Interviews


Break on through
The elusive Murakami

Up from the Underground
The healer
The Outsider
The human cost

Roll over Basho
Murakami is seeking new style
Mizumaru Ansei

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Murakami is 'seeking new style'
     
     
  September 21, 1991
 

Publisher's Weekly

 

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 the food.

"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 literature.

"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 tough.

"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 Princeton University.

 

"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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