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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8).

The Elusive Murakami

Matt Thompson, The Guardian (liberal), London, England, May 26, 2001.

Haruki Murakami in 1996 (Photo: AFP)
He has been made the subject of breathless comparisons: Auster, Salinger, Chandler, Borges. His books sell in millions to under-30s in Japan; now he is gaining large readerships worldwide. One day, his growing legions of supporters insist, he will win the Nobel Prize. Magazine editors hunt him down in vain. It seems that everyone wants a piece of Haruki Murakami.

No wonder, as this elusive man tells me in a rare interview, he wants to hang on to himself: “I’m looking for my own story...and descending to my own soul.” This kind of introspection is the key to his work, and the inner journey may also be the source of his appeal for young Japanese readers. Economic woes have transformed a country once famous for its discipline and formality. Young people no longer want to buy into all that. Murakami hopes that “my books can offer them a sense of freedom—freedom from the real world.”

In person, Murakami gives an impression of self-containment. His manner is earnest, but he has a ready and dark sense of humor. He was brought up in the Kyoto area; his father was the son of a Buddhist priest and his mother the daughter of an Osaka merchant. Today he lives in the suburb of Osio (about 70 minutes from Tokyo on a fast commuter train). Very spacious, steel-framed, his home is modernist in style—though there were traditional tatami mats on the floor. The room we spoke in was dominated by two enormous loudspeakers and a wall of vinyl: 7,000 records, a legacy of his time running a Tokyo jazz club. At that time he was, he says, running away from himself. “I was a hermit in a wonderland of jazz.”

Murakami’s many references to Western culture—Le Figaro, Duran Duran, spaghetti—make older Japanese readers uneasy. They prefer the formal beauty of Mishima, Tanizaki, or Kawabata. Murakami sees this as part of a more general retreat into formalism: “After the war and modernization, the Japanese lost their sense of home and were deeply hurt. By collecting and depicting the beauty of Japanese nature, traditional clothes, or Japanese food, they tried to reassemble that Japanese home.”

Murakami himself tries to recover the realm of the spirit by other means; he doesn’t look back. When I asked him about the traditional puppets, the Bunraku, he said: “I find them very boring.” It is this sort of attitude that older Japanese find threatening. Sex is another issue. His blockbuster Norwegian Wood is the Japanese equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye: Every young Japanese person has read it. The uncharitable said it sold so well because its characters have so much sex, and talk about it so freely. Murakami takes another view: “Sex is a key to enter a spirit....Sex is like a dream when you are awake; I think dreams are collective. Some parts do not belong to yourself.”

His books tend to fall into two camps. On the one hand there are love stories such as Norwegian Wood and his new novel Sputnik Sweetheart. On the other there are fantastical fables such as A Wild Sheep Chase, in which an advertising executive is involved in a labyrinthine quest for a mysterious sheep.

Murakami has recently ventured into nonfiction too. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a collection of thoughts and interviews with survivors and members of the Aum cult led by Shoko Asahara. “It was so sad to listen to the cult people. There was something missing....They were criticizing the social system of Japan, so they went to the guru, who offered a new system....The Japanese system offered a fantasy that the harder you work, the richer you get. The guru offered his system, his fantasy and story, so that people could dream. But it was dangerous.”

It is no surprise to discover that 52-year-old Murakami’s own narrative as a writer winds itself back to an eccentric epiphany—at a baseball match on the afternoon of April 1, 1978. “All of a sudden I got the idea I could write: that simple.” He was noticed by a literary magazine, and won a competition with his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in which—through a cynical deejay being moved by a young girl’s story—he developed his recurring theme: that despite our loneliness we are all connected.

He reads a lot and widely, from Dostoyevsky to Agatha Christie. Raymond Chandler is another favorite. “Philip Marlowe is Chandler’s fantasy but he’s real to me.” When he was younger, he explains, after a turbulent time as a student, “I just wanted to live like Marlowe.” Murakami also admires the Jungian mythographer Joseph Campbell and Jung himself. He examines the structure of his own fantasies in forensic detail. “I’ve been married for 30 years. Sometimes I wonder what would it be like if I had been single....If and if and if. I could go along that passage and find new strange rooms.”
It is through just such a divagation, he tells me, that his fictions begin. “That’s the beginning of the story. We have rooms in ourselves. Most of them we have not visited yet....From time to time we can find the passage. We find strange things...old phonographs, pictures, books...they belong to us, but it is the first time we have found them.”

Murakami’s own protagonists are not unlike detectives. They find clues by speaking to peculiar people in out-of-the-way places: under cities, down deep wells. This reflects the visionary way Murakami himself goes about writing. “If I knew everything before I wrote, it would be boring. The things and the people come to me automatically. I don’t ‘make up’ anything.”

It is more a case of “finding something.” To generalize, Murakami’s main character tends to be a man who is somewhat out of touch with his own feelings. Through his encounters with women, he discovers clues as to how his sense of self became unraveled. The man is a detective, but the crime has somehow happened within himself.

The hero’s unpicking of a Hitchcock-style mystery dovetails with Murakami’s own self-analysis through writing. As he puts it: “I’m looking for my own story in myself....That’s why I like Joseph Campbell. People are looking for their tales inside themselves. Without tales people can’t live their lives.”

He is aware that the dark dream world offered by the Aum cult shares some qualities with the creation of novels. But there is also a lightness of touch to his books: “My protagonist is acting like he’s playing a video game. He’s detached. He has to respond to what’s happening.” This has provoked criticism—“Some people criticize my books as frivolous.” But, he adds, these days “it is a video-type world” that we live in.

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