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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Roll Over Basho
  September 27, 1992
The New York Times Book Review


Japanese writers are very aware of what we're doing on this side of the Pacific and very well informed about American fiction, about American culture," says the novelist Jay McInerney. "Yet we're terribly ignorant in this country of Japanese fiction, Japanese culture. It is, I think, far more accessible than we might imagine."

In an effort to correct this cultural trade imbalance, PEN, the writers' organization, brought Mr. McInerney together in New York with Haruki Murakami, a best-selling novelist in Japan, who is a visiting fellow in East Asian studies at Princeton University. Following are excerpts of the conversation between Mr. McInerney, whose novel Ransom is set in Japan, and Mr. Murakami, two of whose novels (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and A Wild Sheep Chase ) are available in English translations. Mr. McInerney and Mr. Murakami later expanded their observations for the Book Review.



Jay McInerney: I happened to pass the marquee of the play "Why I Hate Hamlet," which put me on a train of associations having to do with the anxiety of influence and patricide. And it made me think of the invitation we sent out that stated that Haruki Murakami was heir to Yukio Mishima. It's a notion that I've seen advanced before in American reviews and articles about Murakami's work, a notion that nicely represents, to put the mildest spin that I can on it, a relative innocence about recent developments in Japanese fiction


Haruki Murakami resembles Mishima mainly by virtue of being Japanese, and after that the affinities get pretty tenuous. Mishima was on e of literature's great romantics, a tragedian with a heroic sensibility, an intellectual, an esthete, a man steeped in Western letters who toward the end of his life became a militant Japanese nationalist.



Even when he's writing about relatively fantastic subjects, like spirit possession in sheep, Haruki Murakami's sensibility is that, I think, of a skeptical realist. His narrator is inevitably Everyman, contemporary Tokyo edition, a kind of thirtyish urban male in a low-key, white-collar job, like advertising or public relations, a somewhat passive fellow who doesn't expect much out of life and who takes what comes to him with jaded equanimity.

His motto might be "No big deal" -- Like most Japanese, the typical Murakami protagonist believes himself to be a man of the middle, a product of, to quote from Mr. Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood, "a regular workaday family, not especially rich, not especially poor. A real run-of-the-mill house, small yard, Toyota Corolla."


Remarkable things do tend to befall these antiheroes of Mr. Murakami's fiction. Their girlfriends committee suicide. Their friends turn into sheep. Their favorite elephants disappear into think air. But they will be damned if they're going to make a big deal out of it.

Like the narrators of Raymond Carver's short stories -- and I should mention that Murakami is Raymond Carver's translator in Japan -- they are unremarkable men, less driven by the ethic to succeed and less enmeshed in the powerful webs of family and business and community than most Japanese. And in this, I suspect, may lie some of the tremendous power of Murakami's novels for Japanese readers. If I'm not mistaken, Norwegian Wood has sold in the neighborhood of four million copies in Japan.

Haruki Murakami: Actually, two million copies is the correct figure. Since readers in Japan dislike thick books, what would be sold in America as one volume is divided into two volumes when sold in Japan. So if you think of Part One and Part Two as one volume, then only two million copies have been sold. The reason Japanese readers dislike thick books is that they're heavy and hard to read on commuter trains. Also in Japan it generally takes three years for a book to come out in paperback after it is released in hard cover, so many people end up having to read the hard-cover edition. Well, even two million is an astounding number, at least to me.

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