Tuesday, August 18, 2009

An Introduction to Murakami - a guest post by Musical

Musical returns to help us get started on one of her favorite authors: Haruki Murakami.

Murakami is a 60 year old Japanese writer who has been praised as one of the world's greatest living novelist. As far as I am concerned, he is someone whose writings read like a feverish, delirious dream!

In Murakami's books, a multitude of realities coexist - real and surreal mingle and the bizarre feels normal.

Several small stories run in parallel, unaware of each other's existence on surface and yet so deeply connected. Murakami's writings are usually marked by very vivid imagery, a generous helping of the surreal and an almost hallucinatory tone to the events. By his own admission, Murakami is fascinated by the unknown, the dark and the subterranean. While creating a surreal atmosphere where mysterious birds show up, cats communicate with the chosen few, lost lovers communicate from across different realities and so on, he keeps it grounded with the sensual descriptions of food, music, noise, crowds, mountains and snow acts like a warm comforting blanket.

In the backdrop of the very bizzare and surreal surroundings, Murakami's stories deal with raw and "real" emotions of love, loss, longing, apathy,not just the above mentioned emotions, but also present his take on the contemporary Japanese society.

Murakami seems to be a hyper-musical (to use an Oliver Sacks term) person. Music, especially Jazz and Classical features prominently in almost all his works (and even titles, think Norwegian Wood, for example.) It is also well known that Murakami once owned a Jazz bar in Tokyo, named Peter Cat, after his pet. Oh, and cats feature prominently in his world too.

His characters range from an average person with a routine day job, a runaway teenager, estranged lovers, mysterious women, a sheep man and so on. Several of his protagonists may even appear to be social misfits, lost in their own world, looking for something that may or may not exist. Sometimes they have no name. Word is that some of these characters may be auto-biographical. While I am not so sure about that, in one of his books, a successful author name Hiraku Makimura, whose career is on the downslide and who is almost estranged from his family, does make a guest appearance.

Makimura's character (who once was a big promise and now churns below par novels), then, serves to feature some of the criticism Murakami has received in Japan. Another recurring feature of his novels is the larger than life female characters. Thse characters are almost always a little mysterious and elusive, often signifying the other world, the alternate reality, the longing.

More often than not, these characters haunt you long after you are done reading the book.

Murakami has literally written a dozen novels. My first Murakami novel was Hard-boiled Wonderland and End of the World.

It is a book with two parallel stories from two different world, which eventually connect. The first set features among other things, a clever form of data processing called "shuffling" which makes use of the different parts of the human subconsciousness to process and store data.

The second set is about a strange place called "The End of the World", where the citizens have to let go of their shadows (a symbol for "self" or consciousness). Strange enough? That's Murakami's way of talking about the concepts of "self and identity", "conscious and the sub-conscious"!

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore also feature on top of my list, which features almost all Murakami books. The recurrent themes in almost all his novels are love, loss, loneliness, grief, sexuality and the unknown.

His Norwegian Wood, a book about young lovers, attained a cult status among young Japanese readers. While it is as close to the "real world" as any Murakami book can get, the elements of longing, melancholy and loneliness bring a very typical Murakamisque' surreal and nostalgic flavor.

Murakami is as masterful a short story writer as he is a novelist.

His collections Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, The Elephant Vanishes and After the Quake are quite a treat to read. He has also famously extended some of his stories into full-length novels. For example, "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" is based on two stories "The wind-up bird" and "Tuesday's Women" and also has drawn characters and influences from some of his other stories, while "Norwegian Wood" was born from the story "Firefly".

Murakami has also made a distinct place for himself as a non-fiction writer, where he only talks about "the real". His very commendable piece on the Tokyo subway attacks, Underground features interviews with survivors and their families and also with the Aum Shinrikyo cult members. In this book, he attempts to give a name and a face to each person whose life was affected by this tragedy, and view the incident from their perspective. He questions the preparedness of authorities in dealing with attacks of this scale and the indifference of on-lookers and the media. Through his interviews with the cult members, he also tries to understand what prompted them to head in this direction. He proposes that these are the people who were seeking an alternate reality by virtue of being misfit in the society, even though majority of these people were well educated, "elite" people to begin with.

It is often said that Murakami divides people, as in, people either love him or hate him! What I know for certain is that some of my Japanese friends (the ones who are older than me) think that he's more of an "average" writer, rather than someone who writes "classics". For them, the "classics" place is reserved for Mishima, Kawabata, Ōe and Abe. In this interview Murakami talks about this in detail. I gather that it might have to do something with him being someone who has often questioned the Japanese society.

For example, in "The wind-up bird chronicle", there is a chapter on the battle of Nomonhan, something Murakami feels very strongly about. He is critical of the Japanese position about it and their inability to own up some of the past mistakes. He has also been critical of the official machinery and the avergae person's apathy and response to the Tokyo subway tragedy in "Underground". It might also be cultural clash, as some feel he is very Westernized, what with frequent references to Western music and culture in his books. As for the non Japanese readers, some often wonder how much is lost in translation. Here is a comparison of the same passage, translated by two of his favorite translators. In this lecture (YouTube video), Murakami does hint that he would love if people read the originals.

As for what's coming up next, his new book 1Q84, comprising of two fat volumes just got released in Japanese. There is lot of speculation on what the title means. My favorite explanation is what I found here: 1Q84 is the protein identifier number for acetylcholinesterase enzyme, the same enzyme that is targeted by sarin, the neurotoxic gas which was used in Tokyo gas attacks!

It might be a while before the English translation comes out, but I am totally looking forward to it!

Murakami's works on Amazon


Anonymous said...

May win the Nobel prize in the next few years. Among the greatest writers alive on the planet.

Unknown said...

Hey a number of people I know are reading Murakami. Maybe I need to get on it too. Musical, thanks for the post!

musical said...

Thanks for letting me do this, Aspi :). I think you'll like Murakami.

limo bus said...

Oh return .... again boring music..

Mind Rush said...

Musical, an excellent write up!

musical said...

Thanks, Mind Rush :).