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Up
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Japan's literary superstar Haruki Murakami is home for the duration and relishing the New Japan. The novelist tells Roland Kelts his story.

Courtesy of Cinnamon Inc.

When I meet Haruki Murakami for the first time, he pops up at the top of a staircase in his Aoyama studio with neither warning nor explanation, like an apparition in one of his books. I have just struggled through a mass of dense summer heat, trudging in my suit-and-tie past the boutiques and cafes, longing for a reprieve. Murakami is wearing a pair of canvas shorts and an open-necked polo shirt. Soft breezes and a wall of jazz LPs surround him, and he eyes me with calm precision, sizing me up before either of us speaks. “Come in,” he finally says. “I've been swimming."

In person and in print, Murakami has become famous for this kind of unflappable cool, for a fashionable life of travel and designer-label tastes-in jazz, cars and clothes-and for novels and stories that feature a hip awareness of Western cultural icons and contemporary lingo, conveyed in a voice that feels laid-back and effortless. When his novels first appeared in English, Murakami’s incorporation of a Western style into slickly modern Japanese settings was mostly deemed weird, especially to those accustomed to more solemn traditional Japanese literature. Novels like "A Wild Sheep Chase" and "Dance, Dance, Dance" run the voice of Raymond Chandler through an electrified (and electrifying) aesthetic blender, mixing hard-boiled mystery with postmodern menace, and combining absurdism with intimacy. In 1992, once-au courant American novelist Jay MacInerney, to whom Murakami was then being compared, conducted an interview with him. “His motto might be ‘No big deal,’” MacInerney wrote of Murakami’s everyman narrators, comparing the “jaded equanimity” of the author’s tone to that of another American writer Murakami has translated: Raymond Carver.

“I made up my mind then that I wouldn’t follow any movement, any ideology, any ism. They all disappointed me. I felt betrayed.”


But the man I met and have come to know in subsequent meetings in Tokyo and New York is warm, candid and intense-and full of contradictions. Japan’s most widely read and highly regarded international author looks a good 15 years younger than a man in his early 50’s should, even among generally long-living, well-preserved Japanese. His face is broad, smooth and, at first, unnervingly impassive. His eyes are darkly still, owlish beneath thick brows. He speaks with a deep baritone, resonant with care and thoughtfulness, and he massages his voice with frequent mugs of tea. In that seductive, even comforting voice, he claims that he’s “not a very good talker in any language,” though his English is mellifluous and exacting. He is a major novelist who is also a serious runner, having completed marathons in New York, Boston and Sapporo. And while the author of nine novels, 30 books of stories, essays and translations became famous for being cool, he uses hot, passionate language to declare that he's no longer interested in all that. He'd rather write a great novel.



Things are in chaos

Haruki Murakami is the most famous Japanese writer of his generation, and he is probably the most important writer in Japan today. In his native land he has sold millions of books, eight of which have appeared in English, most recently "Underground," a series of interviews and musings about the Aum Shinrikyo poisonings of 1995, and "Sputnik Sweetheart," a novel of misunderstood love. His writing is translated into 16 languages; South Koreans recently incorporated the term “Murakamiesque” into their lexicon. He is an international man of letters, and he is also a celebrity, albeit a very private one, in a country where most successful authors appear on television chat shows and in magazine gossip columns. Numerous Japanese friends had told me, with a certain hush of awe, that he was impossible to interview. “He’s like a recluse,” one of them said. “I don’t even know if he’s living in Japan.”

Born in Kyoto in 1949, and raised in a suburb of Kobe, Murakami’s personal history initially reads like a dossier of his nation’s faceless post-war generation. By all accounts, the young Murakami was unremarkable: he did okay in school, though he wasn’t much interested in it-“I didn’t study in high school, but I really didn’t study in college.” He enjoyed baseball and jazz, but didn’t excel as a participant at either one.

He did spend a lot of time alone, which isn’t so unusual for an only child, but is distinctive in a culture that tends to place group needs and social engagement above individual desires. Like many a loner, he took to reading. Not the Japanese Classics his parents tried to foist on him, but the Western writers he found in Kobe’s used bookstores. The high expatriate population in Kobe ensures that such shops are filled with Western novels, and Murakami overdosed on the Americans.

“I wanted to write something international,” he says now. “And I loved that style when I was a kid, that voice. I still do.”

He came to Tokyo, he says, "because I just wanted to get away from Kansai. Just like I eventually wanted to get away from Japan." At Waseda University, a haven for Japanese literati, Murakami encountered the Great Russian novelists, of whom Dostoevsky remains a major influence. But he also encountered a sense of insecurity he says has stayed with him, ever since the Tokyo student protests suddenly collapsed at the end of the ’60s. Murakami was a part of the revolts-“I battled some police”-even if he felt little solidarity with his fellow protesters. But by the early ’70s, he says, “it was completely finished, and I suddenly felt that nothing was secure. I couldn’t trust anything at all.”

“I’m not an outsider anymore, because... I’m kind of responsible to society. I suddenly feel I should do something. ‘Underground’ changed me.”

Murakami’s peers quickly and obediently joined the large corporations that ruled Japan during its rise as an economic superpower, becoming the diligent salarymen and office ladies of world renown. But the author went his own way, opening a jazz club with his wife instead, and turning to writing shortly after seeing a baseball game, in which an American hit a double under deep blue Tokyo skies.

Yet the severed connection with his former classmates was clearly transforming. “I made up my mind then that I wouldn’t follow any movement, any ideology, any ism. They all disappointed me. I felt betrayed.” He grows unusually agitated when discussing those years, his voice going tense and his hand slapping his thigh for emphasis. It’s not hard to perceive the permanent “outsider” position he staked out-as a cool, dispassionate observer on the fringes of society-partly as a defensive posture. Short scenes of collapsed student idealism appear periodically throughout his novels, as though he can’t let go of the hurt. The narrator of 1987’s "Norwegian Wood" (published in English in '99), which sold two million copies in Japan and made Murakami a literary superstar, is dismissive of the radicals, painting them in comic shades as a bunch of fools and nerds. In 1992’s "South of the Border, West of the Sun," the portrait is revealingly terse:

“The next thing I knew, the season of politics was over... the gigantic shock waves that convulsed society for a time were swallowed up by a colorless, mundane workaday world.”

“Things are in chaos,” he says now, easing back and squinting over the Aoyama rooftops outside his window. “I understood that then, but it’s especially true today. There’s no solid center, not just in Japan, but everywhere. So many people are feeling insecure these days, but for me, since I was 20 years old, that’s what I’ve been feeling all along.”



'The Continental Divide'
In 1995, two tragedies struck Japan in short order. January saw Murakami’s hometown of Kobe rent asunder by a massive earthquake, and in March his adopted hometown of Tokyo suffered a mass subway poisoning, perpetrated by members of a homegrown religious cult.

Murakami was living in Massachusetts at the time, where he was completing his most ambitious novel to date-1997's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." The novel won Murakami the Yomiuri Literary Award, which was bestowed upon him by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe, formerly one of his harshest critics.

The earthquake and the poisoning drove Murakami back home to Tokyo, after years living and working in Europe and America. He compares his decision to one made by his hero, the self-exiled F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1929, when news of the Great Depression hit and the American novelist suddenly left Paris for New York. "I suddenly knew I had to go home," he says forcefully today. "I don't know why, I just knew."

But the events changed more than the author-they changed Japan. Murakami is fatalistic about the timing: "The war ended in '45. We had 50 years of prosperity and peace, exactly 50. Now, everything is shifting. The Aum attack was like a critical punctuation mark. We lost our confidence then, almost for the first time, and we changed sociopsychologically. That was the point."

The Japan that awaited Murakami was deep into the economic malaise that persists (alarmingly) today. But more telling to the author was the social transformation-an evolution in culture that ultimately liberated him as an artist. He describes himself today as someone reborn, convinced that "in this new decade, it's my time. I'm going to do something very big. I've been an outsider in the past, but sometime after 1995, I looked around and didn't find any force to fight against. Tokyo looked just like a bombed out area, completely leveled, like the Tokyo of 1945, but it was the literary world 50 years later. At first I felt confused. There was no establishment anymore, and I finally felt free."

It was the newly liberated Murakami, he says, who began collecting interviews for "Underground," who wanted to know his readers and find new ways of reaching them. The process emboldened him

“I’ve been writing novels for 20 years, but I haven’t been very ambitious,” he says, setting down his tea mug and rubbing his chin. He refuses to read any of his earlier novels-“I’m totally dissatisfied with my earlier work; I was unhappy, like a lost boy”-and he shifts uncomfortably when I bring up various scenes from them, frequently saying that he has no idea what a given book or story might be about.

Both "Underground" and "Sputnik Sweetheart" reveal a novelist reaching outwards-delving into a culture undergoing a transformation more profound than any new economic policy. The hip writer of yesteryear is intensely absorbed in the drama of the moment. "We are now experiencing drastic change-actually a rearrangement of society itself,” Murakami told me recently. "Koizumi was right when he said that we would have to endure pain, but he is the first politician who is honest enough to tell that to the people. At least now we recognize that we are in the midst of a sheer change, that the pain is inevitable, and that we are not innocent victims. That is big progress."

His forthcoming collection, "After The Quake," which will be published in English in 2002, finds Murakami addressing the Kobe earthquake in a series of short stories that combine his earlier gift for absurdity and ironic wit with his newfound social engagement. And the novel he is working on now-"a big book" he describes as "Holden Caulfield in the world of Dostoevsky's ‘The Possessed’"-promises to raise the author's profile even further.

Murakami is on a roll these days, and his enthusiasm for change in Japan and in his work is infectious. "As a writer," he concedes, "I am experiencing the same change and rearrangement. Society changes-the narrative changes. They are inseparable. Though I am not interested in actual politics, I know that I cannot escape from it, nor can I be indifferent to it. If you are a serious novelist, you have to be political in your own way. That is a fact."

When I propose that his image might be changing, too, Murakami is agreeably eloquent: “I’m not an outsider anymore, because... I’m kind of responsible to society. I suddenly feel I should do something. ‘Underground’ changed me.” As a novelist? “Yes,” he replies, drawing out the “s” into a hiss of consent. “As a novelist, and as a man.”


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