||September 21, 1991
Forget about cherry blossom time, the crags of Fujiyama,
tea ceremonies; most especially forget about exquisitely penned
haiku. Today Haruki Murakami is Japan's premier novelist,
and he's earned that rank by breaking all the rules.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, due this
month from Kodansha (Fiction Forecasts, Aug. 2), shows off
this iconoclastic style. Its plot is a feat of what seems
to be a double-jointed imagination. Dizzying and dazzling,
it involves an intelligence agent who can "launder"
and "shuffle" data in his brain, and a drama simultaneously
playing out within the agent's unconscious. Like Alice, the
agent embarks on a fantastic journey that begins when he travels
down an impossible hole, and his adventures are conveyed with
the glittering and mutable energy of kaleidoscopic images.
Only gradually do broader patterns emerge, and the novel becomes
a terrifyingly urgent tale of survival and surrender.
If the story is strange and startling, the setting is just
as surprising: the geography is of a modern Japan, but the
heritage is Western, the prose awash in reference to American
and European culture. From a bottomless reservoir come allusions
to The Wizard of Oz, Bogart and Bacall, Star Trek, Ma Bell
and Jim Morrison, discussions of Turgenev and Stendhal, Camus
and Somerset Maugham. The only thing distinctly Japanese is
"I might like Japanese food," says Murakami, meeting
PW in Kodansha's New York offices, "but I like Western
literature, Western music." His fusion of Japanese language
and Western sensibility represents a turning point of Japanese
"Most Japanese novelists," Murakami explains, "are
addicted to the beauty of the language. I'd like to change
that. Who knows about the beauty? Language is a kind of a
tool, an instrument to communicate. I read American novels,
Russian novels; I like Dickens. I feel there are different
possibilities for Japanese writing.
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.”
"At first, I wanted to be an international writer. Then
I changed my mind, because I'm nothing but a Japanese novelist:
I was born in Japan and I speak Japanese and I write in Japanese.
So I had to find my identity as a Japanese writer. That was
"You have to know that the writing in Japan for Japanese
people is in a particular style, very stiff. If you are a
Japanese novelist you have to write that way. It's kind of
a society, a small society, critics and writers, called high
literature. But I am different in my style, with a very American
atmosphere. I guess I'm seeking a new style for Japanese readership,
and I think I have gained ground. Things are changing now.
There is a wider field."
Most would agree that Murakami has indeed gained ground.
More than 12 million copies of his books are in print in Japan,
he's received a string of prestigious awards and been translated
into 14 languages. A prolific translator himself, he has introduced
writers as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and
Raymond Carver, Paul Theroux and John Irving to Japan. A self-described
"wanderer," he has lived all over the world, from
Greece and Italy to a current stint as a visiting fellow at
"I want to test Japanese culture and Japanese writing
from outside of Japan. It is very hard to explain that,"
he says, and pauses to deliberate. "It's a kind of translation.
When I translate from English to Japanese, the story is the
same, but the language is different. Something has changed
by translation. I like to do the same thing for my own writing.
I want to write a Japanese novel with a different material,
with a different style, but in Japanese. I think it would
help change Japanese literature from inside."
The son of a teacher of Japanese literature, Murakami, who
was born in 1949, grew up reading American fiction. He learned
English in junior high and high school. "My marks in
English weren't so good," he says in the first of a series
of deceptively modest remarks and disclaimers, an unprepossessing
style matched by his casual dress and careful, slow speech.
"But I enjoyed reading in English," he continues,
"it was quite a new experience." Raymond Chandler
was a favorite. When he went to Waseda University, he studied
drama, everything from Greek tragedy to contemporary works.
"I tired to write when I was a college student, but I
couldn't, because I had no experience. I gave up my writing
when I was 22 or 21. I just forgot about it.
"I didn't want to, you know, get into a company."
(Neither do his characters.) "I wanted to do something
by myself. I started a small jazz club in Tokyo. It was fun.
I owned a club for seven years.
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