Jesse Jarnow

haruki murakami: simple meals, talking cats

My 2007 profile of Haruki Murakami, published in Paste #32, never made it online. Here it is.

Simple Meals, Talking Cats
by Jesse Jarnow

The literary world rarely honors third basemen, but an exception should likely be made for Dave Hilton of Uvalde, Texas, who hit .213 over four undistinguished seasons for the San Diego Padres between 1972 and 1975. It was three years later, during an afternoon game playing for the Yakult Swallows at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, that Hilton hit a towering double into left, and–lounging in the bleachers, drinking a beer–a 30-year old jazz club owner named Haruki Murakami suddenly knew he could write a novel. He began that night.

Murakami’s reaction–the exterior world triggering an oblique intuition deep in the interior–contained exactly the type of determination that has motored his characters ever since. In turn, they have brought Murakami to a singular international superstardom. In After Dark, published in 2004 but appearing on American shores this May, Murakami once again haunts the magical fissures between these worlds, giving them physical body as an omniscient narrator directs the reader to imagine himself “a midair camera,” and characters pass between strange rooms on opposite sides of a television screen. Like all Murakami, it is surreal and addictive.

Consenting only to a three-question email interview, Murakami himself seems determined to live within his words. “When I’m not writing they are gone, totally,” he once told the Wall Street Journal of his darker impulses, “I don’t even dream.” To his credit, especially to American audiences, Murakami is his words, which come filtered through Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin’s translations and packaged in equally iconic jacket designs by Chip Kidd and John Gall. The latter’s paperbacks, signaling like beacons of the bizarre from subway readers and coffeeshop dwellers, have surely lured just as many readers into Murakami’s world as the New York Times calling his first American-published novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, “a bold new advance in international fiction.”

“This sounds like something he wouldn’t particularly want to see elaborated on,” Rubin emails, when asked what their friendship was like during Murakami’s late ’90s years in the United States. If Murakami is a cipher, he is a disciplined cipher, who rises without alarm at 4 am, writes five hours, runs several miles, browses for records, goes for a swim, eats dinner, settles in for a relaxing session translating a few pages of American literature into Japanese, and is in bed by 9.

If there has been a predominant criticism of his work, in fact, it is the routine of it: protagonists quietly obsessed with American culture (especially jazz and ’60s pop) whose lovers vanish for inexplicable reasons often related to supernatural chasms, frequently revealed via abandoned wells, talking cats, or the warm crackle of an LP. A parody was once titled “The Mysterious Disappearance of the Strangely Beautiful Woman.”

“The world we live in has a visible exterior and a hidden side,” Murakami says, his words finally materializing via Jay Rubin’s email account, “and in the darkness the two sides undergo moments of interchange. In order for people to grow — in order for them to achieve a certain spiritual depth — they have to descend into the dark abyss. They have to witness that interchange for themselves and understand what it means.”

It is not that Murakami’s characters are shallow, but allow him a shorthand method of accessing those cracks. “I had been wanting to write a nothing-special boy-meets-girl story like that for a very long time,” he notes of his “trim” After Dark, which — as his characters move through pre-dawn Tokyo — is anything but nothing-special. Though the boy, in this case, is in the not-so-fantastical position of giving up a jazz fixation for law school, it is precisely the author’s reassuring grasp of the absolute normal that allows him such strength.

Though Murakami writes of a contemporary world, its basic self remains unchanged beneath office blocks and all-night convenience stores. “Like the light of the full moon pouring down on an uninhabited grassland, the TV’s bright screen illuminates the room,” he writes in After Dark, effortlessly linking modernity to teeming natural forces. At least once in each of his novels a character sits down to “a simple meal.”

“It’s one of my favorite Murakami novels because it is new in so many ways, and is so firmly anchored in the real world,” Rubin says of After Dark. “Plenty of weird things happen in it, but I think one of the greatest scenes depicts a tired businessman eating yogurt directly out of the plastic container in the middle of the night… In some ways, this is the old, cool Murakami re-emerging, and readers who liked fish raining from the sky might not be so crazy about yogurt.” No matter what he does, though, Murakami will always sound like Murakami.

“When I started writing fiction,” the author says, “there were all kinds of things I couldn’t write about even if I wanted to because I lacked the necessary technique. For example, death scenes or sex scenes or scenes involving rage or anguish… I didn’t even know how to give my characters names! So all I could do was get rid of all the stuff I couldn’t write and cobble together a novel with the few things I could.” From his shortcomings, Murakami forged a new style, characters more likely to disappear into the void than pass away. Hear The Wind Sing–the novel inspired by Hilton’s double–immediately won the Gunzo Award for New Writers and was published.
Like Hilton, who later received death threats when he started in place of an up-and-coming Japanese rookie, Murakami and his American obsessions were criticized behind the veil of nationalism (parodied viciously by Murakami in the 1981 short story “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes”). With 1987’s Norwegian Wood, which sold several million copies upon its two-part publication, Murakami became a reluctant celebrity, such that his translations of American writers such as Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and others earned them wide Japanese audiences.

Beginning in 1989, Murakami’s works began to appear in the United States. “From the start, he had a readership that was very strong,” says his American editor, Gary Fisketjon, which began building “gradually, then suddenly,” especially following the 2005 appearance of the epic Kafka on the Shore.

Reflected through Rubin and Gabriel’s trans-Pacific translations, Murakami’s baby boomer reference points take on a just-removed authority. “The rhythms have to come from English,” Rubin observes. “A ‘literal translation’ from Japanese could make a gorgeous creature sliding down a corridor into a stumbling idiot.”

Murakami himself dismisses the power of the exotic. “The best thing is that I can have a great time reading [the] translations,” he observes. “This may be one bit of evidence that ‘Nothing is lost,’ don’t you think?” What might seem like the exotic is Murakami himself, unique no matter what language he is read in. He shows no signs of slowing, either.

“Given Haruki’s dedication and productivity, it’s not as if I have to worry that he’s suffering from writer’s block,” Fisketjon says. “Instead, he’s at the top of his game and always expanding it.” He is at work on what he described to Fisketjon as “a big novel.” Perhaps more revealing, though, will be the Stateside publication of one of Murakami’s many Japan-only non-fiction books, a volume about running. Perhaps there, as the marathon participant strips his fabulism to the simplest left-foot/right-foot repetition possible, we will finally begin to grasp the magic of Dave Hilton’s achievement.


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