I can do tact and diplomacy when they are required, so a couple of months after arriving in Japan, when it dawned on me that even those students who were happy to talk about books and authors were going lukewarm on the topic when the question of Haruki Murakami came up, I stopped mentioning him at all. I was puzzled though. So when I got to know a student with some literary aspirations a little better, I asked him what the deal with Murakami’s reputation in Japan was.
Of course, he’s very popular in the West,
the student told me, in the same tone of voice you would reserve for a relative committed to a institution after an unfortunate incident likely to bring shame on the whole family if too widely discussed. And you thought Britain did ‘build them up, tear them down’ well!
Haruki Murakami, thanks to some excellent translations that I have heard are very accurate from someone lucky enough to be able to read them in both languages, is indeed popular in the West. He has won many prizes and rightly been acclaimed as one of the greats. But he was also once so popular in Japan that, after Norwegian Wood was published in 1987 and sold millions of copies, he left the country and spent most of the next decade abroad trying to escape the weight of notoriety. Perhaps it is that abandonment that people find so hard to forgive.
[Note! However, it is not that he is completely unloved at home, since I originally wrote this article, I have found there is a group of devoted fans who gather together on the eve of the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature and wait to hear if their favourite will win.]
Delicately, I broached the subject again with another student, a serene lady in her early 40s who might have been one of those teenagers buying one of the million copies of Norwegian Wood. She spoke carefully.
Maybe the problem is that Westerners come to Japan and believe it is really like that. You think that what he writes is real.
I am not so sure. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t fallen for his off-beat perspectives on life, yet I think what makes Haruki Murakami’s books so special is that they contain just enough reality to convince. Everyone has probably met a character like Toru Okada from The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, passive in the face of his lost job, lost cat and eventually even his lost wife. The boredom of a suburban summer captured in short story The Last Lawn of the Afternoon, from The Elephant Vanishes, isn’t unique to Japan. Then, having spent some time here, it is easy to imagine missing the last train and deciding to spend the early hours reading in Denny’s like Mari in After Dark, speculating on the other people passing by.
But I wasn’t expecting to find wells in back gardens containing secret tunnels that lead to the past, or a world that exists in the space between reality and dream, such as the one where Mari’s sister has been sleeping for a year. I knew it would be fairly unlikely I would stumble into any situations like those encountered by the hero of Kafka on the Shore, a book so baffling and other-worldly that even its author can only offer this advice to readers looking for answers:
the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. I know people are busy and it depends, too, on whether they feel like doing it, but if you have the time, I suggest reading the novel more than once. Things should be clearer the second time around. I’ve read it, of course, dozens of times as I rewrote it, and each time I did, slowly but surely the whole started to come into sharper focus.
Sharper focus, maybe, but still recognisably unreal, even if you have never visited Japan. Instead Haruki Murakami’s books create a world that, as in a dream, manages to remain rooted in what’s real, while being not very real at all. And I know this, just as I know that Midori and Watanabe from Norwegian Wood – arguably the author’s most realistic novel – aren’t out there somewhere, arguing and laughing and cooking and loving each other, maybe taking a break from their wandering around the city to relax in the park on a Sunday afternoon.
Cat picture by Octavio Fossatti via Unsplash, black and white photograph by the author.