him research unicorns. The novel has several excerpts from Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Animals with quotations from Pliny and Leonardo Da Vinci. There are also anecdotes about the qilin, or “Chinese unicorn” heralding the birth of Confucius and offering warnings to Genghis Khan (95). He concludes, quoting Borges, that “In the East, peace and tranquility; in the West, aggression and lust. Nonetheless, the unicorn remains an imaginary animal, an invention that can embody any value one wishes to project” (97).

Murakami’s summation of the difference between unicorn and qilin is, perhaps, a bit disingenuous, because it overlooks a very important strand of western unicorn iconography, namely the Jesus-unicorn of medieval psalters and bestiaries, most famously in the unicorn tapestries. But this exclusion doesn’t matter too much because, as per Murakami’s postmodern playfulness, he’s writing a novel to riff off of Eastern and Western unicorn traditions, not reproduce them.

The representation of the Town’s unicorns is lovely and original, balancing the saccharine with observations out of a nature-guide. The unicorns possess all sorts of coloured coats, from dun to piebald, but they turn a uniform downy gold each autumn before “bleaching slowly to white” (142). So, as much as they possess individual markings, they are also made indistinguishable. Murakami’s unicorns play on the way preexisting unicorn mythology is equally invested in the animal’s elusive, ferocious immortality and in its inevitable death and rendering into skeletal objects used and prized by humans. Their mortality is also tied to poetic renderings of “ice-bound morning[s],” their “winter-whitened bodies lying under two inches of snow” (199). How and why the frozen bodies are turned into the bones the protagonist studies is you’ll have to read the book to discover. It’s enough to say that they are imbued with and evoke memory. This is something Tanith Lee’s The Black Unicorn also picks up on (which I discuss in my review here), but as far as I know, Murakami and Lee are the only ones to contemplate unicorn bones at any length.

As much as the cover has zero connection to the book, the inside cover shows that someone was paying attention! The protagonist in the novel spends a lot of time wandering around the mysterious town and this is perhaps the map he creates? Also, I get sentimental looking at old library slips! 2005 feels so long ago!

Murakami is perhaps at his best when he entwines history and fantasy, wherein a Russian paleontologist discovers a unicorn skull on a Ukranian plateau…shortly before it gets bombed to bits in the First World War. The survival and then disappearance of the unicorn skull is tied to the tumultuous political history of the early Soviet Union. The skull travels from the Eastern Front, to the universities of Leningrad, and is last spotted in a barn-turned-speakeasy. Material records of it disappear with the increasingly utilitarian turn of Soviet science.

This section could have been developed into a slim, freestanding novella; instead Murakami relegates it to a narrative cul-de-sac, leading nowhere. It tantalizes with the specter of a destroyed scientific record, the erasure of what our culture assumes (perhaps wrongly) to be the ultimate purveyor of truth.

To return to the Borges quotation, it’s this last clause which really matters to Hard-boiled Wonderland “unicorn remains an imaginary animal, an invention that can embody any value one wishes to project” (95). The unicorn reflects the intimate imaginative investment of the dreamer. Ultimately, the relationship between the two storylines and two unicorn skulls remains tantalizingly unresolved as the “fantasy” Town leaks into the “real,” low-fantasy dystopia of the primary storyline.  To resolve the relationship between the storylines and the possible reality of the unicorns would be to ruin the novel’s tone. So you just have to live with the delicious uncertainty of postmodernism. Ta-da!

Other stray notes:

  • Harry Potter nerds will rejoice in Murakami’s use of the Kappa Japanese water demon. (J.K. Rowling mentions them as a part of Professor Lupin’s curriculum in The Prisoner of Azkaban). These Kappas are gruesome subway-dwellers who worship a scary fish-god. Fun times!
  • Published in 1993, Hardboiled Wonderland represents a “reality” governed by Calcutecs and Semiotecs
  • As you’d expect in a Murakami novel, there’s lots of delicious descriptions of food and cooking and music.

Find Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World here:

One thought on “Unicorn Book Review: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. New York: Kodanshu International, 1993.

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