Sunshine Recorder

Haruki Murakami: In Search of this Elusive Writer

Haruki Murakami holds the titles of both the most popular novelist in Japan and the most popular Japanese novelist in the wider world. After publishing Norwegian Wood in 1987, a book often called “the Japanese Catcher in the Rye,” Murakami’s notoriety exploded to such an extent that he felt forced out of his homeland, a country whose traditional ways and — to his mind — conformist mindset never sat right with him in the first place. Though he returned to Japan in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo underground gas attacks, he remained an author shaped by his favorite foreign cultures — especially America’s. This, combined with his yearning to break from established Japanese literary norms, has generated enough international demand for his work to sell briskly in almost every language in which people read novels.

I myself once spent a month doing nothing but reading Murakami’s work, and this BBC documentary Haruki Murakami: In Search of this Elusive Writer makes a valiant attempt to capture what about it could raise such a compulsion. Rupert Edwards’ camera follows veteran presenter Alan Yentob through Japan, from the midnight Tokyo of After Hours to the snowed-in Hokkaido of A Wild Sheep Chase, in a quest to find artifacts of the supremely famous yet media-shy novelist’s imaginary world. Built around interviews with fans and translators but thick with such Murakamiana as laid-back jazz standards, grim school hallways, sixties pop hits, women’s ears, vinyl records, marathon runners, and talking cats, the broadcast strives less to explain Murakami’s substance than to simply reflect it. If you find your curiosity piqued by all the fuss over 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, you might watch it as something of an aesthetic primer.


Haruki Murakami
I saw Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World while I was browsing in San Francisco bookstores for a paperback to take on a plane. The cover was good, the blurbs commendable, but what really caught my attention was the list of the book’s components: “a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan…” Bob Dylan? I bought the book.Hard-Boiled turned out to be both a great read and a good book. It employs one of the most elegant literary devices I’ve read, without being at all self-conscious or pointless. The book was also very cool, like a Thomas Pynchon book is cool. But most of all, it was the book’s Westernness that surprised me. And not only me. Man, you should see the reviews I read while preparing for the interview: “Nippon number-crunches,” “A delectable little sushi of a book,” “East meets West in this narrative noodle,” “No kimonos in sight…” I’ll spare you the rest.
I read more of his books—the two volume Norwegian Wood (1987: over four million passed the checkout in Japan alone), A Wild Sheep Chase (English translation published in 1989), Dance Dance Dance (this year’s follow-up) and The Elephant Vanishes (a short story collection)—and strange things happened. I’m stranded in the middle of a blizzard with only a Murakami for company. I’m on my hands and knees in Japantown looking for the English student editions only published in Japan. And then, finally, before playing a Boston concert I’d only arranged in order to do the interview, I find myself talking to Murakami over lunch in his apartment. 
…
John Wesley Harding: I have the impression that people over there got annoyed because what you were doing was not “Japanese.”Haruki Murakami: Yes. There is a very strong tradition of Japanese literature. They claim that the beauty of Japanese language and Japanese literature is special and only Japanese can understand it. Japaneseness, you could say. They say it does not travel. I think they might be right, because our culture and language are so different from the western ones. Haiku cannot be translated, that is true. But that is not all, that is not everything. I am Japanese and am writing a novel in Japanese, and, in that sense, I am different from you. But talking with you like this face to face, I don’t think I am so different from you. We have many things in common. What I want to say is, there should be other ways to convey Japaneseness. True, I am not exotic, but that doesn’t mean that I am not a Japanese novelist.

Haruki Murakami

I saw Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World while I was browsing in San Francisco bookstores for a paperback to take on a plane. The cover was good, the blurbs commendable, but what really caught my attention was the list of the book’s components: “a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan…” Bob Dylan? I bought the book.
Hard-Boiled turned out to be both a great read and a good book. It employs one of the most elegant literary devices I’ve read, without being at all self-conscious or pointless. The book was also very cool, like a Thomas Pynchon book is cool. But most of all, it was the book’s Westernness that surprised me. And not only me. Man, you should see the reviews I read while preparing for the interview: “Nippon number-crunches,” “A delectable little sushi of a book,” “East meets West in this narrative noodle,” “No kimonos in sight…” I’ll spare you the rest.

I read more of his books—the two volume Norwegian Wood (1987: over four million passed the checkout in Japan alone), A Wild Sheep Chase (English translation published in 1989), Dance Dance Dance (this year’s follow-up) and The Elephant Vanishes (a short story collection)—and strange things happened. I’m stranded in the middle of a blizzard with only a Murakami for company. I’m on my hands and knees in Japantown looking for the English student editions only published in Japan. And then, finally, before playing a Boston concert I’d only arranged in order to do the interview, I find myself talking to Murakami over lunch in his apartment. 

John Wesley Harding: I have the impression that people over there got annoyed because what you were doing was not “Japanese.”
Haruki Murakami: Yes. There is a very strong tradition of Japanese literature. They claim that the beauty of Japanese language and Japanese literature is special and only Japanese can understand it. Japaneseness, you could say. They say it does not travel. I think they might be right, because our culture and language are so different from the western ones. Haiku cannot be translated, that is true. But that is not all, that is not everything. I am Japanese and am writing a novel in Japanese, and, in that sense, I am different from you. But talking with you like this face to face, I don’t think I am so different from you. We have many things in common. What I want to say is, there should be other ways to convey Japaneseness. True, I am not exotic, but that doesn’t mean that I am not a Japanese novelist.

Link: A Short Guide to Haruki Murakami's Short Fiction

Haruki Murakami’s introduction to the English edition of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman begins with this: “To put it in the simplest terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure.” In the States, Murakami is probably best known for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and, to a lesser degree, his most recent “big book,” Kafka on the Shore. Elsewhere, his short stories are equally, if not more so, the reason for his widespread popularity.

Like many readers, I came across him first through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; a used copy on the cheap at Longfellow was too good to pass up, and of course I’ve never looked at wells the same way. The strength of that sent me right back to the bookstore for his collection The Elephant Vanishes, and “The Second Bakery Attack” was where I realized I was going to need to follow Murakami pretty much anywhere his stories wanted me to go. I did, and have found that all of Murakami’s short story collections are excellent for different reasons: The Elephant Vanishes, with its perfect girls and insomnia and “Nowhere in the world can you do this”; after the quake, with its six takes on the 1995 Kobe earthquake; and the new Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman , collecting stories from all over the past twenty-five years. Each of his short story collections has its own beauty, and challenges, and yet is accessible enough to read anywhere, anytime.

I picked the following stories for a number of good reason—they’re representative of Murakami’s work as a whole, they’re particularly well-known (or lesser-known), they’re personal favorites. They’re the ones I push on my friends. In an overflowing garden, they’re the eight foot tall sunflowers, blocking out the light, glowing, and when you stand next to them they are just as tall and imposing as any tree in the forest.

Kumiko and I felt something for each other from the beginning. It was not one of those strong, impulsive feelings that can hit two people like an electric shock when they first meet, but something quieter and gentler, like two tiny lights traveling in tandem through a vast darkness and drawing imperceptibly closer to each other as they go. As our meetings grew more frequent, I felt not so much that I had met someone new as that I had chanced upon a dear old friend.
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
I have come to think that life is a far more limited thing than those in the midst of its maelstorm realize. That light shines into the act of life for only the briefest moment—perhaps only a matter of seconds. Once it is gone and failed to grasp its offered revelation, there is no second chance. One may have to live the rest of one’s life in hopeless depth of loneliness and remorse. In that twilight world, one can no longer look forward to anything. All that such a person holds in his hands is the withered corpse of what should have been.
— Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Currently Reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II. In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat.  Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo.  As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria. Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.

Currently Reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II. In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat.  Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo.  As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria. Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.