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Murakami interview2


Found in translation

Haruki Murakami writes about love, earthquakes and mackerel raining from the sky. He is so famous in Japan that he was forced to flee the country, and now the rest of the globe is fast catching on to his singular vision. Stephen Phelan travels to Tokyo for a rare glimpse into the mind and world of a literary genius

AT a shrine, in a forest, on a mountain in Japan, a flustered young woman tries to describe the special appeal of Haruki Murakami’s novels. I have mentioned his name in bars, temples and beauty spots on my way across the country to interview him in Tokyo, and the reactions have been similar. Many young Japanese say that they know Murakami’s work well, especially his pop-romantic blockbuster Norwegian Wood, which they poetically refer to as “A Forest In Norway” even though it was expressly named after the Beatles song. They love his books, but there is something about them which they find difficult to articulate in English.

Murakami writes stories that make people feel strange, and strange feelings are hard to put into foreign words. This particular girl makes a wholehearted effort. While we stand here, out of the rain, under the giant cedar trees of Togakushi, she concentrates on what Murakami means to her. After a while she says: “I am always wanting to escape into his world.”

She is unsatisfied with the translation, but I think she speaks pretty succinctly for me and the growing millions of Murakami fans who read his work in – among other languages – Japanese, English, Taiwanese, Latvian and Hebrew. And when I meet the author a few days later, it’s obvious that he understands. “Many people,” says Murakami, “tell me that they don’t know what to feel when they finish one of my books. Because the story was dark, or complicated, or strange. But while they were reading it, they were inside my world, and they were happy. That’s good.”

Murakami’s translator and biographer Jay Rubin has attributed his international success to his ability to “get inside your brain and do weird things to it”. I suspect that the most common side-effect of reading his stories is that your real life sometimes feels Murakamian, and at odd moments you question which world you’re in. And it’s bound to happen a few times when you’re sitting in his office.

Today I am late because I couldn’t find his building – a nondescript structure amid the designer architecture of the Aoyama district. Murakami is waiting, standing behind his desk in a blue short-sleeved shirt, jeans and white socks. He looks compact and fat-free; the healthiest 55-year-old in the world, give or take. This is a man who runs ten kilometres and swims five every day, who does the Boston Marathon each year for a holiday.

“So you came from Scotland?” he asks. “I have been in Edinburgh. Many years ago. It was a book festival or something. Then I went to Islay. I like the malt whisky very much.” Murakami is expansive on the subject of malts. He is indifferent to book festivals. That’s the kind of writer he is.

Murakami speaks English well enough to translate Western classics into Japanese, so he can talk genially about almost anything. He is also entirely self-possessed, inscrutable, and often enigmatic. Certain words are totemic in his speech patterns: “Dream.” “Darkness.” “Kindness.” His window overlooks a graveyard, and sometimes he pauses to stare out of it for so long that, as one of his books describes, “if you listen closely, you can hear the earth slowly turning”.

Murakami’s answers never really explain anything, but they are never disappointing either. “The world is a metaphor,” he says at one point, although he doesn’t say what for, and I don’t think he knows. When I ask him what he thinks about while he’s writing, he says he doesn’t think at all. “It is more like dreaming. As a novelist, you could say that I am dreaming while I am awake, and every day I can continue with yesterday’s dream. Because it is a dream, there are so many contradictions, and I have to adjust them to make the story work. But in principle, the original dream does not change.”

This is how his most recent novel Kafka On The Shore was written, just like all the others. The English translation will be published in the UK next week, and you should read it if you think there are no new ways to tell a teenage rites-of-passage story. The book is about a 15-year-old runaway beset by mythic, surreal and metaphysical troubles. He kills his father and sleeps with his mother – but only in the most oblique and abstract ways – while his elderly alter ego talks to cats, makes mackerel rain from the sky and confronts malevolent supernatural forces who come to life as famous brand-name advertising icons Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker. “When I am writing,” says Murakami, “I do not distinguish between the natural and supernatural. Everything seems real. That is my world, you could say.”

Murakami has suggested that strange things happen in his books precisely because his own life is so ordinary. He wakes up at four every morning, writes until ten, goes running and swimming, buys some records, does some cooking, listens to music with his wife Yoko, and goes to bed around nine. They do not have children because they have never shared their own parents’ post-war optimism that “the world would continue to improve”. But as he gets older, Murakami’s protagonists get younger. He admits that the eponymous Kafka Tamura is “the age my son would be, if I had one”, and the lead character in his next novel will be a “girl who is like my daughter”.

So are these characters are his own imaginary children?

“I don’t know. Maybe. But they are also myself. When I write about a 15-year old, I jump, I return to the days when I was that age. It’s like a time machine. I can remember everything. I can feel the wind. I can smell the air. Very actually. Very vividly.” He stares out into the graveyard.

The narrators of most Murakami novels have been semi-employed, half-awake, disengaged free-thinkers in their late 20s. He has always drawn backdated inspiration from that blurry time of life, but he feels sorry for anyone going through it, including me.

“You are 27 or 28 right? It is very tough to live at that age. When nothing is sure. I have sympathy with you.”

Thanks, I say.

“No problem.”

When Murakami was my age, he and his wife were running a jazz bar in downtown Tokyo called Peter Cat. They couldn’t think of anything else to do. Their generation were aftershock kids, raised in a Japan that had been stopped dead by the most emphatic weapons in the universe, and restarted under American military power and cultural energy. Murakami himself was born in Kyoto in 1949, and couldn’t relate either to the esoteric delicacy of his parents’ traditions – they practised Buddhism and taught Japanese literature – or the hyper-capitalism taking shape around him. “Most young people were getting jobs in big companies, becoming company men. I wanted to be individual.”

As a teenager, Murakami had read “all the great authors” – Dostoevsky, Kafka, Flaubert, Dickens, Raymond Chandler. He spent his lunch money on records, and went out on school nights to see Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers. He wanted a lifestyle that guaranteed maximum exposure to the warmth of Western books and music. So he opened a jazz club where the music was too loud for conversation, and read books at the bar until his customers considered him anti-social. But Peter Cat was still a workplace.

“It was a tough job,” says Murakami. “For eight years I was working after midnight every day, full of smoke and whisky. I was too busy to think. I didn’t know what would happen next.”

What happened next was an epiphany.

“Yes. Epiphany is the word.”

It is, he says, the only truly weird thing that has ever happened to him. He was watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp one day in April 1978. An American player called Dave Hilton hit the first ball way out into left-field. And at that “extraordinary moment”, Murakami realised he could write a novel.

“It was very strange,” he says. “My customers didn’t believe it. My wife was so surprised. I had no ambition to be a writer, because the books I read were too good, my standards were too high. But that’s what happened. I bought pens and papers and started to write that day.”

The first line of his first novel, Hear The Wind Sing, went like this: “There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.”

And so Murakami began a story with no plot or meaning. He was writing, but he had nothing to say. The nameless narrator drinks beer, listens to The Beach Boys, meets a strange girl, turns 29, and reflects casually on the bare facts of existence. “Everything passes,” he says. “Nobody gets anything for keeps. And that’s how we’ve got to live.” Young people loved the book. Older Japanese readers, writers, and critics were insulted by the informality of its voice. And Murakami has been expanding on its “core of darkness” ever since.

He builds tunnels, libraries, labyrinths, dark corridors and deep wells into his stories. And his narrators – usually variations of the same guy, and surely variations of Murakami himself – travel through them from mundane urban malaise into a fathomless cosmic abyss. These stories retrace a path back to the place where Murakami found them; psychiatrists might call it the subconscious, he calls it “the basement”.

“It is a dark, cool, quiet place,” he explains. “A basement in your soul. And that place can sometimes be dangerous to the human mind. I can open the door and enter that darkness, but I have to be very careful. I can find my story there. Then I bring that thing to the surface, into the real world.”

Is the basement a scary place? Is he ever ever afraid to write?

“If it was evil I would be afraid. I am confident that it is kind of a white magic. But sometimes I have to fight evil things in the darkness. Like Lord Of the Rings, ha ha. I feel a little stupid when I’m talking like this. Mmm.”

But what does he mean by “evil things”?

Murakami is silent for a while. “Death, I guess,” he says, eventually. “I am 55 years old now. It takes three years to write one book. I don’t know how many books I will be able to write before I die. It is like a countdown. So with each book I am praying – please let me live until I am finished.”

So Murakami, who believes in neither God nor Buddha, prays to some other power when he writes?

“Yes. I didn’t want to be a writer, but I became one. And now I have many readers, in many countries. I think that’s a miracle. So I think I have to be humble regarding this ability. I’m proud of it and I enjoy it, and it is strange to say it this way, but I respect it.”

Murakami’s most avid fans and critics are here in Japan. His relationship with his country has been problematic. “It is hard,” he sighs, “to be an individual in Japan.”

The literary establishment makes him feel “like an outcast”, because he is both successful and inaccessible.

“They expect you to do certain things, and I don’t want to do them. The newspaper people ask me what I think about the Iraqi war. Of course, I have my own opinion about it but I don’t want to talk about it in the newspaper. So they think of me as arrogant.”

Also, he says, the reviewers don’t like his style. “In Japan they prefer the realistic style. They like answers and conclusions, but my stories have none. I want to leave them wide open to every possibility. I think my readers understand that openness.”

Murakami’s Japanese readers are a community. They treat him as an imaginary friend, and his novels as a dependency. And they have, in the past, driven him away. When Murakami published Norwegian Wood in 1987, an “experiment” in relatively straightforward nostalgic teen-romance, it sold three million copies and triggered a wave of young adulation not unlike Beatlemania.

“I was so shocked by the reaction to the book,” he says. “I lost some of my friends because I got so famous, people who just assumed that I would be different now. I felt like everyone hated me. That is the most unhappy time of my life.”

He and his wife left Japan for eight years, travelling through Europe and settling in the United States, where he taught literature at Princeton and wrote The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – his huge dark masterpiece about a Tokyo suburbanite haunted by voices and brutal wartime visions from his country’s recent history. “I was questioning,” says Murakami, “what it means to be Japanese.”

They returned in 1995, after the Kobe earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s fatal gas attack on the Tokyo underground, incidents that seemed to rupture the myth of health and wealth, work and progress that had sustained Japan since the war. The survivors of those events fascinated Murakami – like his own characters, they seemed suddenly aware of a “vast emptiness inside them” – and he has written stories (After The Quake) and non-fiction (Underground) based on that shock to their psyche.

Murakami now feels “greater responsibility” toward his Japanese readers, and they are more inclined to leave him alone. “They know to treat Murakami like an endangered species,” he says. “Very sensitive. Like a giant panda.”

But Murakami is also, as his American editor Gary Fisketjon put it, “the breakthrough Japanese writer in the West”. There are sales tables set aside for his books in Waterstones. There is something about his narrators, I suggest, their lack of ego, affect, and direction, that appeals to readers in countries where people have so much freedom that they don’t really know what to do with it.

“Yeah, right. I think they appreciate the way the protagonist is calm. Many things happen to him that he doesn’t understand, but he just watches, he remains neutral, he doesn’t judge. Some people say my characters are too passive, but I say they have a different kind of strength.”

Of course, Murakami is even more popular in countries where young people can only fantasise about the level of independence that allows his characters to drift into their strange adventures. Taiwan, China, Russia, Korea. He has personally seen sackfuls of his books sold at a street bazaar in Siberia.

“It is a different lifestyle in communist and post-communist countries. I think young people can get some sense of freedom and possibility from the books. Or maybe there is some connection between the chaos that is changing those societies and the chaos in my stories. I don’t know.”

Murakami once described his stories as “mysteries without solutions”, which you could read as a universal metaphor for life itself. Everything passes. Nobody gets anything for keeps. Who knows if the causes are natural or supernatural? What’s the difference?

“You must understand,” says Murakami, “that I am trying to be honest and kind to you. I feel that you might understand things more clearly, more deeply, if I write about them in a mysterious way. There are no answers in my world, but there is kindness.”