Murakami and Me

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

Currently I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a ‘global event’ (thanks, Guardian) which has just been issued in English translation. I’m only about 200 pages in at the moment, so don’t ask for my considered opinion yet (thoroughly enjoying it, mind, especially the characterisation of the protagonists) but it has got me thinking about my own relationship with the work of Murakami. He is – in my opinion – one of the world’s greatest living novelists (and in my case it’s a short, subjective list including Thomas Pynchon, John Banville, Kim Stanley Robinson, and a handful of others) but then, I’ve been reading Murakami since I was seventeen; since back when I had to order his books in specially to O’Mahony’s in Limerick. Since then, I’ve devoured everything of his which has been translated into English, from his stories and novels to his non-fiction offerings like Underground and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (which is brilliant, by the way). I offer ‘Super Frog Saves Tokyo’ as the initial text to discuss in my Heroes and Villains class at NUI Galway and I submitted an essay on after the quake (note the capitalization, people!) as part of my doctoral study application. Hell, I even own copies of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. I may be a little obsessed.

The first Murakami I ever read though was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That was back in Fifth Year of secondary school, or the summer just following it to be precise. I was serving as an Examiner’s Assistant during that year’s Leaving Certificate exams in our school, a job which involved long hours sitting around outside the exam hall. To keep me occupied, my Mom bought me a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle after having heard the initial chapters read on the radio (they obviously didn’t broadcast the more “adult” bits!). Instantly I was hooked by the tale of Toru Okada, a story which widened into an entire secret history of a nation’s factual and quasi-supernatural sins. I found in Murakami’s writing then – and still do – a powerful rebuke to Irish literary fiction and its criminal emphasis on dour realism, a national house style which is at least a half-century out of date. Yet for all of that, the questions posed by Murakami about what it was to be Japanese were a striking parallel to issues of Irishness which I was at least tangentially aware of at the time. I doubt it will surprise anyone, but I grew up with a particularly antagonistic relationship to things like the GAA and the Irish language. Murakami’s Okada, problematizing his Japanese identity with an affinity for American popular culture, was a powerful reminder that it was okay to enjoy things from outside the parish.

‘I like mysteries and science fiction,’ Murakami said recently in a Sunday Times interview. ‘I like the style of entertainment fiction. I used everything when I wrote 1Q84. Reading mysteries and science fiction, or watching junk movies, is useful to me’. And of course, he has clearly been mining said material for a very long time. While I enjoyed and was engrossed by The Wind-Up Bird, it took his 1985 novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World to really explode my mind. When was the last time The Quiet Man and 2001: A Space Odyssey appeared within the space of four or five pages, let alone in the same book? Or unicorns and Bob Dylan? A remarkably consistent hodgepodge of science-fiction, cyberpunk, and fantasy, Hard-Boiled Wonderland ought to be required reading for anyone who still believes ‘literature’ must be synonymous with ‘realism’. With its secret sewer laboratories, beautiful librarians, neurological conspiracies and quasi-fantasy landscape, Hard-Boiled Wonderland is a novel in which anything is possible. As such, it’s a book I’ve clung to as the po-faced funerals-in-the-rain literature-with-a-capital-L genre has solidified its chokehold on Irish fiction in the last decade and a half.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland so is an early example of how Murakami – and perhaps this is a shock to some given his acclaim – openly acknowledges literary fiction as a ‘self-conscious world’ (1Q84), a genre where the practices of more commercial writing aren’t so easily tolerated. Consider this passage from 1Q84, spoken by an editor named Komatsu:

‘I wouldn’t be doing it for the money. I’d be doing it to screw the literary world. Those bastards all huddle together in their gloomy cave and kiss each others’ asses, and lick each other’s asses, and trip each other up, all the while spewing this pompous crap about the mission of literature. I want to have a good laugh at their expense. I want to outwit the system and make idiots out of the whole bunch of them’.

Though it would be a mistake to attribute Komatsu’s words to the author, it’s undeniable that Murakami himself has had interesting reactions to becoming an Icon of Contemporary Literature. For instance, his response to the breakout success of Norwegian Wood was to seek a ‘healing act’, and in the process produce Dance, Dance, Dance (another of my favourites), a novel one reviewer accurately pegged as a ‘mix of modern sci-fi, nail-biting suspense, and ancient myth’. While these are core elements of all Murakami’s work, his retreat back to the Sheep Men and unexplainable occurrences of his earlier writing (Dance, Dance, Dance being a loose sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase) is less a rejection of Norwegian Wood’s much fêted realism than it is a search for how to combine the latter with the former. Arguably, the particular marriage of the uncanny and the everyday which defines Murakami in the West today – the recognizable characteristic of everything from The Wind-Up Bird to 1Q84, has its roots in this transitional period. Or, at least, the specific ratio of the odd to the ordinary does; there’s more overt ‘weirdness’ in the earlier novels than in the post-Norwegian Wood work, yes, but unlike his uneven Anglophone imitator David Mitchell, Murakami never sells out to the straight-up realistic. With a novel like Dance, Dance, Dance, Murakami finds a way of synthesizing what he obviously enjoys writing with the expectations of the massive new audience who first encountered him through Norwegian Wood.

Perhaps all that is less apparent in the West, Norwegian Wood being published in English after even The Wind-Up Bird, but then Murakami – by definition – is mediated for the majority of us here anyway. Here The Wind-Up Bird was his breakout novel, but it arrived on a wave of critical acclaim generated by his domestic reception in Japan, the vaguest hint of Orientalism coloring the manner in which the psychic prostitutes and transformative wells of that book were attributed to the author’s origins in such an “unusual” culture. That’s just marketing, I suppose, with the greater helping of responsibility for how Murakami secured his reputation here lying with his translators.

Dance, Dance, Dance is an Alfred Birnbaum translation, along with Hard-Boiled Wonderland, A Wild Sheep Chase, and Underground. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, along with Norwegian Wood, after the quake, and the first two books of 1Q84 were translated by the great Jay Rubin, who’s outstanding Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is one of those rare critical texts which actually welcomes those from outside the academy into its readership (and, in fact, was something of a stylistic and a structural model for my own doctoral thesis in its early years). Kafka on the Shore (a Philip Gabriel joint along with Sputnik Sweetheart) left me cold, so I wonder what I’m going to make of 1Q84’s second volume (confusingly, ‘Book Three’) which was translated by him. Though come to think of it, with one of my favourite and one of my least favourite translators working on the same story, it’s the perfect opportunity to discover if this issue is something I have imagined or is something with an appreciable impact on my reading experience.

Seeing as it’ll probably take me another week or two to finish 1Q84, you’re going to have to watch this space…

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