In a sense, Haruki Murakami is like an apartment-hopping twenty-something who brings his CD collection, his Blow Up movie poster, and mini-fridge to each new address. While from novel to novel, he incorporates such disparate forms as hardboiled detective fiction (A Wild Sheep Chase), cyberpunk (Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World), and bildungsroman (Norwegian Wood), he trucks his sensibility and tastes to every one of them. All of his books have been told through the eyes of a taciturn male narrator who loves Western music and literature, cooks pasta, and is drawn to coquettish women with exquisite ears. Eventually, an absence in their lives, be it literal or metaphorical, leads them to the "other side," a nebulous, half-glimpsed world of dreams and surreal visions.
It doesn't hurt that Murakami's narrators are so appealing. Occasionally, when his philosophizing grows murky or the dreamscapes he conjures cross the line between whimsy and solipsism¨when characters, say, spend fifty pages at the bottom of a well just to think; or when someone wakes up with, literally, a poor aunt on his back¨his readers press forward because of the interest they've taken in the problems of his likeable Everymen. I have a friend, for instance, who has confessed to reading Murakami because she gets crushes on his male protagonists.
I must stress now that Murakami is more than just Japanese literature's equivalent to Ethan Hawke. But as Jay Rubin points out in his thoughtful, if frustrating, biography, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, his first-person narrators have been essential to the "voice" (to use the MFA-approved term) of his fiction. In Japanese, the pronoun Murakami uses for his narrator is boku, a casual form of "I", as opposed to watashi, the more formal-sounding word for "I". While Murakami wasn't the first Japanese writer to have a boku narrator, Rubin feels that it suits perfectly Murakami's casual, informal voice: "Murakami [used] Boku because he felt the word to be the closest thing Japanese had to the neutral English "I"; less a part of the Japanese social hierarchy, more democratic,... and certainly not the designation of an authority."
The son of teachers, Haruki Murakami was born in 1949 in Kobe, for a thousand years Japan's capital before Tokyo. He grew up admiring American culture and music, and although he received only mediocre marks in his English classes, he devoured, in English, the novels of Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Later he would look to these writers¨along with Raymond Carver and Fyodor Dostoyevsky¨as models for his own style.
Murakami would move to Tokyo to attend university¨this time would later be fictionalized in Norwegian Wood¨where he met his wife Yoko. After marrying, they took a loan from Yoko's father and started a popular jazz club. Murakami recalls that the decision to write novels came in one moment, an epiphany that is startling in its detail and depth:
I remember the day clearly. I was at a baseball game that afternoon, in the outfield stands, drinking beerÓ [The] first batter in the bottom of the first inning was an American, Dave HiltonÓ Anyhow, he sent the first ball pitched to him that day into left field for a double. And that's when the idea hit me: I could write a novel.
The tone of Murakami's early fiction is distant. His prose is spare and atmospheric, his narratives are elliptical and circular. The early books take pains to avoid Japanese cultural references and concerns, and are instead fueled by pop music and nostalgia of the spirit of student unrest in the late 1960s. Already Murakami is interested in the extent to which reality is shaped by memory and obsession. Rubin cleverly describes Murakami as "Proust Lite." After the author spent years abroad in Europe and the United States, his vision grew to include Japanese society and its brutal history. In his most ambitious novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, personal and cultural obsessions intersect in a baroque narrative that juxtaposes the search for a missing cat in contemporary Japan with surreal, gruesome depictions of Japan's wartime atrocities.
Rubin notes Murakami's reluctance to explain the dream-like storylines and images, but nevertheless offers close readings of Murakami's significant novels and stories that occupy the better part of his book. Occasionally this analysis feels redundant: "The overpowering hunger pangs" of a married couple in one story, for instance, represent "unverbalized inner needs. The couple's newlywed status couldn't have anything to with it¨could it?" Generally, however, Rubin is good at finding images and themes that reappear in Murakami's books, and deftly charts his progress as a writer.
As a work of biography, Rubin's book disappoints. Murakami goes out of his way to describe himself as a "normal guy," and the reader learns not only about how Murakami's work habits and his fondness for single malt scotch, but also his ambivalence toward the rock star-level success in Japan after Norwegian Wood that led him to live abroad. Yet despite his access to Murakami as one of his translators, Rubin's portrait of the artist has barely more detail or insight than a magazine profile.
In his final chapter, Rubin translates parts of a book entitled: "That's it! Let's Ask Murakami!" Say the People and They Try Flinging 282 Big Questions at Haruki Murakami, But Can Murakami Really Find Decent Answers to Them All? This book, one of many by Murakami unavailable in translation, collects answers Murakami gave on his now-defunct website to readers seeking personal information or advice. Murakami's replies are so amiably droll that I wished more of them had been translated. This was not the first time I had this reaction: even in its most interesting sections, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words never fully satisfies the curiosity Murakami himself inspires.
The six stories in Murakami's After the Quake are set in the month between the Kobe earthquakes that killed 3,000 people in 1995 and the Tokyo subway gas attacks. While none of Murakami's characters are directly affected by the tragedy, their lives are changed because of it: regrets rise to the surface, absences are revealed, nightmares unleashed. In "Honey Pie", a child's fear of the "Earthquake Man" brings a young story-writer to declare his love for the girl's mother. After spending "[five] straight days in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways," the wife of a stereo salesman in "UFO in Kushiro" leaves her husband with only a note that begins: "The problem is that you never give me anythingÓ you have nothing inside you that you can give me." In "Thailand", a menopausal doctor imagines a former lover's house in Kobe flattened and his family on the street: "When I think of what you did to my life, when I think of the children I should have had, it's the least you deserve."
Never before has Murakami's playful metaphysics been so grounded in everyday hurt and disappointment. Gone are the funhouse creatures, the dancing dwarves and vanishing elephants populating his other stories¨well, almost. At its outset, "Super Frog Saves Tokyo" has the cartoon charm of classic Murakami: A bank officer comes home to find a six-foot-tall frog. This frog, who drinks tea and quotes Joseph Conrad, needs the bank officer's help to fight a giant Worm residing beneath the bank; if he doesn't help, the Worm will destroy Tokyo with another earthquake. On closer inspection, it begins to look¨though it doesn't really matter¨as if the bank officer is actually hallucinating. It becomes apparent that Murakami has written a stunning and sly critique of contemporary Japan, about a put-upon loan officer thanklessly toiling in the aftermath of the freespending "Bubble economy."
Not coincidentally, After the Quake is Murakami's first book, at least in English, written in the third-person, and it demonstrates the remarkable growth of a writer who once said "he wasn't so interested in people." The detachment of Murakami's early work has worn itself out; in its place is a tough-minded reverence for the connectedness of people and places, and the strange ties between dreams and reality. His once fascinating Everyman has grown to include every "normal" body. ˛
Kevin Chong is the author of Baroque-A-Nova.