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PW Interviews: Haruki Murakami

by Elizabeth Devereaux
Publisher's Weekly, September 21, 1991

Japan's premier novelist is 'seeking new style.'

Forget about cherry blossom time, the crags of Fujiyama, tea ceremonies; most especially forget about exquisitely penned haiku. Today Haruki Murakami is Japan's premier novelist, and he's earned that rank by breaking all the rules.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, due this month from Kodansha (Fiction Forecasts, Aug. 2), shows off this iconoclastic style. Its plot is a feat of what seems to be a double-jointed imagination. Dizzying and dazzling, it involves an intelligence agent who can "launder" and "shuffle" data in his brain, and a drama simultaneously playing out within the agent's unconscious. Like Alice, the agent embarks on a fantastic journey that begins when he travels down an impossible hole, and his adventures are conveyed with the glittering and mutable energy of kaleidoscopic images. Only gradually do broader patterns emerge, and the novel becomes a terrifyingly urgent tale of survival and surrender.

If the story is strange and startling, the setting is just as surprising: the geography is of a modern Japan, but the heritage is Western, the prose awash in reference to American and European culture. From a bottomless reservoir come allusions to The Wizard of Oz, Bogart and Bacall, Star Trek, Ma Bell and Jim Morrison, discussions of Turgenev and Stendhal, Camus and Somerset Maugham. The only thing distinctly Japanese is the food.

"I might like Japanese food," says Murakami, meeting PW in Kodansha's New York offices, "but I like Western literature, Western music." His fusion of Japanese language and Western sensibility represents a turning point of Japanese literature.

"Most Japanese novelists," Murakami explains, "are addicted to the beauty of the language. I'd like to change that. Who knows about the beauty? Language is a kind of a tool, an instrument to communicate. I read American novels, Russian novels; I like Dickens. I feel there are different possibilities for Japanese writing.

"At first, I wanted to be an international writer. Then I changed my mind, because I'm nothing but a Japanese novelist: I was born in Japan and I speak Japanese and I write in Japanese. So I had to find my identity as a Japanese writer. That was tough.

"You have to know that the writing in Japan for Japanese people is in a particular style, very stiff. If you are a Japanese novelist you have to write that way. It's kind of a society, a small society, critics and writers, called high literature. But I am different in my style, with a very American atmosphere. I guess I'm seeking a new style for Japanese readership, and I think I have gained ground. Things are changing now. There is a wider field."

Most would agree that Murakami has indeed gained ground. More than 12 million copies of his books are in print in Japan, he's received a string of prestigious awards and been translated into 14 languages. A prolific translator himself, he has introduced writers as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Raymond Carver, Paul Theroux and John Irving to Japan. A self-described "wanderer," he has lived all over the world, from Greece and Italy to a current stint as a visiting fellow at Princeton University.

"I want to test Japanese culture and Japanese writing from outside of Japan. It is very hard to explain that," he says, and pauses to deliberate. "It's a kind of translation. When I translate from English to Japanese, the story is the same, but the language is different. Something has changed by translation. I like to do the same thing for my own writing. I want to write a Japanese novel with a different material, with a different style, but in Japanese. I think it would help change Japanese literature from inside."

The son of a teacher of Japanese literature, Murakami, who was born in 1949, grew up reading American fiction. He learned English in junior high and high school. "My marks in English weren't so good," he says in the first of a series of deceptively modest remarks and disclaimers, an unprepossessing style matched by his casual dress and careful, slow speech. "But I enjoyed reading in English," he continues, "it was quite a new experience." Raymond Chandler was a favorite. When he went to Waseda University, he studied drama, everything from Greek tragedy to contemporary works. "I tired to write when I was a college student, but I couldn't, because I had no experience. I gave up my writing when I was 22 or 21. I just forgot about it.

"I didn't want to, you know, get into a company." (Neither do his characters.) "I wanted to do something by myself. I started a small jazz club in Tokyo. It was fun. I owned a club for seven years.

"One day I found I wanted to write something. I was so happy that I wanted to write again, and that I could write this time. It's a blessing. Since then I've been happy all the time, because I can write."

Back then, he says, "I had only nighttime for writing. I would be at the club until one o'clock or two o'clock in the morning, and then I'd come back, sit down at the kitchen table and write my story."

He produced Hear the Wind Sing, published in Japan in 1979, which he describes as "a young-man, things-are-changing kind of novel," set in 1970, the "age of the counterculture." The story, he says, is realistic, but the style is "not conventional, a Kurt Vonnegut style. I was strongly influenced by Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. They are so lively and fresh."

He doesn't want to see Hear the Wind Sing translated, however, and labels it (and his next book, Pinball 1973, which appeared in 1980) "weak." Not too weak to win the Shinjin Bungaku Prize? Ah, replies Murakami, "you have to know there are many prizes in Japan."

The prize so easily dismissed was from Kodansha, which, like other Japanese houses, has an award for newcomers. Kodansha was first to see the novel ("There are no agents in Japan," the author explains), and Murakami chose the publisher because it "is the biggest, very prestigious." He has remained with Kodansha ever since, and enjoys his relationship with editor Yoko Kinoshita. "It's not the usual thing, a woman publisher," he adds. "In Japanese companies it's mainly men who get good jobs. My editor is doing well."

A Wild Sheep Chase, which he calls a "fantasy/adventure," was Murakami's third book, published in Japan in 1982, and shares its protagonist with the earlier two. "I feel somehow that Wild Sheep Chase is my first novel," he says now. "It's the first book where I could feel a kind of sensation, the joy of telling a story. When you read a good story, you just keep reading. When I write a good story, I just keep writing."

That joy propelled him to produce four collections of short stories between 1982 and 1986 ( a fifth was published last year, as a volume of travel pieces.) "I like storytelling. I don't find it difficult to make a story." In 1985, Hard-Boiled Wonderland appeared and captured the celebrated Tanizaki Prize. Nevertheless, the success of his next novel took everyone by surprise. Norwegian Wood (1987), titled after the Beatles song, is a love story, "quite different" from his other books, "totally realistic, very straight"; it sold two million copies. In 1989 came Dance Dance Dance, which is a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase and is slated to follow Hard-Boiled Wonderland into English.

Kodansha decides which books to bring to the U.S. "They ask my advice," says Murakami, "but I think they're right in their decisions."

The first book to appear in English was A Wild Sheep Chase (published here in 1989), which drew rave reviews. Like Hard-Boiled Wonderland, it has an unusually intricate and inventive plot. Readers may well be surprised to learn that Murakami creates the plot as he goes along. "I write one chapter and then the second chapter, and so on... It comes out automatically.

"I don't know what's going to happen -- but it's going to happen. I have fun when I write."

The fun spills into his prose, which is so playful that the New York Times Book Review called Murakami "a mythmaker for the millenium, a wiseacre wise man." Murakami is quick to credit the translator of his novels, Alfred Birnbaum: "He's a good man, a good guy. His translation is so lively." Birnbuam, for example, came up with the English title for A Wild Sheep Chase; the original was The Adventure of the Sheep. "I have another translator, Jay Rubin," Murakami continues. "He's good as well. Alfred is more free, Jay is more faithful to the original." Americans will have a chance to sample Rubin's translation in a September issue of the New Yorker, where a story by Murakami will appear.

Murakami describes his own translations as "very faithful." He began translating at almost the same time as he began writing fiction, and first approached stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. How does he select a work for translation? "Sometimes a book appeals to me because I want to introduce it to Japanese readers. That's one reason. Another reason is that I want to learn something from this book, and translation is the best way. You can read every detail, every page, every word. You can learn so much. It's my teacher.

"I want to try many different styles. Translation is a kind of vehicle. One time you can write F. Scott Fitzgerald and one time Raymond Chandler. It's a transformation."

These days Murakami's schedule at Princeton is flexible, and he defines his role there as a kind of "observer." He speaks contentedly of his carrel at the university library, where he has been researching material for his new book, "about politics, about history, love, everything. I've been researching the war between Japan and the Soviet Union in 1939 in Manchuria. I'm interested in prewar history in Japan, in China."

Princeton holds a number of attractions beyond the library. He originally visited the institution in the `80s, lured by his interest in Fitzgerald. It also affords him the quiet he seeks. Almost shyly, he says, "You know, I'm pretty famous in Japan. I don't like that, the social life. I like jogging. I job, and I work six hours a day. I take a walk with my wife [Yoko Takahashi; they got married while both were students at Waseda University]. I listen to music, I read. I have no time to meet people, to go somewhere to have dinner. But they expect me to do it, because I'm famous.

"I lead a very quiet life, it's my kind of life. We lived on a Greek island [from 1986 to 1989]. It was a perfect place to be a writer.

Murakami and his wife, who have also resided in Rome and Athens and traveled extensively, like living in the U.S. "In Europe, the are stiff, and we are always foreigners. But in America they accept us. America is a very special place, very accepting of other cultures."

His sojourn at Princeton will end next June, but he and his wife would like to stay in the States for another few years, perhaps relocating to Boston. "I like moving. If you are a writer, you can live anywhere. We have no children, and we are free to go everywhere. I like to move every two years or so. I feel it's time to go, and we move. It's so simple."

At the moment, Murakami is contemplating a translation of Grace Paley's work. He also cites Tim O'Brien, whose Nuclear Age and The Things They Carried he has translated. "I like him best... these days," he qualifies.

He calls John Irving "a good storyteller," and has translated Setting Free the Bears, which, he says, Iriving doesn't particularly like. Because it's an early work? "Yes," says Murakami. "He likes his latest book. That makes sense, of course. But I like Setting Free the Bears because it is so young and fresh."

Does Murakami have a favorite among his own books? "My latest one, the next one! The one that I am writing now."

Deveraux is a Manhattan-based freelancer.


  • Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 have been translated into English but not published in America. Both books are apart of the Kodansha English Library -- a series that allows Japanese readers to read Japanese works in English -- and may be available at Japanese bookstores in the U.S. Birnbaum translated both novels.
  • Jay Rubin's translations can be found in the short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes, published in America in 1993.
  • Dance Dance Dance is available in paperback.


Jean-Christophe Castelli

"Tokyo Prose."

"Harper's Bazaar," March 1993

Sarah Wright

"Dancing as Fast as He Can."

Boston Magazine, January 1994.

"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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