Dissatisfied with his initial attempts at fiction until he tried writing in English and translating his work back into Japanese, Murakami has created an original, immediately recognizable style marked by humor, lightness, simplicity, and clarity, with bold, imaginative leaps and startling juxtapositions of images. Such stylistic features certify his novels and stories as products of a new sensibility liberated from the ghosts of World War II and far removed from the traditional Japanese mainstream of autobiographical realism.
Murakami was born in Kyōto and spent his early years amid the ancient cultural, political, and mercantile traditions of the Kyōto-Ōsaka- Kōbe area. As an only child, he spoke the dialect of the region and heard his schoolteacher parents, Chiaki (son of a Kyōto temple family) and Miyuki (daughter of an Ōsaka merchant family), discussing eighth-century poetry and medieval war tales at the dinner table. Yet the boy was not interested in the cradle of imperial culture, and in his early teenage years he turned instead to the works of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and, when he was not editing the Kōbe High School newspaper, to those of Americans such as Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler , F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kurt Vonnegut. As an international trading capital, Kōbe had many bookstores dealing in the used paperbacks of foreign residents, and in these stores he could find works in the original languages available at less than half the price of their Japanese translations. Young Murakami was hooked. "What first attracted me to American paperback books was the discovery that I could read books written in a foreign language," he has said. "It was such a tremendously new experience for me to be able to understand and be moved by literature written in a language acquired after childhood."
That language could hardly have been anything but English. Despite his earlier attraction to Russian literature, Murakami had grown up during the American occupation of his country, which still admired the United States for its wealth and for its cultural energy. The indigenous music of the United States also attracted him, to the extent that after hearing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at a live concert in 1964, Murakami would often skip lunch in order to save money to buy records. His encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and of much popular culture of the United States is immediately apparent even to the most casual reader. Murakami does not invest his references to such cultural artifacts with weighty symbolic significance, however. Whereas the United States is an obsessive nightmare for Kōbe-born writer Nosaka Akiyuki, Murakami has been called the first writer completely at home with features of American popular culture that permeate contemporary Japan. At the end of Sekai no owari to hadoboirudo wandarando (1985; translated as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1991) the protagonist begins to lose consciousness while listening to Bob Dylan on a car stereo.
Although Murakami actively contributed to his school newspaper and thought of becoming a scenario writer while he was studying film at Waseda University in 1968, his development into a novelist did not follow a straight line. The student riots of 1969 disrupted his college years, and after he completed a thesis on the idea of the journey in American motion pictures and graduated in 1975, he became the owner of a successful jazz bar in a Tokyo suburb. He was still making good money from the bar when, after the success of his first two novels, he regretfully left it in 1981 to begin writing full-time; only after he finished his third novel, Hitsuji o meguru bōken (1982; translated as A Wild Sheep Chase, 1989), did he feel that he had chosen the right profession. Prolific hardly describes the stream of novels, stories, essays, and translations that Murakami has written since then.
Murakami's account of the circumstances of his debut as a fiction writer shares much with the tone of his early works. In the spring of 1978, he recalls,
I happened to be at Jingu Stadium for the opening game of what turned out to be a championship season for the Yakult Swallows. His first time up at bat, Dave Hilton hit a double to left field. Yasuda had an almost perfect game, allowing only Garrett's one home run. When I saw this, I said to myself, "That's it." I was going to write a novel--some kind of novel, I didn't know what. I finished it about the time the team took the championship, and mailed it from the Jingu post office across from the stadium.
This first novel, Kaze no uta o kike (1979; translated as Hear the Wind Sing , 1987), won Gunzō magazine's twenty-second newcomer's prize in June 1979. Just as Murakami's impetus to write may seem to have come out of thin air, the organization of the book seems unpredictable, almost random. Murakami has said that he did not write the events of the narrative in chronological order but "shot" each scene separately and later strung these events together. "There's a lot in Wind that I myself don't understand," he acknowledges. "It's mostly stuff that came out unconsciously, almost like automatic writing. . . . I said just about everything I wanted to say in the first few pages, so the rest has virtually no 'message' as such. I never imagined it would be published--or go on to become part of a [tetralogy]."
The short novel covers the period of 8 August to 26 August 1970. Boku, the narrator, is a twenty-one-year-old biology major who has been home for the summer and is about to return to Tokyo for the fall term. "The Rat," his rich, slightly older friend, is apparently upset about a failed romance and decides not to go back to school. The two spend much time in J's Bar, where they share drunken profundities as the Rat progresses from being initially disinterested in literature and becoming increasingly absorbed in ponderous Western classics to becoming interested in writing fiction. A postscript recounts that, in the years following the events of the novel, Boku has turned twenty-nine years old, has married, and is living in Tokyo, and the Rat, at age thirty, is writing unpublished novels that contain neither sex nor death, which he sends to Boku as combined Christmas/birthday presents.
The Rat presents a wry self-portrait of a writer aborning. Bearer of a nickname so old--so embedded in the psychic primordial slime of once-upon-a-time--that he has forgotten how he got it, this self-absorbed young man is a dark, unnerving creature that burrows into shadowy hidden spaces. Murakami may not have understood everything in his first book, but he knew that he was rooting around in his psychic past among half-forgotten memories and half-understood images that would surface unpredictably from that other world. As Murakami's writer- narrator of one early story says, "For some reason, things that grabbed me were always things I didn't understand." Such forgetting, free association, and lack of rational understanding are psychic states that open the deep wells and dark passageways to a timeless other world that exists alongside the "real" one, and Murakami goes on to probe this psychic realm with increasing confidence.
For critics used to the sincere confessions of dour narrators easily identified with their authors, Murakami's playful, apolitical forays into the undefinable--complete with an American soundtrack--proved most unpalatable. Young readers and critics loved his work from the start, and "the Murakami phenomenon" reached a crescendo in 1988, when girls were choosing their wardrobes to match the color of whichever volume of Noruei no mori (1987; translated as Norwegian Wood, 1989)--the red or the green--they happened to be carrying that day.
After an introductory summary of the years during and after the Tokyo student uprisings from 1969 to 1973, 1973--nen no pinbōru (1980; translated as Pinball, 1973 , 1985) concentrates on the months September through November 1973, when Boku is twenty-four years old and the Rat is age twenty-five. Boku is living in Tokyo, sharing his bed with twin girls identified only by the numbers 208 and 209 on their sweatshirts, listlessly pursuing his career as a commercial translator, and working with a friend and an attractive office assistant. He feels that his mid twenties are passing in a shapeless, boring blur, but when he tells the office girl that his method for coping with the pointless routine is "not to want anything more," neither he nor she is convinced of the efficacy of this formula. Meanwhile the Rat, having quit the university, is still hanging around J's Bar, seven hundred kilometers away in Kōbe, trying to end his relationship with a woman and planning to leave the town forever.
Boku and the Rat never meet in the course of the novel, the climactic scene of which occurs in the blinding fluorescent glare of a freezing- cold storage warehouse permeated with the smell of dead chickens--a distinctly inelegant stink of death--as Boku confronts the silent, timeless other world of memory. Murakami eclectically echoes virtually every alternative "other" world opened in popular literature and motion pictures to describe this place "deep in the forest" of fairy tale. Memory is the place where everything and everyone reside unchanged, long after they have been lost in reality: in this silent graveyard that memories compose, a pinball machine may be just as real and important as a person.
The characters of Boku and the Rat reappear in Murakami's next novel, A Wild Sheep Chase , for which Murakami was awarded the Noma Literary Prize. This narrative is set in July 1978, although its prelude is dated "November 25, 1970"--the date of novelist Mishima Yukio 's ritual disembowelment and beheading. Mishima's dramatic gesture is presented through no more than a disjunctive series of pictures flashing on television and is designed to contribute to part of the ennui following the 1969 uprisings. At age twenty-nine, Boku has grown bored, has married and divorced the attractive office assistant, has expanded his translation service into a moderately successful ad agency, and has lost track of the Rat, who has simply disappeared. As Birnbaum translates it, Boku expresses with special eloquence the boredom that has been so central to his perception of life in the earlier works: "I don't know how to put it, but I just can't get it through my head that here and now is really here and now. Or that I am really me."
Throughout most of A Wild Sheep Chase, boredom and life seem to be polar opposites, with adventure providing the escape from boredom. The original title of the novel means literally "An Adventure Surrounding Sheep," but Birnbaum's translation of the title hints that the adventure surrounding the search for a mysterious sheep is something of a wild-goose chase. Boku begins as a bored urbanite, plunges into an adventure that promises to cure his boredom, and returns as a bored urbanite--except that he realizes how the boredom that life offers is preferable to the world that memory and death offer, a world consisting only of ghosts.
A sinister man in black, the lieutenant of a right-wing Boss who is dying from a huge blood cyst in his brain, sends Boku on an adventure to find the Rat, from whom Boku has received a photo showing a mysterious sheep with a star on its back. Boku takes along his new girlfriend, a part-time call girl with an ordinary face but "perfectly formed ears" that provide the extrasensory powers that lead Boku through an increasingly bizarre series of experiences. His search for the Rat brings him to Hokkaidō, where Boku waits in an isolated mountain cottage for his friend to show up. His only contact is with "the Sheep Man," a strange local character who is not entirely human and who, as an escapee from the wars of the world and from the military in general, is a self-appointed lamb of peace.
As Boku gradually begins to sense the presence of the Rat in this weird creature, snow begins to fall, and the cold that permeated the setting of the chicken storehouse in Pinball grows increasingly severe. After having a terrifying dream, Boku waits in the darkness for the ghost of his friend to arrive. The Rat speaks to him in the silence, and as the two return to "the old days" and enjoy beer together for awhile, the Rat explains how he killed himself after the malevolent sheep came to live inside him.
One cannot say whether Boku's reunion with his late friend may be a real encounter or a result of delirium, but his quest culminates in typical Murakami fashion, with a return to "the old days" of memory. Any connection between his personal odyssey and his search for the sheep is at best strained and in any case obscure. If the Sheep Man is a symbol of peace, the sheep that possesses the Boss and then the Rat embodies some power older than Genghis Khan (who was said to have been possessed by such a sheep) and as contemporary as the scandal-ridden power structure of the meaningless and boring consumer society of Japan. Many readers recognized Boku's boredom as their own and were ready to join in the fantasy of destroying the corrupt power of the economic machine that keeps them from feeling, as Boku says, "that here and now is really here and now. Or that I am really me."
The scope of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is beyond anything Murakami had attempted, and it remains his most imaginative examination of the wells of the heart. One might assume that Murakami spent the three years after publishing A Wild Sheep Chase writing this next novel, but in fact he wrote it in five months between August 1984 and January 1985 and spent two more months revising it. In the three years between the publication of these two novels Murakami was translating works by Raymond Carver and John Irving --two of many writers whom he met when he visited the United States briefly in 1984--and from translating their works he has said, "I learned a lot." He also learned much by experimenting in short-fiction formats, as he wrote and published three collections of wonderfully inventive short stories.
That Murakami was to write Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World seems almost inevitable. In Hear the Wind Sing Murakami had created a cool, this-worldly Boku and an anguished, inward-burrowing writer called the Rat. In Pinball, 1973 Boku and the Rat live in two parallel worlds that the narrative presents in roughly alternating chapters. In End of the World Murakami splits his protagonist into two characters, Boku and Watashi, and assigns the more familiar Boku-"I" to the fantasy world of a walled town, where he serves as a "reader" of "old dreams" lodged in unicorn skulls. The Watashi- "I" is assigned to the world of a vaguely futuristic Tokyo that is the scene of deadly conflicts between competing information networks.
The two parts of the title reflect the double structure of the novel, in which two separate narratives--one called "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" and the other "The End of the World"--progress in alternating chapters. Each narrative creates a different world, although each resembles the other at first only in the tiniest of details, such as the odd prominence of paper clips in both worlds. The great adventure of reading the novel is to discover how these two worlds are related. The source of the loneliness that permeates both worlds--and the rationale for the lack of connection between the two narratives--is the unknowability of one's own mind.
Norwegian Wood , a two-volume work of which more than two million hardback copies have been sold, has been Murakami's most popular novel. He wrote it while living in Greece and Italy from 1986 to 1989, a sojourn that gave him some respite from the demands of fame that he found imposed on him while living in Japan. When he wrote this "straight boy-meets-girl story," as Murakami describes it, many readers felt it to be "a retreat, a betrayal of what my works had stood for until then. For me personally, however, it was just the opposite: it was an adventure, a challenge. I had never written that kind of straight, simple story, and I wanted to test myself."
The age of the first-person narrator and protagonist is the primary reason the book appeals to an almost exclusively young audience: Watanabe is nineteen years old, and much of the action concerns his often regressive sex life. He is extraordinarily self-possessed, a good storyteller, and a good listener to the stories of others, most notably those stories of Reiko, the wrinkled former mental patient with whom Watanabe shares some faintly incestuous lovemaking. This and the music they make are intended to "memorialize" Naoko, Watanabe's great love, who has killed herself after a lengthy stay in the sanatorium from which Reiko has been released. The opening of the novel is represented as the recollections of the thirty-seven-year-old Watanabe when he hears the song "Norwegian Wood," and the narrative concludes with the young protagonist in a windswept phone booth, wondering where he is. That existential question is pursued elsewhere.
In Dansu dansu dansu (1988; translated as Dance, Dance, Dance , 1994) Boku returns to the Dolphin Hotel in Hokkaidō, his base of operations for his previous sheep chase, where he hopes to find clues to the whereabouts of his old girlfriend, who is here given the name Kiki ("listening") and who had extrasensory ears. The tattered old hotel, he finds, has been transformed into a modern, high-tech wonder, but it also encompasses the chilling world of the Sheep Man, who speaks to Boku about the importance of his ties with other people. Life never has any meaning, says the Sheep Man, but you can maintain your connectedness if you "keep dancing as long as the music plays."
Boku's search enables him to meet various individuals, most notably Yumiyoshi, a hotel employee with whom he falls in love. His other relationships that develop during his search, however, are tainted by money, and the book may stand as Murakami's critique of what he calls "high capitalism," in which everything and everyone--including writers such as Murakami himself (as parodied in the character named Makimura Hiraku)--are reduced to the status of commodities. The novel again presents boredom as central to commodified, modern urban life, and both Boku and the reader spend many of the six hundred pages of this work experiencing boredom. Ultimately, he learns from a clairvoyant young friend that Gotanda, an old classmate and a movie star who has sacrificed his personal life to sustain his professional image, has murdered Kiki.
Kokkyō no minami, taiyō no nishi (South of the Border, West of the Sun, 1992) represents some return to the world of Norwegian Wood, as it presents the sexual experience of a teenage protagonist through several chapters. But the narrative then jumps ahead to present events twenty years later: Hajime (another Boku) appears as the owner of a successful jazz bar, a character more or less satisfied with his life, a married man and the father of two children. Shimamoto, formerly Hajime's closest friend in grammar school, when the two children had been strongly drawn to each other but had been forced to part when they were sent to separate middle schools, then reappears, and Hajime realizes that his life has been missing something crucial. A wild affair ensues, and Hajime is willing to give up his family for this woman about whom he knows virtually nothing. Just as suddenly as she has reappeared, however, Shimamoto disappears, and Hajime is left with his life intact but with a devastating feeling of emptiness. Shimamoto is deliberately presented as an enigmatic character, but she is only an extreme version of all Others--and finally of ourselves: complete knowledge of anyone exists only in imaginary realms "south of the border" or "west of the sun."
Also concerned with the question of how profoundly any human being can know another is Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (1994-1995; translated as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , 1997), a three-volume novel that begins as a domestic drama involving the disappearance of a couple's cat, ranges to the Mongolian desert, and presents the protagonist's encounter with political and supernatural evil on a grand scale. Longer than Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is Murakami's most ambitious attempt to explore human relationships and political and historical themes that earlier works only faintly address. For example, Murakami's first novel presents World War II as a joke: "Altogether I had three uncles, one of whom died on the outskirts of Shanghai. Two days after the cease-fire, he stepped on a mine he himself had laid." The brief glimpse of the war given in that first book shows Japanese invaders planting mines in land that does not belong to them--and stupidly blowing themselves up in the process. The familiar Japanese image of the Pacific War is that of Japanese victims, whether they are dupes of Japanese militarism or sacrificial lambs incinerated by American bombs, but Murakami presents a wartime nightmare of Japanese defiling the Asian continent, destroying the lives of innocent people, and suffering horribly themselves as a result.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle presents the war not as a firsthand experience but as part of the psychological baggage that all Japanese of Murakami's generation carry around half consciously. This novel is one in which Murakami discovers new terms for presenting in ways relevant to young readers the dark recent history of Japan. It may not be a coincidence that Murakami accomplished this just as Ōe Kenzaburō, spokesman for an earlier generation, won the 1994 Nobel Prize for his past work and announced that he would turn from fiction to nonfiction. In an ironic twist, Ōe went on to write a long novel featuring a violent cult, while Murakami pursued nonfiction in Andaguraundo (Underground, 1997), a seven-hundred-page compilation of interviews with victims of the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyō cult. Murakami sees the book as part of his continuing study of the potential for terror and violence lurking beneath the surface of Japanese society.
Murakami began to acquire fame abroad in 1989, with the English translation of A Wild Sheep Chase, followed by the publication of several stories in The New Yorker and Playboy and English translations of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and a short-story collection, The Elephant Vanishes (1993). His work has also been translated into Chinese, Korean, and several European languages, including Finnish and Danish. From 1991 to 1993 Murakami was a visiting fellow at Princeton University, and after this appointment he spent two years at Tufts University as Distinguished Writer in Residence before he returned to Japan. He used his stay in the United States to begin speaking directly to American audiences, and he viewed this stance as evidence that he was changing.
Rubin, Jay. "Haruki Murakami." Japanese Fiction Writers Since World War II, edited by Van C. Gessel, Gale, 1997.