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Dancing as Fast as He Can

by Sarah Wright
Boston Magazine, January 1994

Psst. Japan's hottest novelist is hiding out in Cambridge

Haruki Murakami, the Madonna of modern Japanese fiction, lives in a summer-squash, apricot, and pumpkin colored house not far from Central Square. The soft-spoken author of mega-best-sellers back home likes Cambridge. Here, nobody knows he's the Tokyo Literary Brat Pack's crown prince. Here, he can stalk the streets in search of used jazz records without being stalked by fans.

On a fall afternoon in Murakami's sparely furnished apartment, the light, filtered through shell-colored miniblinds, shifts as gently as sand. The celebrated author, 44, is dressed in a plaid sports shirt, jeans, and running shoes. He seems cool, but not jaded, on the subject of his own brilliant career. In American terms, he admits, we're talking huge. We're talking "Firm" Grisham, "Kindergarten" Fulghum. We're talking Stephen "The Writing Machine" King.

Or, to put in the Material Girl's terms, Murakami has gone way past double-platinum. His fiction has been translated into Italian, French, German, and Finnish as well as English. More than 2 million copies of his books are in print in Japan alone. And remember, the population of Japan is just half that of the United States.

For Murakami, all this success is "good, very good, because it can buy peace. I don't want a Mercedes. I don't want Armani. Money buys time to write."

But not in Japan. In Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Japan, literary stardom bought Murakami the very opposite of peace and time. It bought sound and fury and not a minute to himself.

It all started with his 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood (yes, named for the Beatles song), which became a sensation while Murakami was off living in Rome. It was, he say, a "very realistic love story, one guy falling in love with two girls, not translatable in English." Norwegian wood has sold more than 4 million copies in Japan, and, from the moment Murakami returned home from Italy, from the moment he arrived at the Tokyo airport (imagine Madonna, sported at the baggage claim in Detroit; imagine Letter or Clapton or Bird, spotted anywhere: the crush of bodies, the cries of "Hey! It's you!"), the demands on his time never let up.

With his book at the top of the best-seller list, and his home phone number at the top of just about every other list in Japan, the slender author felt pressured by the obligation of tarento (literally, talent) to become a full-time public figure, his daily life gridlocked by dinner dates with other public figures in penguin suits.

"Celebrity is a problem in Japan," he says earnestly, the background music of grinding gears muffled as if Central Square were worlds, not blocks, away. "Japanese do not have any agents. Too many people would call, ask for me. My wife would say, 'He is busy.' But that embarrasses male callers. I had to respond. This is not happening in America."

Not yet, anyway. But Haruki Murakami's year of living quietly may be about to end now that America is reading Alfred Birnbaum's translation of his latest novel, Dance Dance Dance (Kodansha, $22), the third volume in his trilogy about an ordinary lonely guy. Dance Dance Dance was preceded by A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985). Both were warmly received here.

Dance Dance Dance is the story of a thirtysomething Tokyoite, something of a nerd, who shuts down his life as a successful freelance food-and-lifestyles writer in order to find Kiki, a woman who "precipitate as rain...came from nowhere, then evaporated" from his life years before.

Having established the love interest, Murakami moves on to sci-fi and hard-boiled suspense. Kiki, admits our nameless narrator, wasn't exactly the petal of happy youth. "So, she was high-class hooker...I hardly knew a thing about her," he reveals irritably. But, having developed the soft-focus notion that Kiki is "somewhere" crying for him, he returns to the scene of their -- well scene, in the Dolphin Hotel, in Sapporo, in northern Japan.

Since their tryst there, the Dolphin has become like the inn in the movie The Shining, minus the elevators of blood but without its own special special effects. A corporate conventioneer's palace on the outside, a mossy, menacing hovel populated by a swarm of twittering, elusive, not-quite-human beings on the inside, it's a perfect home base for our narrator's quest.

Murakami's deftness in creating a character who is both goofy and engaging, a setting that his both realistic and magical, and a plot that is partly a late-adolescent love story, partly a lifestyle satire, and partly a fantastical mystery tour of consciousness under siege by "latter-day capitalism" makes it clear why he's so popular in Japan and why he's at risk for a similar magnitude of stardom in the United States.

Dance Dance Dance is a parody of our own gritty classics. It's Hollywood hard-boiled atmosphere is both enhanced and mocked by Murakami's Blade Runner-ish Tokyo, that "massive capital web," in which Subarus, jukeboxes, designer clothes, Dunkin' Donuts, and evil development schemes all have their place, just as they have in obsession-racked Robo-Los Angeles.

Constant references to American cultural icons, particularly musical ones, build a baby boomer's global city while ever so quietly giggling at it from behind a painted fan. Like many middle-class members of the baby boom, our narrator is a pop-culture junkie with little concern for context or meaning. He likes Clint Eastwood, Jodie Foster, Paul McCartney, the Doors, T.S. Eliot, Artie Shaw, and Steven Spielberg.

Murakami, a former jazz-bar owner, knows his stars. He knows his generation, too. They're the aging flower children who are now driving BMW's or reading manga (comic books) on ultrafast, ultracrowded commuter trains. Murakami distanced himself from that culture in order to write about it. He said no to a secure life as a "salary man" when he graduate from Waseda University. He married early, and then set out to defy his parents' and his culture's very definite expectations. And while he clearly sympathizes with his narrator's insecurity and loneliness (doing it "My Way" is, after all, very un-Japanese), he also casts a harsh Saturday Night Fever disco light on his narrator's self-pity, self-seriousness, and petty obsessiveness. Sometimes his nameless guy's melancholy is sincere; sometimes, as when he covets a friend's car or recites designer labels, it's plain silly.

Dance Dance Dance concludes Murakami's metadetective trilogy of the lonely nerd, and, says the author, it's the most hopeful of the three: "It's the most therapeutic. In the first two books, he is lonely. In the third, he is lonely and he is conscious of it. It's the story of his recovery and discovery of love."

Murakami is currently at work on a novel about marriage and family -- the exact opposite of Dance Dance Dance territory -- that is much more Japanese. "The greatest thing about living outside Japan," he says, "is I can be very interested in Japan." Murakami says that some less-than-great things about his American sojourn include our lack of good Japanese food (there's plenty of precise food reportage in his novels) and the absence of hot springs "where you bathe for two or three days and a special communication develops."

Murakami has been reading novels in English since he was a teenager in Kobe, a port city in Japan. In rebellion against his professor father's belief in "stiff, formal" Japanese literature, he read "entertainments -- detective books and science fiction. I was 15, 16. I got no money. I got to the used-book stores and buy a dozen, very cheap. Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Philip K. Dick. And the best -- Raymond Chandler. I've read The Long Goodbye at least 12 times."

For Murakami, Chandler rules the hard-boiled genre. Hammett, creator of Sam Spade and author of The Maltese Falcon, is "too hard-boiled even for me." Murakami loves Chandler's lush prose, epitomized by the eerie perfection of his description of a released convict in Farewell, My Lovely: "He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food."

Chandler's influence is clear in a simile from Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, book two of the Lonely Nerd three. After a scene of wanton destruction, the narrator quips, Philip Marlowe-like: "My puss was puffy like cheap cheesecake."

Or, from A Wild Sheep Chase: the limo moved "like a washtub gliding over a sea of mercury."

Murakami was once a somewhat hard-boiled dude himself, smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and running a jazz bar in Tokyo from 1974 to the early eighties, when he "got sick of drunkards and fights."

He looks back in bemusement on the literary scene in his saloon. Speaking from a star's perspective, he says: "It was a triple-A Elaine's. Less crowded [remember, no agents]. Editors, publishers, all back-scratching, then backstabbing each other. Since then, I don't trust anyone in publishing."

After finishing A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami had a sort of spiritual awakening. He quit smoking. he took up running and a near-vegetarian diet. He has finished marathons in Athens, Honolulu, New York, and two in Boston. His daily routine includes a long run along the Charles River after writing for five morning hours.

"It takes strength to concentrate. Running helps me to be strong." With characteristic humility, he adds: "If you're genius, you don't have to take care of yourself like that. Truman Capote was a genius."

In addition to writing his own novels, Murakami has translated into Japanese American authors such as Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, and John Irving. He has also translated both The Things They Carried and The Nuclear Age, by Boston-based novelist Tim O'Brien.

As for Dance Dance Dance representing a new, trans- Pacific, cross-cultural literary breakthrough, Murakami is quick to place himself among other working novelists. He points to Oscar Hijuelos's 1970 Pulizter Prize-winning novel, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which was "written in English, set in New York, but it was a very Latin American novel. I borrowed the hard- boiled structure and filled it with something else," Murakami says.

Another novel that "borrowed" one culture's literary structure to produce a tale that belongs essentially to another is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which was written in English by a British subject (and is now a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson). Says Murakami: "There is a Japanese personality in the English butler."

The filtered light has faded now, replaced by a soft, gray, autumnal dusk. With impressive grace, the biggest star of modern Japanese literature switches on an atrocious dripping-prism chandelier, expresses appreciation over not having been asked to discuss Zen, and apologizes for the overhead fixture's ugliness. "This belonged to the former owner," he says. "It is too bad." Then he shrugs and returns to the topic of his brilliant career.

"My wife and I were on Martha's Vineyard. It was fall. The president was gone. In one restaurant a waiter said, 'Are you Haruki Murakami?' He knew me."

A tiny smile appears on his face. "I was surprised. But this is good. I said, 'Yes.' It is my responsibility."


Jean-Christophe Castelli

"Tokyo Prose."

"Harper's Bazaar," March 1993

Elizabeth Devereaux

"PW Interviews Haruki Murakami."

"Publisher's Weekly." September 21, 1991

"A Dialogue Between Jay McInerney and Haruki Murakami. Roll Over Basho: Who Japan Is Reading, and Why."

The New York Times Book Review September 27, 1992

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