Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland as a Commentary on the Holocaust

By Molly E. Meadows
2015, Vol. 7 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a conscious mix of genres and themes combined to present an engaging story. Subconsciously, the focus of this piece is the trauma of World War II and the Holocaust. The entire work is a commentary on the Holocaust, with clear allegorical representations of major figures, events, and themes paralleling the two worlds, both literary and literal. Through the application of characterization and intentional vagueness, Murakami expresses the connection between his literary work and the events and trauma of the Holocaust.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

One of the clearest indicators of this work’s allegorical representation of the Holocaust is Murakami’s careful use of vagueness. Holocaust literature is both a delicate and powerful subject for many to read, but the confines of writing such literature are perhaps even more uncomfortable. As some observers note, writers of Holocaust literature can be torn between the desire to create deep characters out of the perpetrators and the fear that in so doing, readers might find unintended shreds of sympathy for true villains. Jeremy Metz suggests that the pressure of this ethical dilemma has warped the quality and truth of Holocaust literature because of the psychosocial demands that writers of genocide or trauma-related literature face (Metz). Metz’s reasoning explains why Murakami was intentionally vague with his characters’ identities, offering titles and labels rather than names.

For instance, Murakami labels his characters as the Librarian, the Scientist, the Colonel, the Semiotecs, The Calcutecs, and so on, rendering even the Narrator and protagonist innominate. Murakami’s descriptions of characters do not go much deeper than the most basic information required to outline a character. More than just a stylistic move, it is likely that Murakami chose to be enigmatic and elude standard elements to avoid intimate detailing of his characters, further removing readers from their identities and in doing so, reducing the likelihood that readers would form attachments to the characters. This suggests that Murakami knew when to draw back and did so accordingly so as not to supersede the unspoken guidelines that writers of Holocaust literature often feel pressure to adhere to.

Characterization is another tool that marks Hard-Boiled Wonderland as an allegory for the Holocaust. Perhaps the most disturbing example of characterization in this novel is the Scientist as Dr. Josef Mengele, who “conducted deadly genetics experiments on the inmates of Auschwitz” (“Uncomfortable Truths” 1). Mengele was known for his obsession with abnormalities and with twins. Dr. Yehuda Koren studied Mengele’s obsession with a family of Jewish dwarfs, saying “Like a demonic impresario casting the ultimate freak show... Mengele plucked out from the masses that passed before him, twins, and unusual mutations... Mengele had several hundred twins at his disposal, and he made notoriously cruel experiments on them” (Koren 1). Eva Kor survived Auschwitz with her twin sister Miriam when they were around ten years old (Meadows et al. 1). When asked to describe her interactions with Mengele and the extremity of the experiments she and her twin underwent together, Eva replied:

“We were taken three times a week and placed naked in a huge room with 30 sets of twins. Every part of my body was measured and compared to Miriam's. It was unbelievably demeaning. The only way I would cope was by blocking it out of my mind. They would tie both of my arms with a rubber hose to restrict the blood flow. They would take a minimum of two vials of blood from my left arm. And on occasion, enough blood was taken until we fainted. They wanted to know how much blood a person can lose and still live. They would also give us injections. I received a minimum of five each time in my right arm and at least 15 injections a week. Those were the deadly ones. They were germs and chemicals--even today we have no idea what they were.” (Meadows et al. 1)

This is easily comparable to the Scientist’s experiments and references to torture (Murakami 156). It is revealed toward the end of Hard-Boiled Wonderland that the dual worlds are connected through the Scientist’s unethical experiment on the unknowing protagonist. The unnamed protagonist, along with nineteen other victims, underwent a cruel experiment before the beginning of the novel in which the Scientist implanted electrodes into the brains of his victims and turned them from functioning humans to data-processing machines in the form of bodies. Both Mengele’s and the Scientist’s experiments were profoundly unethical and harsh, and both were motivated by science and a sense of cruel disregard toward their victims.

Another striking resemblance between the two is the obsession that both scientists share with duality. Mengele’s fixation on twins has been well-documented and is mirrored in the Scientist’s recurring work involving duality, a considerable theme in Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Murakami divided Hard-Boiled Wonderland into two realms.

The first realm, the Hard-Boiled wonderland, is a perplexing look at the unnamed Narrator’s physical and conscious reality. This reality is shown through the Narrator’s enthusiasm for food and sex. The Narrator is obsessed with all things physical and tangible to display this realm’s grasp on the physical reality.

The opposing realm, known as the end of the world, is a projection of the Narrator’s subconscious world. This realm is shown to be a fragment of the Narrator’s subconscious through the lack of memories and personal identity that the Narrator lost with his shadow and the presence of fear and emotion. The worlds are tied together through the mind of the Narrator and by the hand of the Scientist who programmed the Narrator. The two realms are indispensable to the story as they show the two halves of the Narrator’s mind and being. This concept of duality is strong throughout the entire novel and strongly mirrors Mengele’s obsession with twins.

One of the most dangerous and disconcerting aspects about both Mengele and the Scientist is that neither outwardly displayed cruel or murderous intentions outside of their work. Both work in the field of science, are surrounded by people, and neither seem particularly harmful or malevolent. It is this sense of cruel casualty that disturbs the most; neither man saw themselves as a vicious killer or deranged madman, but the effects of their total disregard for human lives is what makes them criminal. Shmuel P. Reis and Hedy S. Wald examined the effects of the horrific medical experiments during the Holocaust, their prosecution during the Nuremberg trials, and the staggering effects on modern medicine and the ethics that govern it. Reis and Wald suggest in their reports that the escalation and existence of the vicious misuse of medicine during the Holocaust “might not have occurred if individual physicians and medicine as an organized profession had not had such an enabling role” (Reis et al. 2).

However, what sets the Holocaust apart from other genocides is not only its immense number of victims but its extreme use of medicine. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland, science is used again to perpetuate suffering. Much like Mengele, the Scientist has performed multiple experiments and appears to have little or no regard for the well-being of his victims. The Scientist’s implantation of brain chips into unknowing victims shows his absolute disregard for human lives other than his own. He attempts to excuse his deadly experiment by saying, “Well, a scientist isn’t one for controlling his curiosity” (Murakami 264).

Ironically, the Scientist goes on to mention Mengele and his associates’ medical torture and dismisses it as “wrong” (Murakami 264) before adding on, “At the same time, I find myself thinkin’, if you’re goin’ t’do live experiments, you might as well do something a little spiffier and more productive” (Murakami 264). Evidence of this disregard for morality is seen in Mengele as well, who was “known as the “Angel of Death” (Johnson et al. 1) for his calm, relaxing manner with his victims before subjecting them to torture and eventual slaughter.

Another example of characterization in Hard-Boiled Wonderland is the three primary contending groups, the Semiotecs, the Calcutecs, and the INKlings. Each group is a characterization of a separate entity involved in the Holocaust. The Semiotecs embody the Russians, the Calcutecs serve as the Americans, and the INKlings represent the espionage that occurred throughout the Holocaust and World War â…¡. The Calcutecs work for the System, a government-based program while the Semiotecs, who used to be Calcutecs, work for the Factory, a rival to the System. The INKlings are a mysterious and murky group. Not much is known about the INKlings, much like espionage.

A third illustration of characterization in Hard-Boiled Wonderland is the Narrator as a victim and survivor of the Holocaust. Perhaps the largest indications of this are the Narrator’s missing identity and his high sex drive. Katarzyna Prot conducted a study in which Jewish Holocaust survivors were examined in terms of their histories and lasting trauma (Prot 1). In Prot’s examination, it was discovered that those who had survived the Holocaust by avoiding concentration camps and escaping with Aryan papers had more prevalent symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specifically increased arousal and avoidance (Prot 1) as well as a double identity (Prot 3). Because the Narrator in Hard-Boiled Wonderland is the only survivor of the Scientist’s experiment, he consequently exists in two separate realms as a sample of his double identity. Moreover, The Narrator lacks his memory, which could signify a suppressed memory or a sign of PTSD (Murakami 338).

The Narrator is also immersed in his physical desires, particularly his sexual ones. He is enamored with the Professor’s “attractive yet chubby” (Murakami 133) granddaughter and fantasizes about her frequently. This connects back to Prot’s findings, which show that Holocaust survivors live a double life and maintain high sex drives (Prot 3). Furthermore, many survivors of trauma are unable to define themselves as they did before the trauma occurred, and are left wondering how the person they were before connects to the traumatized person they have become post-trauma. Even more than the double identity and duality theme, this connects strongly to the Narrator losing his entire identity in his shadow and searching for who is he through some fragment of memories or personality. Much like a survivor of the Holocaust, the Narrator is left with pieces of himself, wondering how to reconnect with his identity and mind.

Similarly, the town in Hard-Boiled Wonderland is characterized to represent a concentration camp. The Town in The End of the World requires that before entering, the Narrator must abandon his shadow, which contains his memories and identity. Like a concentration camp, the Town is walled in and the Narrator is told that those who enter rarely leave, and if they do, they are no longer the same (Murakami 333). Although victims of concentration camps were not given the option to enter or not, they were confined to the camps and those who survived the concentration camps did not leave in the condition they entered.

The Scientist as Mengele, the Narrator as a victim of the Holocaust, the Semiotecs as the Russians, the Calcutecs as Americans, the INKlings as espionage, and the Town as a concentration camp are all examples of the characterization that Murakami uses in Hard-Boiled Wonderland to circumvent the stipulations that Holocaust writers face. This is important because it shows just how much literature can encompass in any genre. History is always relevant and often predictive of the future to come. Murakami saw the value of lessons in history and used the broad literary space to expand on its themes.


Metz, Jeremy. "Reading The Victimizer: Towards An Ethical Practice Of Figuring The Traumatic Moment In Holocaust Literature."Textual Practice 26.6 (2012): 1021-1043. Academic Search Complete. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

"Uncomfortable Truths." Nature 434.7034 (2005): 681. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Koren, Yehuda. "Mengele And The Family Of Dwarfs." History Today 55.2 (2005): 32-33. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Meadows, Bob, and Lorna Grisby. "From The Flames." People 60.24 (2003): 129-130. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.

Reis, Shmuel P., and Hedy S. Wald. "The Art Of Medicine." Lancet 374.9684 (2009): 110-111. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.

Johnson, Marguerite, Levin, Marlin, and Scott, Gavin. "SEARCHES HUNTING THE ''ANGEL OF DEATH'' The Reward For Mengele's Capture Grows To $3.4 Million." Time 125.20 (1985): 33. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

Prot, Katarzyna. "Late Effects Of Trauma: PTSD In Holocaust Survivors." Journal Of Loss Trauma 15.1 (2010): 28-42. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Dec. 2013.

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