Speaking of liquor: At least one bar in Tokyo hosted a special Murakami Nobel gathering for so-called “Harukists,” the label at home and abroad for Murakami’s most ardent fans. They were shown clutching copies of his books and framed photographs of the author, and half-finished glasses of wine and beer. Only the World Cup and the Olympics have occasioned similar events in the past. For the first time, oddsmakers, scholars, critics, readers, and publishing pros in and beyond Japan seemed united in nodding their belief that this was “his year.” But it wasn’t. China’s Mo Yan won, and the disappointed Harukists managed only sighs, followed by half-hearted applause for their neighbor’s accolade. “I’m very happy the winner was someone from Asia,” one female Harukist told the Mainichi newspaper on her way home, polite to the end.
“When I write novels, I have to go down into a very deep, dark, and lonely place,” Murakami told me the first time we met, in the summer of 1999, describing his creative process with an image he has now repeated in conversations many times since. “And then I have to come back, back to the surface. It’s very dangerous. And you have to be strong, physically and mentally strong, in order to do that every day.” Readers of Murakami’s fiction will likely recognize his description instantly: it’s the very same process many of his characters undergo, though for them the experience is more literal, involving wells, subway tunnels, and other subterranean passageways into secondary realms, where they struggle to connect two realities. In last fall’s “1Q84,” his latest and longest novel, the female protagonist, a fitness instructor and part-time assassin, descends from a raised expressway on a set of emergency stairs and encounters a time-warped alternate reality, with two moons, doppelgangers, and a murderous cult, that may or may not be happening in the Orwellian year 1984.
Little wonder that Murakami’s single, major work of nonfiction is called “Underground,” an exhaustive account of his interviews with the victims and perpetrators of one of modern Japan’s darkest days: the 1995 poisoning of Tokyo subway commuters by, yes, a murderous cult. But what most readers don’t know is that Murakami himself inhabits parallel realities, and not just at his writing desk. One is inside Japan; the other is nearly everywhere else, but especially in the United States. And in each, his behavior and reputation, and perceptions of both, are in many ways starkly divergent.