Presented October 31, 2017, by Shawna Mattison
“THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT PIECE OF WRITING. JUST AS THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT DESPAIR”. (Opening line of his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, 1978.)
Haruki Murakami is a contemporary Japanese author in a surreal genre – one of his fans describes him a realistic fantasist. He is very popular in Japan and around the world both for what his work says about Japan and for what it says to everyone.
Although his parents were both teachers of Japanese literature, he did not enjoy Japanese literature as a young man, preferring Russian, European and American authors. He claims to be shunned by the Japanese literary world for his use of Western influences and his references to Western pop culture. I think this is rather coy as a whole generation of modern Japanese authors, including the authors of “Japanese noire”, have sprung up after him.
Initially, Murakami did not envision a career in literature and he started his own jazz club. He had an epiphany when he was at a baseball game one day and saw the batter hit a double. He has said that the idea that he could write a novel then “came fluttering down from the sky”. He immediately started writing his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. In 1978, this book won him the first of many literary awards and his writing career was launched.
Since then, he has authored 31 books, with the majority available in translation. He has lived in Europe and in the United States, but he now lives in Japan. His books are all (as far as I know) set in Japan.
What Are His Books Like?
A classic Murakami situation is that of a Japanese “everyman” who encounters a fantastic situation: a secret laboratory underground, a man possessed by a malevolent sheep, an alternative world off the expressway, a man who can talk to cats, little people who enter our world to do mysterious things, and a rock that is an entrance way to another world. The protagonist/narrator never seems to doubt the existence of these fantastic things, but he is skeptical about the real world.
The dream world he enters is not always good, but he needs to enter it to solve a riddle or to find someone he has lost. Evil may be defeated in one of these worlds, but it will continue in the real world.
Murakami is focused on the isolation of an individual within society. He is also interested in exploring the separation between conscious vs. subconscious actions. He addresses these interests using symbolism and fantastic situations. The irony is that he claims not to understand symbolism.
The novels frequently have single men who don’t quite fit into society. In most instances, they avoid commitment to women their own age and seek non-committal relationships with older married women. Women in his novels are remote and have a matter of fact attitude toward sex. Love is generally treated as separate from sex and proves more elusive than chance encounters.
There are recurring symbols and themes: caves, holes, wells, underground passageways, water in the wells and holes, and always music. Women (and cats) disappear into another dimension. The narrator must travel into the world or into his subconscious to seek out what has been lost. He may never find it. Sometimes he (and on one occasion she) is chosen for a mission. Sometimes there are characters who want to die but need someone else to kill them.
His books reference Japanese atrocities in Manchuria in many instances, and more rarely the use of atomic weapons. He has said publicly that Japanese nationalists spend too much time on Hiroshima and not enough time examining Japanese atrocities in Manchuria and Korea.
My Favourite Books
Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
There is so much in this book: a cat that disappears and must be found, a cursed house, a well, a mysterious bird call, atrocities in Manchuria, a man and wife who love each other but are separated from each other, an alternate dimension, and an evil political figure that must be stopped. I have read it twice, but still there is more to find. It some ways, this was the most disturbing of the Murakami novels I have read. There are more questions than answers and that is the best part of this book.
Kafka on the Shore
One of the main characters, Nakata, I consider to be the most likeable of Murakami’s characters. He talks to cats and they talk back to him. Nakata may not be “smart” in his words, but he has his basic goodness. The other characters seem rather detached and lonely.
Nakata is on a quest to close a door that has been opened that should have stayed closed. Is it the door to his past or to another reality? He defeats a malevolent being (or is it a real person?) called Johnny Walker. The door is closed and perhaps he gets the life he should have had and just maybe evil has been defeated and love has won.
This is a journalistic examination of the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, planned and executed by a Japanese cult leader. The victims and the perpetrators are interviewed, but that allows them to control the narrative. There are cultural differences on how people process trauma that are evident in the words of the victims and the words of the perpetrator are chillingly matter of fact.
Why You Should Give Him a Chance
He creates strange worlds that you want to explore. You want his characters to find the answers, to complete the tasks they are destined to do and to find love. This will not always be the case, but the journey will keep your attention.
“Remember there is only one reality” IQ84.
Books and Short Story Collections
- Hear the Wind Sing
- Pinball 73
- Norwegian Wood
- Sputnik Sweetheart
- Dance, Dance, Dance
- Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
- Wild Sheep Chase
- Windup Bird Chronicle
- Kafka on the Shore
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
- Men Without Women
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
- Absolutely on Music
- After the Quake
- Colorless Tsukuro Tazaki