THE JAMES DEAN OF JAPANESE LITERATURE IS NOT HAPPY. His eyes, affable until now, shutter with icy coolness. Too late I realise I've transgressed cultural politesse, my question bumbling into a no-go zone where Western familiarity becomes Eastern discourtesy. The discomfort is only momentary: to his credit, he relaxes quickly and answers frankly. But in a very clear way I glimpse the cultural half-way house he inhabits.
Haruki Murakami is a cultural iconoclast whose prose owes little to the poetic tradition of Mishima and much to his hero, Marlowe. That's Phillip, Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled American PI, not the Elizabethan playwright Christopher.
The rock rebel of letters, his writing infuses jazzy riffs into the fastidious silences of Japanese refinement, his quirky fantasies camouflaging the keen social criticism of a Charles Dickens (another hero). And while his novels are set in contemporary Tokyo, their legacy is blatantly Western. His characters inhabit an existentialist Say no to No territory where the Stones, the Doors and Artie Shaw, or Bogart and Bacall, Star Trek and The Wizard of Oz, Stendhal and Camus, or Clint Eastwood and Jodie Foster are more relevant than cherry blossoms, kimonos and tea ceremonies.
Tipped by pundits as a future Nobel laureate, Murakami has in the past 21 years published more than a dozen novels (his next, the "surrealistic love story" Sputnik Sweetheart, is due in April), several collections of short stories and most recently Underground, a study of the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. His books are translated into some 30 languages, his sales measured in multi-millions. In his homeland in the late-1980s, he was thrust into a Madonna-like superstardom when his novel Norwegian Wood hit a mega-selling nerve: the reclusive writer was mobbed in the streets in a phenomenon the national press dubbed Murakami-mania. In Europe he has become a noteworthy force, in the US a cult writer of note, in China and Korea a massive bestseller.
While he's relatively unknown in Australia, that will change as readers here discover his edgy lyricism. For in the main Murakami writes persuasive, almost picaresque novels in which his outsider protagonists, often cynical introverts from homespun backgrounds, live in their own cultural (both high and pop) privacy. Trouble is, they also tend to get entangled with enigmatic women and eccentric conspiracies - friends become sheep, girlfriends suicide, a woman's ears develop erotic powers, their favorite elephant disappears. But just when his tales veer dangerously into the weirder reaches of imagination, they are saved from surreal preciousness by his deadpan humor.
MURAKAMI'S HQ (temporary) is a downtown upmarket hotel bordering Chinatown’s hustle of restaurants, in a block bursting with adult bookstores and quirky providors and overlooking a CBD cacophonous with revelry. In Australia to research his latest project, a fly-on-the-wall study of a rebellious marathoner ahead of the upcoming Olympics - "a very independent guy, not like most Japanese, he's tough and cool, an angry boy" - the reclusive Murakami has granted a rare concession and agreed to an interview. Which is why we are gavotting in after-you awkwardness towards the table, where he shuts his state-of-the-art laptop, reluctantly. Against the wall, a beat-up bicycle, hired for a day's exploration, sprawls in ungainly counterpoint to the room's clinical comfort. As do I, curiously enervated that after more than seven years of chasing him for a meeting, we have reached this moment. Four years back we were close to a Tokyo tryst before he cold-feeted. Now the Olympic Games have us round-tabling on my home turf (thank you Syd-e-knee). And I'm suddenly swept with anti-climactic fatigue, doubtful I have any questions worth asking.
Murakami is unaware of this crisis of confidence. Compact and trimly dressed, he sits with arms folded across muscular chest, eyes averted in waiting-room stoicism. So seldom does he give interviews that even his publishers are surprised at our meeting: "You realise you have a world exclusive," they ask, more than once. "I am not a great talker," he explains when I ask why. "I'm a writer and I prefer to write – in interviews it is too difficult to find the right words, it becomes too frustrating.” Besides, he is zealous to avoid "appearing on TV or in magazines or newspapers in Japan - more than anything I want to be anonymous, to be able to ride the train without restraint." He hated his burst of filmstar exposure, fled overseas almost immediately. Nowadays, he says, things are better: "People in the street stare and point me out but mostly they are kind enough to let me move around freely. Most people know my name but relatively few recognise my face … that's the way I like it."
And what Haruki wants, he usually gets, eventually: if one word sums up his life and career, it is endurance. Endurance in rebellious spirit, in mind, in self-belief and, for the past 18 years, in body. In that time he has competed in 18 marathons, including events in Athens and Honolulu, plus five Boston and three New York marathons. His PB is "3 hours 34 minutes, but that was seven years ago - I don’t run that fast anymore." Just further: four years ago he survived a marathon marathon, running 60 miles (96km) in less than 12 hours.
Marathons involve a certain masochistic dedication, he acknowledges wryly. "People ask me why I do it and I have yet to find the right answer. Every time I run a race, I think 'this is the last time'. But when it's over, I start looking forward to the next one. It's a conquering of self-doubts, mostly physical, a kind of self-respect … If I failed to finish the game, I would be disappointed in myself. I like putting that on the line."
That's another key. In a society that distrusts individualism, Murakami has been resolutely independent. The only child of academic parents, Japanese classicists "who never read any other literature," he spent a lot of time on his own. Daydreaming, reading and listening to music became central; the daydreaming matured his imagination, what he read and listened to as a teenager defined his adult references. He hated Japanese classics, preferring to scour second-hand shops for jazz albums and paperbacks of "hard-boiled detective stories or science fiction, Chandler, Ed McBain and Mickey Spillane. Later I found Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Dostoevsky …. They were so different from Japanese writers, and they provided a tiny window in the wall of my room through which I could look out onto a foreign, fantasy world. "
It's why his heroes are always "lonely and on their own - those types of people are my vehicle. But I myself am not so hard-boiled … in real life those people don't attract me, although earlier in my life I could have become like them. But I didn't."
That's when I cross the conversational bounds, which had loosened appreciably once we cracked a beer and a few jokes about cultural elites. Are your parents proud of you now? I ask. "I don't know." Well, do they read your work? "I think so." Do you see them? "Sometimes." After a lengthy silence, he hesitantly expands. "Relations between us have been very strained since I married. We have some problems … I'm kind of a difficult person myself and they are too … as an only child I was subject to their expectations, and I was in trouble with them when I was young for not living up to them. And my life as an adult has not been what they would have wanted."
He married fellow student Yoko Takahashi when both were at Waseda University, where Murakami studied drama (his thesis? "The Ideology of Journeys in American Films"). After graduation in 1973 he opened a jazz bar in Kokubunji, Peter Cat - "Peter was the name of my cat, I loved my cat, so I honoured him by calling the jazz bar after him". By accident, it became a Tokyo literary haunt until he got sick of the drunks, the brawls and "the nasty conversations, publishers back-scratching then backstabbing each other." Since then, he laughs, "I don't trust anyone in publishing."
As a student, he had had aspirations to write "but no experience so I gave it up when I was 21." At 29, he tried again, writing in the early hours after his club had closed. Four years and four books later, he underwent a metamorphosis. "My lifestyle was pretty unhealthy, I smoked a lot (three packs a day), drank a lot. But I grew tired of it, and wanted something different." He closed the club, quit smoking, cut down the alcohol (although he doesn't mind a Cutty Sark), took up running and a near-vegetarian diet and became a full-time writer. It was his final declaration of independence.
"In Japan," he stresses, "you are far more an outsider if you are independently minded than in western countries. In college in the late-60s we were idealistic but we lost that … we were too weak, traditional society too powerful," he says of the time he belonged to the All Student Dissension Congress, a university dispute organisation formed by left-wing and non-party students seeking to overthrow hidebound academic practices. "Most of my generation became company workers or bureaucrats." His lip curls satirically as he tells of contemporaries now driving BMWs, of companymen catching fast commuter trains and reading manga (comic books). While like them he has eschewed the Marxist philosophy of his youth, "I have remained independent all my life," he emphasises, "and sometimes it has caused me grief. That's largely why I went abroad - I was a kind of expatriate but I was free and easy."
A self-confessed "wanderer", he lived in Rome and in the Greek isles for three years, then spent five years in the US, first as a visiting fellow at Princeton University then at Boston's Tufts University as writer in residence teaching Japanese literature. "Yet after some time away, I became interested in what am I? What is my country? When I was young, I thought I would be able to express my emotions more directly if I wrote in English. But with my limited proficiency, that was impossible. So now I write in Japanese, my own Japanese, but that means I must be Japanese. When I was writing my early books in Japan, I only wanted to escape. It's ironic really, all my life I wanted to be independent but when I achieved that I suddenly became interested in my roots."
Two events focused his mind: an earthquake in his boyhood hometown Kobe, and the Tokyo subway gassing. "When I saw these incidents, I felt some responsibility … to reclaim the lost idealism of our youth one more time. I think I wrote Underground to raise these values and questions again."
It's also why at 51 he is again based in Tokyo, if this time on his terms. When he first published, his books were scorned as seditious because their values, or non-values, were not the social norm. Despite this, he claims a basic Japanese readership of "200,000 or so - and that's a miracle to me, I guess." And he giggles with boyish delight. He's also being disingenuous - Norwegian Wood sold some 2.7 million copies within 12 months of publication in Japan alone (that's of each volume, too - Japanese readers resent the commuter-unfriendliness of thick books so it was published in two parts). A Wild Sheep Chase topped the million mark, as did Dance Dance Dance in less than a year. And that's not counting the other titles, or foreign sales.
He's also emerged as a de facto spokesman for a generation of restless young Japanese. "The older generation, the pre-war people, are more constricted but the younger generation wants independence, they want to be freer." When he started publishing in 1979, he says, his readers were in their 20s and early 30s. "Today, my readers are in their 20s and early 30s. And that's strange because most writers are getting older with their readers. My readers are in a kind of limbo - not children any more nor totally adult. They are wondering about the right way to live, and increasing numbers are drop-outs who would rather work casually than join a company. I think when they read my books they feel some identification, that my stories appeal to some sense of liberty or freedom."
Murakami is also eager to familiarize these readers with Western writing. He has translated F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, Raymond Carver (with whom he became close friends), Tim O'Brien, Capote and Paul Theroux among others, "sometimes to introduce a writer to Japanese readers, sometimes to learn something from their book. For me, translation is my teacher."
It's ironic then that today the traditional elite is alleging he is destroying their literature. Almost déjà vu. "In Japan, especially early on, I was the black sheep of literature - the established writers didn't like me and I didn't like them. The old-timers were like those leaders of the Communist Party in Eastern Europe, very possessive and hierarchical. They claimed my books signalled the decline of literature." He shakes his head ruefully. "These people are very proud of their heritage and they enjoy a small circle - I am not looking for a circle, I am looking out to a bigger world. But we now seem to be negotiating a middle way - because I survived and got broader, it gave me a certain position in society so they don't attack me any more." He's also won multiple awards at home (including the Tanizaki Literary prize, the Japanese equivalent of a Pulitzer) and abroad which gives extra validity to his standing.
His own prose is atypically neutral, reflecting his aim to create a "new" Japanese language and mentality. The beauty of Japanese prose absorbs so many writers, "and it is seductive because it is poetic. But I wanted something more detached and edgy."
Preferably about people living outlaw lives … "That's one of my themes." What then of the paradox that now he sells so much, he has become the establishment? "Yeah, that's a problem," he grins, "but I'm trying to keep myself as the bad boy. I don't lick anybody's arse," he says forcefully. "When I worked in my club, I had to be accessible to everyone - that was my life and I grew to hate it. When I quit to write full-time, I decided no more Mr Nice Guy. If I am working, I am accessible to no one. I have my rules and I always keep them. No exceptions. The most important thing to me is to write the best book I can. In my life, I'm my own boss, nobody else, and I owe my readers, not the critics or other writers …"
Which means, he smiles, that to maintain his rebellion he must lead a very ordered, quiet life. "I have three or four close friends but generally I'm not a social type. I'm a hermit, by choice. But my books are like my children, my readers my friends … for a while I had a website, and I received 200,000 letters in three years. I read all of them and answered about 6000 then I realised this can't go on so I stopped. But it was a very warm experience for me, and why I consider them my friends - they are everything for me." Before that, he'd just publish, collect royalties and move on. "But after seeing that so many people are reading my books so eagerly, I felt a kind of happiness. I am now very conscious of who I am writing for."
The American novelist Jay McInerney once called him a sceptical realist, I mention. "Am I? I don't know what that means. I'm sceptical I guess, but a realist? I'm trying to look inside myself, into the subconscious. When I'm writing, sometimes it becomes an automatic process where the subconscious is driving me. I never plan, I just write, and write, and write. And trust my self-consciousness. It's a very big power, and it will find the story. Writers are not creators, they just find the story."
Once found, it hijacks him. "Every journey has a first step …for me it's just a scene. A guy cooking spaghetti for lunch and listening to Rossini - I imagine that, and it rolls on from there. It's not easy but I have confidence I can do that. And I want to find out
what happens. If it's fun for me to discover, it will be fun for my readers."
But not fun to live with. When he is working, the book dominates every waking hour. "Yoko says I become too erratic and distracted - I am certainly selfish when I am writing." And obsessive about rewriting: "This time I make it longer, this time shorter until I find the right size. It's like a love affair, and you know when it's finished. So, ah, I have been with my wife for close to 30 years now…" his voice tails off dryly. His wife, he smiles, has her own strategies to counter anti-sociability: when she judges him becoming too self-obsessed, she indulges in designer-label retail therapy and "then comes home and waves the price tags in my face … that gets my attention”. It's also why when a book is done they travel to Bermuda or some tropical resort for concentrated R&R.
His wife is also his first reader "and a very harsh critic. Sometimes we will discuss all night, and sometimes I will argue strongly against what she suggests. But what she is trying to say is usually right. She may not be able to explain why but she sets me looking and I can then discover the bad point. Her instinct is finely tuned."
Why then the serious weirdness of his stories? "I don't know why I write weird stories … in life I don't trust anything vaguely New Age like tarot or horoscopes. I wake up at 5, go to bed at 10, jog every day, swim, eat healthy food. But when I write, I write weird. And when I'm getting more serious, I'm getting more weird."
He thinks a moment. "I guess," he says quietly, "I want to be different from the stereotype in life and in writing - sure I'm a writer but I'm also an athlete. I don't want to become complacent - I want to be a better person, physically and emotionally, so I can be a better writer. You have to endure and labor every day. When I concentrate on my writing, I need strength. And that comes from inside. Many authors don't respect that, they drink and smoke too much. I don't criticize them but to me strength is critical. If you are going to be weird, you have to be tough to sustain the weird mind's questing; if not, you will be defeated. You descend to the underground of yourself and it's a dangerous journey … sometimes you risk being lost."
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren 2000
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