9 Reasons to Embrace Haruki Murakami's Novels
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At 68, Haruki Murakami is a busy man. In 2016 he released two works of nonfiction—Absolutely on Music and Haruki Murakami Goes to Meet Hayao Kawai. This year he has two more, Men Without Women, a collection of stories translated into English, and the Japanese edition of a novel Murder of the Knight Commander. Murakami has written 30 books, won a handful of major awards, and has been translated into 50 languages. He’s also, perhaps, the most beloved writer in the world, certainly among serious novelists. He’s not some distant supernatural figure who’s well respected but not liked or entirely understood. Far from it. Readers respond to his books with piety, joy and a personal connection, as if they’re letters from an old friend. And maybe that’s exactly what they are. Here are nine reasons to embrace the funny, strange, touching, surreal, comforting and occasionally awkward novels of Haruki Murakami.
How To Become a Writer
Murakami never dreamed of becoming a world-famous novelist. Quite the contrary. As a young man he was a slacker. This changed in 1978, at a baseball game in Tokyo. The Yakult Swallows were playing the Hiroshima Carp. An American got up to bat. Dave Hilton. He hit a double and, in that moment, Murakami had an epiphany. I can write a novel. He started writing later that night. The result was Hear the Wind Sing. It was published the following year and won the Gunzou Prize for new writers.
His Early Work
Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949. In ’64 he saw the drummer Art Blakey in Kobe and quickly became a disciple of jazz. He moved to Tokyo, enrolled at Waseda University, got married, and dropped out a few credits shy of a degree. In 1974 he borrowed money from family and friends to open a jazz bar called Peter Cat. Why? Very simple. He loved jazz and cats and his own feline was named Peter. He and his wife Yoko ran the bar for seven years. First, it was located on the outskirts of the city, and then it moved to Sendagaya in Central Tokyo. During the day, they served coffee. At night, the club sold food and drinks. Live jazz bands played. Murakami did most of the work himself. Washing dishes, booking acts, cleaning the floor, making drinks, playing records, escorting unruly patrons to the street. Yoko and Haruki decorated the bar themselves. Mostly with pictures of cats. Murakami would sit at the end of the bar, in his downtime, and write. His first two novels were composed this way. His books, it’s no surprise, are filled with obsessive references to cats, bars and jazz. Peter Cat was successful, but they eventually closed so that Murakami could devote more time to writing.
Like many people in Japan, Murakami is wildly enthusiastic about American popular culture. In fact, he’s been indicted by the cultural establishment for being insufficiently Japanese. His books are richly landscaped with references to classical music, but for the most part you find hedgerows and forests of rock music, detective fiction, movies, baseball, jazz, brand names of food, drink and clothing. In his books, the protagonist is almost always a quiet, unassuming, detached, lonely man who hangs out with Bob Dylan and Johnny Walker. They are his friends. They aren’t just window-dressing but rather characters in the book. Murakami’s second novel is called Pinball, 1973. Not Angst or Life or God. Just Pinball. Murakami doesn’t begin with large, abstract concepts. He finds the grandeur, joy, regret, strangeness and ecstasy in everyday life and common household objects—books, songs, a bowl of noodles—and constructs a story from the bottom up, starting with these ordinary things.
Murakami is quick to praise the writers he admires. His website lists his main influences as Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. He’s not just a passive fan, however. He actively shares his love of American fiction with a Japanese audience. He’s a prolific and avid translator, having completed dozens of projects by Salinger, Raymond Carver, Fitzgerald, John Irving, Tim O’Brien, Truman Capote, Mark Helprin, Ursula Le Guin, Mark Strand, Grace Paley, Paul Theroux and others. He’s also translated anthologies and non-fiction (music-related, mostly). In 2006 Murakami completed his labor of love, a translation to Japanese of The Great Gatsby.
His fiction has an odd but distinct tone. Murakami is a master at establishing a certain mood—very specific and palpable yet hard to identify or parse—and he does this from the very first page and sustains it throughout the story. A sense of loss, sorrow and impending doom, yet always leavened with hope and possibility. In his work you’ll find violence and death but also womblike places to hide from the storm—empty wells, magic elevators, quiet apartments stocked with food. His characters are missing limbs but they don’t know which one. There’s also a skewed, off-kilter comedy at work, so nuanced and abstract it’s hard to know what the joke is, like the smudge on your glasses you can never find. The reader also gets a distinct sense of place and character. Murakami begins very simply and builds his work one slow step at a time. He shows the reader an ordinary person performing ordinary household tasks. The sense of realism is profound, almost excruciating. The character is both bored and comforted by the domestic routine, by the mundane bookkeeping of life. However, Murakami injects these activities and common objects, such as a book or washcloth, with metaphysical depth, and they act as portals into another world.
The Best of Both Worlds
You often get two books for the price of one. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the perfect example. The text alternates between two separate texts—the central narrative is a realistic story of crime and mystery, Hard-boiled Wonderland; the End of the World is a fantasy tale, a parable related to the main story. Murakami repeats this double-barrelled approach in many of his works, including Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Fans of English novelist David Mitchell will recognize this technique. Mitchell has borrowed many things from his Japanese mentor, including multiple narratives and combining realism with fantasy.
Murakami doesn’t limit himself to just one type of book. He’s written, among other things: a 600-page historical fiction about magic wells and missing cats (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), simple love stories (Norwegian Wood, Sputnik Sweetheart), books featuring a sheep man (Dance Dance Dance, A Wild Sheep Chase), a memoir about running (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running); nonfiction works concerning the Japanese sarin gas attack (Underground) and music (Portrait in Jazz, Absolutely on Music), and an illustrated children’s novella (The Strange Library).
An Irregular Guy
Murakami is a modest, unassuming man. He enjoys music, fitness and reading crime fiction. He doesn’t often associate with other writers, though he did become friends with Raymond Carver before the American author’s death. He’s also hugely successful. His books have sold millions of copies both in Japan and abroad. He’s also won a number of awards, including the Tanizaki Prize, the World Fantasy Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, The Franz Kafka Prize, the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award, and the Jerusalem Prize. He donated the winnings from the Catalunya Prize—over $100,000—to the victims of the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. Murakami has received honorary degrees from Tufts, Princeton and the University of Liege and, in 2015, was named one of Time’s most influential people. His stories and novels have been adapted for the stage, screen and even video games. He sees himself as a laborer, not an artist. Every day, Murakami gets up at 4:00 am and writes for at least five hours. Afterward, he runs 10 k or swims a mile, sometimes both. He goes to bed at 9:00 pm. The routine never varies.
He’s Also Human
Murakami writes compelling novels filled with beautiful prose and, sometimes, rather inept prose. The following examples are all from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage:
“Her smile had ratcheted up a notch.”
“He’s done very well, apparently, and has won their last few top sales awards. He’s still young but he’s already head of their sales department.
“Just as he appreciated Sara’s appearance, he also enjoyed the way she dressed.”
Awkward, stilted, mechanical, repetitive, artificial and just plain bad. We can only blame so much on the translation. Murakami’s work is filled with clangers, but we don’t care. Like Vanessa Paradis’ tooth gap or the Venus de Milo’s missing arms, the imperfection only makes his work more charming and more loveable.