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the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No.
The Elusive Murakami
Matt Thompson, The Guardian
(liberal), London, England, May 26, 2001.
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.
Murakami in 1996 (Photo: AFP)
No wonder, as this elusive man tells me in a rare interview, he
wants to hang on to himself: Im 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 freedomfreedom from the real
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 stylethough 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.
Murakamis many references to Western cultureLe Figaro,
Duran Duran, spaghettimake 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 doesnt 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 Murakamis own
narrative as a writer winds itself back to an eccentric epiphanyat
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 whichthrough a cynical
deejay being moved by a young girls storyhe 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 Chandlers
fantasy but hes 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. Ive 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. Thats 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.
Murakamis 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 dont make up anything.
It is more a case of finding something. To generalize,
Murakamis 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
The heros unpicking of a Hitchcock-style mystery dovetails
with Murakamis own self-analysis through writing. As he puts
it: Im looking for my own story in myself....Thats
why I like Joseph Campbell. People are looking for their tales inside
themselves. Without tales people cant 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 hes playing a video game. Hes detached. He has
to respond to whats happening. This has provoked criticismSome
people criticize my books as frivolous. But, he adds, these
days it is a video-type world that we live in.