The rebel writer

Is author Haruki Murakami Japan's next literary prophet?

haruki murakami 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
haruki murakami 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Haruki Murakami would seem the very picture of the Japanese writer-prophet. He gazes out over the rooftops of Tokyo's chichi suburb of Ayoama, speaking in low, urgent tones about Japan's rightward lurch. "I am worrying about my country," says the 57-year-old writer, widely considered Japan's Nobel laureate-in-waiting. "I feel I have a responsibility as a novelist to do something." He is particularly concerned about Tokyo's popular governor, the novelist Shintaro Ishihara. "Ishihara is a very dangerous man. He is an agitator. He hates China." As Murakami discusses plans to make a public statement opposing Ishihara and weave an anti-nationalist subtext into his next novel, it's hard to recognize the writer often derided by the Tokyo literati as an apathetic pop-artist - a threat to the political engagement of Japanese fiction. Yet Murakami always distanced himself from the Japanese tradition of the writer as social admonisher: "I thought of myself as just a fiction writer." Murakami's resistance to literary cliques has led him to be seen as thumbing his nose at Japan and its literature. He refuses to fulfill the typical public duties of writers - participating in talk shows, judging panels and literary festivals - and declines all requests for television and telephone interviews. As dreamy and introverted as his disaffected protagonists, Murakami has no literary friends and never attends parties. He has spent large stretches of his adult life in Europe and America; we meet, in Murakami's unassuming Ayoama office, during his brief return to Tokyo from Harvard, where he holds a writers' fellowship. "I'm not interested in Japanese literature or literary people. I have no models in Japanese literature. I created my own style, my own way," he says. "They don't appreciate this." As a teenager, Murakami rebelled against the reading tastes of his parents - both lecturers in Japanese literature - by consuming pulpy American mystery novels in English. He read "to get away from Japanese society." Murakami's idols remain American writers - Fitzgerald, Carver, Chandler and Vonnegut. His offhand prose, studded with references to American low culture, contrasts with the formal elegance of Japan's literary loadstars - Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe and Junichiro Tanizaki. The heroes of his surrealistic, genre-bending narratives are under-employed drifters, without children or long-term partners, who refuse to genuflect to the Japanese group ethos of the family and the corporation. They are more likely to eat spaghetti, listen to Radiohead and read Len Deighton than drink saki or quote Oe. "It seems natural to refer to Radiohead songs because I love music. It's just like a movie soundtrack. But I don't listen to music when I write. I have to concentrate on writing." IN HIS SHORT story "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes" - collected in his latest book, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman - Murakami allegorically depicts the ructions that he touched off after netting an award for his debut novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in 1979. The protagonist is a finalist in a competition for a new recipe of an age-old confection known as a "Sharpie." His updated Sharpie cake causes bloody tumult among the wizened crows judging the competition. The young relish his recipe; the old guard does not. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman draws together 26 short stories, penned over 25 years. In the chatty introduction, Murakami writes that "I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy." "A 'Poor Aunt' Story" illustrates Murakami's belief "that with one idea, one word, you can write a short story." His narrator, who styles himself as "one of those people who try to write stories," falls in thrall to the random image of a poor aunt, commenting: "for some reason, things that grabbed me were always things I didn't understand." Murakami works on short stories in the intervals between novels. "You can test your new technique in a short story for your next novel. The first draft is done in two or three days. So it's an experiment - a game." Sputnik Sweetheart grew out of "Man-Eating Cats," in which the narrator disappears after being lured by an intoxicating melody to climb a hill in the Greek countryside. Typically for Murakami, loss and suicide sound the keynotes. "Many of my friends committed suicide, so I have several empty spots in my mind. I think it is my responsibility to look at them. Life is conflict with many obstacles. Sometimes you just want to get away from this world. When you commit suicide, you don't have to worry about anything. You don't get older. You don't feel pain anymore. Sometimes it's very tempting." Murakami's most famous novel, Norwegian Wood, originated as "Firefly" - about an introverted college student, Toru, who pines after his mentally unstable girlfriend. Like Toru, Murakami was raised in Kobe, and moved to Tokyo to study drama and film at college. There, Murakami witnessed the rupturing of his generation's idealism, with the quashing of the '68 and '69 student riots. Although Murakami didn't participate in the demonstrations, his characters often wrestle with feelings of emptiness arising from the defeat. "Spiritually I was with the protesters but I couldn't cooperate. I'm a lone wolf." DESPITE his reading, Murakami was an unremarkable, ill-motivated student. "My heroes don't have anything special. They have something to tell other people but they don't know how, so they talk to themselves. I thought I was one of those ordinary people." Although harboring loose aspirations to become a scriptwriter, Murakami finally realized that "to make a movie is a collective art. So I gave up wanting to be a scriptwriter." At university, Murakami met his lifelong partner, Yoko, and together they managed a jazz bar, Peter Cat, for seven years. "I wasn't interested in working for a big company like Toyota or Sony. I just wanted to be independent. But that's not easy. In this country, if you don't belong to any group, you're almost nothing. My heroes are looking for the right way, but it isn't easy to find. I think that's one of the reasons why young readers like reading my novels. Among the many values in life, I appreciate freedom most. I'd like to keep that freedom in my characters, so the protagonist won't have to commute to the company or office. They are not married, so they are free to do anything, free to go anywhere." The itch to write hit him with all the random force of a trigger for a story. Murakami points out the window to the stadium where, one night in 1979, he "was just watching baseball and drinking beer and thought, 'I can write.'" He worked on his first novel over the following six months, writing in the small hours after 14-hour days at Peter Cat. He wrote the initial chapters in English, before translating them into Japanese. "I didn't know how to write fiction, so I tried writing in English because my vocabulary was limited. I knew too many words in Japanese. It was too heavy." He writes like a jazz musician extemporizes - guided by impulse, without a plan. "I didn't have a teacher or a colleague as a writer, so the only way I knew was good music - rhythm, improvisation, harmony. I just know how to begin. If I knew how to finish, it wouldn't be fun because I'd know what would happen next. If you read a book, you can't wait to turn the pages. The same thing happens when I write. I can't wait to turn the pages. Writing is like dreaming when you're awake. When you're sleeping, you cannot dream a continuous dream. But when you're a writer, you can continue your dream every day. So it's fun." THE COUPLE closed Peter Cat in 1980 after Murakami's second novel, Pinball, 1973, became a bestseller. International recognition arrived with his following novels A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - kaleidoscopic dreamscapes, which fused conventions of the hard-bitten detective novel with sci-fi overlays and off-the-wall comedy. In 1986, Murakami surprised readers by producing a traditional rites-of-passage novel, expanding "Firefly" into Norwegian Wood. "I had to prove I could write in a realistic style." But by dipping his toe into realism, Murakami triggered a tsunami. Norwegian Wood shifted two million copies. To Murakami, it was too much of a good thing. "It became a phenomenon. It wasn't a book anymore. I was so uncomfortable with being famous, because being famous didn't give me anything precious or important. I felt betrayed. I lost some of my friends. I don't know why but they left. I was not happy at all." He decamped to Europe with Yoko to escape the white heat, shuttling between European countries for five years before taking up a writers' fellowship at Princeton in 1991. From abroad, Murakami witnessed the bursting of Japan's bubble economy. Suddenly, mainstream Japan was made to confront the questions that trouble his characters. "We had to stop and think - what is truly good for us? What is our value? We lost our confidence, so we had to find something else as the purpose of society. After the war we had been getting richer and richer and we were confident that we would keep getting richer. We are in chaos at this moment and there is nationalism and we are searching for new value. So some things are dangerous, but basically I think things are getting better. Young people in Japan are not like we were 20 or 30 years ago. In the 1960s, we used to be more idealistic and people were very confident." The gap between Murakami and Japan narrowed further in 1995, when the country was rent by another two convulsions. On January 17, Kobe was hit by an earthquake, killing 6,500 people. Two months later, Aum cultists released toxic nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system at rush hour. Murakami, who had spent the previous four years at Princeton writing his opus The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, returned from self-exile. "It wasn't a patriotic thing. I just wanted to do something for my people." The sharpening of Murakami's social commitment was heralded by a set of six bleakly absurd stories, portraying the aftershocks of the Kobe earthquake. He then turned to non-fiction with Underground, a collection of interviews with the doomsday cultists responsible for the gassings and the subway riders who survived them. Murakami came to empathize with the work-obsessed salarymen and office ladies who he had previously felt were not worth writing about. "Many people expected that I would be sympathetic to the cult people because they're outsiders. But that was not the case. They're shallow, but the common people have the depth of real life." CHILDLESS, like his characters, Murakami is free to pursue his daily regime of writing, translating and fitness. After rising at 6 a.m., he writes for about six hours, broken by an hour-long jog or swim. "When I stopped running the jazz club, I started running because I needed a physical outlet." His evenings are spent listening to jazz and translating American novels into Japanese. As a translator, Murakami has introduced the Japanese reading public to over 40 works by the likes of Truman Capote, John Irving, Tim O'Brien and Grace Paley. "Writing fiction is like making your own puzzle, but translating is just like resolving the puzzle. In other words, when you're writing your own stuff, you're making up your own video game. When you're translating, you're playing that game. So it's fun. Writing fiction, you get egotistical. You have to have confidence. But translating, you have to respect the text, so your ego shrinks to normal size. It's good for your mental health." Asked about his decision not to have children, Murakami comments that he fails to share the post-war idealism of his parents: "I'm not so optimistic." He also notes that "books are more important to me." He pauses, pensive, then half-grins - perhaps implying that these are mere equivocations: "I didn't want to be a parent because I knew my children would hate me." He refuses to be drawn on his difficult relationship with his parents, saying only that "they had their own values and I had my own. I was an only child and their presence was heavy." Although about to return to Harvard, Murakami imagines moving back to Japan permanently in a few years: "When I'm 60, I guess it will be time to settle down." Despite what Japan's most hidebound pundits argue, Murakami's writing has always been closer to his homeland than the fictional universes of Fitzgerald, Carver and Chandler. Occidental critics ritually compare Murakami with postmodernists such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. But in Japan, as Murakami tells it, "people do not think my stories are postmodern." In Japanese spirituality, the divide between the real and the fantastic is permeable, so his tales of unicorn skulls, six-foot tall frogs, star-patterned sheep and Colonel Sanders are "very natural." "You know the myth of Orpheus. He goes to the underworld to look for his deceased wife, but it's far away and he has to undergo many trials to get there. There's a big river and a wasteland. My characters go to the other world, the other side. In the Western world, there is a big wall you have to climb up. In this country, once you want to go there, it's easy. It's just beneath your feet."