Ten years ago I was obsessed with Haruki Murakami… Elegant women who vanish, doomed romance you never recover from, jazz in whisky bars, Japan…
He came to London to give a talk and I was there. Then I vanished… Or did I?
Haruki Murakami is probably Japan’s most celebrated modern novelist – his fans, of whom there are hundreds of thousands, will tell you that he also happens to be one of the finest novelists writing in the world today. His writing effortlessly crosses genre, style and form – surreal thrillers, slow-burning melancholic love stories, incisive reportage, hilarious short stories – and always feels humane and expressive and accessible. Whether he’s exploring the memories of the lonely survivor of a doomed relationship back in nineteen-sixties’ Tokyo or expressing his dislocated anxiety over the Kobe earthquake through the adventures of a giant frog, he appreciates the honest emotions he evokes in the same way a master vintner appreciates the tone and fragrance of his finest wines.
That his stories are also told in a deceptively sparse, pared-down fashion, bereft of hyperbolic trickeries or stylistic effects adds to the effect – his books are poetry, beautiful, evocative, intimate partnerships with his readers. A lonely bar-owner’s strictly compartmentalised love of jazz, a cult member’s slow surprise that his once-hallowed destiny is fraudulent and destructive, the wonderful taste of a really cold cucumber given by a stranger to a dying man… Murakami shows us defining passions with an apparently accidental grace, as if we have come across his subjects’ silent depths and wells of humanity ourselves. He is a magnificent writer.
And, what’s more, a pretty cool guy as well. Famously reclusive, Haruki Murakami has recently been on a trip across England, apparently his first in over fifteen years. Random House, his British publishers, and Blackwells the bookshop hosted a reception and interview with him earlier in May at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and I was lucky enough to go with my friend Anna.
He’s in his early fifties but looks at least a decade younger – I suppose having run more than twenty marathons will have that effect on you. He speaks English perfectly well, but assumes a diffident, almost coy manner of speaking that could almost be the stereotype of the courteous and self-effacing Japanese were it not just as likely to be a ploy to make us infer the same while he studiously avoids any number of questions. In short he is the model of the man in control of his life, even in the face of his continual protestations that he is incredibly uncomfortable in the spotlight. And here he is most certainly in the spotlight. The room is packed with people of several different nationalities and even more different age groups and backgrounds and we’re all hanging on his every word.
He tells a quick anecdote about a subway trip he took through Tokyo during the rush hour one morning to get to a meeting. Packed tighter than sardines, like the sardines you might find in a can of -say- cat food, among his fellow passengers he found himself face to face with a man in his early twenties. After several moments of crushed silence, the young man asked whether he was Haruki Murakami, author of the massively-successful Norwegian Wood. Yes I am, he replied. The conversation ended, but the two were still locked together, face to face, staring at one another in stymied silence. Murakami fled the carriage, still a long way from his destination, and arrived at his meeting rather late.
So the shy man stands on the stage and commands our total attention as he reads an excerpt from his most recent book, After the Quake, in Japanese. There’s something symbolic going on here.
Or maybe not. The interviewer, whose name I didn’t catch, unfortunately, brings up the issue of those motifs that keep cropping up in Murakami’s books. Do the wells that his characters always seem to encounter stand for vertiginous introspection, his characters’ deep and lonely and torturous self-examination? In Norwegian Wood, after all, young would-be lovers Naoko and Watanabe share a day walking through a meadow overgrown with grass. Naoko, carefully negotiating a crippling depression, warns the narrator Watanabe of the well that lies somewhere in the field – “Someone disappears all of a sudden, and they just can’t find him. So then the people around here say, ‘Oh, he fell in the field well’.” Ever polite, Murakami quietly suggest that perhaps the interviewer should write a book about wells himself, he seems to have a much better impression of their poetic worth – “Sometimes a well just stands for a well.” Murakami likes wells, he likes them when they’re cool and dark and refreshingly full of water, and when they’re dry and cracked and gothic. He’s attracted to the image, nothing more; aren’t you? The interviewer changes the subject and the author gets away with it. It’s not the only time this happens. Why does music play such an important role in the lives of his characters? Because he himself loves music, of course.
This might sound infuriating, but it actually helps give a deeper impression of the man. Playful when he answers his questions, seemingly evasive more out of amused habit than an obsessive need for secrecy, he mixes self-deprecating comments about his books with an attractive sense of subtle pride. When asked about the initial reaction to the publication of Norwegian Wood, he replies that it quickly sold “more than 300,000 copies. That’s rather a lot, isn’t it?” The interviewer plays along with the understatement. In another train-related anecdote, he talks about a journey where he eavesdropped on the conversation between three Japanese teens. One, a girl, was a huge fan of his work (we are told, quite off the cuff, that she was extremely beautiful) while a second, a boy, hated his work. “I don’t know why,” he laments, “perhaps he was jealous.” The third had never read any of his books. “It struck me that this was like the world – some people like me, others hates me, still others have never heard of me.”
I love Murakami’s anecdotes. Apparently banal interludes which open up into complex riddles the more you look at them, they are so often the focus of his books – fractal epicentres to epic dramas. In Underground, his recent collection of interviews with the various survivors of the 1995 Tokyo gas attacks, we get a veritable mosaic of such tiny stories. Each recognisable, each with something quiet and humane to say about life in a modern city, each one quite humdrum until the unthinkable happens and everything changes forever. The stories, so very carefully rendered, sound simple and unpractised, but together they blossom into a complicated and unforgettable pattern. Reading this book is like reading a sociological textbook on modern Japan – all the more remarkable for the way in which he balances endless compassion for the survivors of the crime with a reticence to judge the perpetrators and members of the Aum cult responsible. The depth of his understanding and, more importantly, his respect for humanity stems from each of the tiny interviews. Like his wells, like his train journeys, like his vanishing women.
In Murakami’s books, women disappear. They drop out of sight, usually for ever, leaving an emotionally gutted friend or lover to try and get by in their wake. To me this is the essential symbol of his work. The tiny event, so tiny that it isn’t even an event, more the sudden absence of an act – someone suddenly no longer occupies space – that becomes the living heart of a massive odyssey. Suicide, quasi-mystical quantum physics, impenetrable criminal conspiracy, it is the tiny yet felling enigma that stands for the larger motif in his work – the unknowability of the one you care the most about.
My friend Anna says that this is a weakness of his writing: since he usually writes from the perspective of a man, this object of desire is consequently usually a woman, and so the repetition of this theme of the woman as enigma becomes to her a signal of his fundamental lack of knowledge about women in general. He seems to fetishise and mysticise them, until they become unrecognisable as real characters. Interestingly, another friend of mine, Kiri, says the same thing about Margaret Atwood and the male characters in her novels, and while I agree that there is an interesting argument here, certainly one worth thinking about, I think that it misses the point of both dramas a little. Murakami’s stories (and Atwood’s stories, for that matter) speak for something rather than everything, and what they most often speak for is the fundamental void in our lives when the person we find means the most to us is not there, whether emotionally, spiritually or physically.
But then sometimes a well is just a well, and the vanishing lady is both a venerable magic trick and a beloved dramatic trick (one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favourites, as it happens) – one that Murakami has a deceptively simple reply for when it is put to him by the interviewer. “Sometimes women disappear. Sometimes they don’t.” The woman who didn’t disappear from his own life is his wife of over thirty years. They set up a jazz club together back before he became a novelist and remains the person to whom he first presents all his ideas to this day. “I think that she’s in the room now,” he says. There’s a weirdly obvious absence in this narrative that he gives us – when he married her he was about the age of most of his heroes at the point in their lives where they lost the love of their lives and settled for a different life altogether…What’s the missing connection between his life and his art? It’s a crass point, however obvious, and this is not the place to raise it as an issue: why ruin the trick with answers?
He spends almost the entire interview being charmingly disingenuous in this way, not telling us everything but at least letting us know what it is that he won’t tell us. He tells us the structure of his working life – up at four, writing till nine, then a long run and some browsing through second hand record stores before returning to work in the evening. He also tells us the goal of his working life – to stir a passion, a hunger, an emotional rather than intellectual reaction. And so, even if he won’t show us where his own passions come from, we get the impression of his landscape. He started by writing surreal detective stories, then gravitated towards understated melancholic romances, but to him the construction of such pared-down narrative love poems is a task as surreal as the quests his earlier heroes undertook – he straddles the two literary territories. And then, in spite of the seeming intellectual spine to his work he professes to hunger for the visceral reaction – straddling another two cultures in the process. It doesn’t end there.
Murakami is a well-travelled man, and his books play with that sense of geographic odyssey. In Sputnik Sweetheart, for example, Sumire goes all the way to Greece just to vanish once she arrives, she steps out of her culture first and then the world itself. This is an important distinction in his work, and one he dissects at an uncustomary length when this issue is raised by a member of the audience. In Japan, one is a member of a community, the outsider is a dysfunctional character, quite untouched by any rebel hero status afforded similar outsiders in Western fiction. So the effect of his characters’ actions, their resignation from the world, must be seen in two completely different lights by his Oriental audience and his Occidental audience. And yet both love his books – one would think, consequently, for completely different reasons. Murakami suggests an answer for this, seeming to hope for a constantly shifting perspective where we will be less content to make do and rest on our prejudices. Japan has allowed itself to remain isolated for too long, he seems to argue, it needs to shift, develop, overcome its recent angst and traumas and develop. His stories become a Rorschach blot test for his massively diverse audience, our own ideas are explored just as are his characters.
If there’s one word overused in literary criticism it’s dichotomy, a pretentious way of concluding that you can’t make your mind up about something, carelessly demonstrating in the process that you believe in the simplicity of just two possibilities, but with Murakami we see something that is apparently so simple, but with so much flowing all around it.
It’s not binary opposition, it’s an organic symbiosis. Natural and beautiful. When writing about the twin calamities that shook Japan in 1995, the earthquake and the sarin gas attacks, he chose surrealism to depict the former and documentary to explore the latter – both fit their respective moods perfectly. He navigates his complicated plots as simply as a musician plots his music and here, perhaps, is the heart of his dichotomies. In spite of his great love of music he says that he can’t play a musical instrument, and yet it is precisely that perfectly-pitched emotional reaction to a wonderful piece of music, be it the Beatles, Beethoven or beat jazz that he evokes in his readers. He writes music, but he does it with words, not notes.
At the end of the evening Anna and I decided not to queue for an autograph. Instead we went to a university bar to meet up with a friend of mine who was visiting from Germany and who was also called Anna. I had met her travelling about five years before. I remembered how it was another friend that I had met travelling at about the same time, Lizzie, who had given me, out of the blue, my first Murakami book. Suddenly I felt good about how important my friends were to me and how the connections between them all were all so seemingly meaningless, but simultaneously so beautiful and idiosyncratic and significant. It felt like music.