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Tokyo Prose

by Jean-Christophe Castelli
Harper's Bazaar, March 1993

In "The Elephant Vanishes," Haruki Murakami's stories of modern-day Japan have an oddball logic all their own.

An advertising copywriter's marriage unravels after three miniature people install an imaginary TV set in his living room; a Tokyo housewife spends so much time reading Russian novels that Anna Karenina becomes more real to her than her own family; and in the title story of Haruki Murakami's new collection, The Elephant Vanishes (Knopf), the pachyderm from the local zoo does just that, inexplicably, into think air.

Hauntingly strange, Murakami's stories read like distress signals from behind the cathode looking glass of contemporary Japan; they are allegories for a nation sleepwalking through prosperity, bumping into the shrouded furniture of its history on the way to the gleaming electronic future. "And everywhere, infinite options, infinite possibilities," says the narrator in "A Slow Boat to China." "An infinity and at the same time, zero. We try to scoop it up in our hands, and what we get is a handful of zero."

"We [in Japan] got rich in the last 20 years, but we don't have pride," says Murakami, whose quirky fantasies mask an acute social criticism. "We don't know who we are, and we don't know where we are going or what our purpose is -- sometimes we feel at a loss." Currently a visiting fellow at Princeton University, he has found refuge from adoring fans and carping critics, both of which are legions back home. Murakami's round, open face and shy demeanor make him seem considerably younger than his 43 years; it's hard to believe that this reflective man in jeans and a sweatshirt is a best-selling pop idol who can't walk unmolested down a Tokyo street.

When his novel A Wild Sheep Chase was first translated into English in 1989, critics scrambled all over the Western literary map, from Pynchon to Carver trying to pinpoint Murakami, whose pop-culture metaphysics seem so jarringly out of sync with Japanese literary conventions. This is not to say that Japanese writers have never taken anything from the West: Junichiro Tanizaki learned his craft from reading Edgar Allen Poe; Yukio Mishima drew inspiration from Jean Genet; and Kobo Abe's spooky parables are nothing if not Kafkaesque. But their style and substance have remained recognizably Japanese.

Murakami, on the other hand, is so translatable that he is, paradoxically, the most un-translatable of Japanese writers; Everything in his fiction can be conveyed to an American reader except the shock of prose that reads so, well, American. His writing injects the rock 'n' roll of everyday language into exquisite silences of Japanese literary prose. "Old-timers are complaining that it is the decline of the literature," he says, shaking his head at the insular Japanese literary world, form which he has turned away since his teens. "I was so influenced by foreign writers that I had to practically make my own language -- it takes time, but it is original."

Original indeed: If you had to find a spiritual equivalent of Murakami's work, the closest comparison might be the visions of David Lynch, one of his favorite filmmakers. Like Lynch, Murakami retains a kind of innocence, which redeems him from his own deadpan hipness; it is melancholy, not irony, that rules the lives of his characters. The best stories in The Elephant Vanishes have the tensile strength of dreams, the dark weave of illogic that forms the underside of our everyday patterns.

The taste for risk-taking runs deep in Murakami, who came of age in the failed Japanese counterculture of the '60s. "We were too weak, and traditional Japanese society was too powerful," he says. "I guess that's why we lost." When most of his generation started buttoning down and picking up their salary-man briefcases, Murakami dropped out: After graduation, he opened a jazz bar with his wife, Yoko, and sat out the big chill.

Writing came to Murakami literally from left field -- during a baseball game in the spring of 1978: "It's a strange story," he says. "I was in the bleachers, just watching the game and drinking beer. It was very sunny, and [suddenly] I just wanted to write something." Murakami scored with his first (untranslated) novel, which won a literary prize and garnered respectable sales. His following novels, seven in total, all followed similar paths, but translation has yet to catch up with his prolific output: Since his second translated novel, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (reissued this month by Vintage), he has written three more. One of them, with the borrowed Beatles title Norwegian Wood, sold an astonishing two million copies and transformed the author into a phenomenon malgre lui: Murakami-mania.

Seeking anonymity, he became that rarity, an expatriate Japanese writer, moving first to Rome, then to the Greek islands, and now America. The deeply private Murakami disdains the talk-show chitchat of literary stardom, and when you see his modest Princeton sanctuary, which could easily be mistaken for that of an impoverished grad student, you realize that he is absolutely sincere. Only his abiding passions are reflected in a few ornaments gracing the cluttered room: a picture of him grimacing through the finish line of last year's Boston Marathon, a collection of splendidly obscure old jazz records, and an up-to-date sampling of recent American fiction.

Murakami feels "comfortable" in America, away from the conformist pressures of his homeland. Concerned about the rise of nationalistic sentiment in Japan, he is looking into history to deal with his country's uncomfortable wartime past in his next novel: "People talk about the atomic bomb, but they don't want to talk about the massacres in China -- I think I have a responsibility for those things."

A continent and an ocean away from home, Murakami has finally begun to think seriously about his identity as a Japanese writer. Though distance has sharpened his vision, it has also made him reflective: "Many jazz musicians went to Europe -- Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell -- in the '50s, but they suffered a kind of detachment from their homeland. The same thing might happen to me..." Murakami pauses perhaps he is thinking about the infinite options still available on the slow boat of exile -- and he smiles. "But not yet."


"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

Elizabeth Devereaux

"PW Interviews Haruki Murakami."

"Publisher's Weekly." September 21, 1991

Sarah Wright

"Dancing as Fast as He Can."

Boston Magazine, January 1994.

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