World Literature

Haruki Murakami

 

BORN: 1949, Kyoto, Japan

NATIONALITY: Japanese

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985)

Norwegian Wood (1989)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-1995)

Kafka on the Shore (2002)

 

 

Haruki Murakami. Murakami, Haruki, photograph. AP images.

 

Overview

Haruki Murakami is an important figure in contemporary Japanese letters mostly due to his extensive translations of classic American fiction. At the same time, he has initiated a revolution in the style of Japanese fiction by nurturing new, urban, cosmopolitan, and distinctly American-flavored tastes in Japanese writing.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Childhood with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan, on January 12, 1949, the only child of schoolteachers Chiaki and Miyuki Murakami. He grew up in the immediate aftermath of World War II, in which an aggressive Japan had battled the United States furiously in the Pacific. The war was only brought to a conclusion by two atomic bomb attacks launched by the United States against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. The attacks wiped out both cities and led to Japan's unconditional surrender. Allied forces occupied Japan after the war until 1952.

Murakami spent his early years listening to his parents discuss 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 as well as to American writers like Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kurt Vonnegut. In Kobe’s many used-book stores, he found works written in their original languages available at less than half the price of their Japanese translations.

Writing, Motion Pictures, and Jazz. Although Murakami actively contributed to his school newspaper and considered becoming a scenario writer while he was studying film at Waseda University in 1968, his development into a novelist did not immediately emerge. The student riots of 1969 protesting the Vietnam War disrupted his college years, and after he completed a thesis on the idea of the journey in American film and graduated in 1975, he became the owner of a successful jazz bar in a Tokyo suburb. He was making good money from the bar when, in 1981, after the success of his first two novels, he regretfully left it to begin full-time writing.

Boku and the Bait. Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing(1979), won Gunzo magazine’s twenty-second newcomer’s prize in June 1979 and inspired a series of works featuring his signature characters, a worldly Boku and an anguished, inward-burrowing writer called the Rat. Though this tale was framed by the years during and after the Tokyo student uprisings from 1969 to 1973, his Pinball, 1973 (1980) introduced readers to a twenty-four-year-old Boku and twenty-five-year-old the Rat in a type of modern fairy tale. The two main figures never meet in Pinball but reappear and eventually reunite in Murakami’s next novel, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), for which Murakami was awarded the Noma Literary Newcomer’s Prize.

Murakami wrote his next novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in five months between August 1984 and January 1985, after which he spent two more months revising it. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) won the Tanizaki Literary Prize the year it was published.

Translation, Icon Status, and Successful Dance. In the three years between the publication of these two novels, Murakami translated works by Raymond Carver and John Irving—two of many writers whom he met when he visited the United States briefly in 1984. From translating their works Murakami has said simply, ‘‘I learned a lot.’’ He also learned from experimenting in short-fiction formats, publishing three collections in that genre.

Murakami returned to writing long fiction with Norwegian Wood (1987). The novel was wildly successful, selling about 2 million copies within its first year of publication. A sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase inspired by a Western pop song, Dance, Dance, Dance (1988), sold over a half million hardcover copies in Japan during the first six months after publication and received favorable reviews. South of the Border, which some critics considered a ‘‘companion’’ novel to Norwegian Wood, was also a success with the public and critics alike.

Wind-Up Bird and War. In the interim between Dance, Dance, Dance and South of the Border, Murakami produced a novel that strayed from his usual concerns. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) focuses on what Murakami has said is the most important thing: ‘‘facing our history... and that means the history of war.’’ Specifically, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a three-volume work, presents World War II not as a firsthand experience, but as part of the psychological baggage that affects all Japanese of Murakami’s generation. In 1995, Murakami was presented the Yomiuri Literary Prize by one of his most demanding critics, Kenzaburo Oe.

Kafka Prize and Fantasy Award As his works were translated abroad, Murakami acquired greater fame and collected several more literary awards, including the 1999 Kuwabara Takeo Academic Award for Underground (1997-1998); the 2006 Franz Kafka Prize; and the 2006 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for Kafka on the Shore (2002). The author whose work has been adapted for film by such esteemed artists as Japanese director Jun Ichikawa, served as a visiting fellow at Princeton University and a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Tufts University. Today, he lives in Japan where he continues to write what he believes is, and should be, truly ‘‘global literature.’’

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Murakami's famous contemporaries include:

Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-): Russian author and activist, he is most noted for being a former Soviet political dissident.

Ken Follett (1949-): British author of historical and thriller fiction, he has sold over 100 million copies of his books.

Alexander Godunov (1949-1995): When Godunov, a Russian ballet dancer, defected to the United States, he caused an international stir.

Robert Haas (1941-): This American poet has served two terms as U.S. poet laureate (from 1995 to 1997) and has contributed greatly to contemporary literature.

Paloma Picasso (1949-): Despite her fame as the French- Spanish daughter to Pablo Picasso and Frangoise Gilot, she has earned her own way as a successful designer.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle focused on the psychological impact of World War II. Here are a few other works that focus on aftermath of the war:

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a film directed by William Wyler. Winner of seven Academy Awards, this film follows the lives of three American soldiers who face various difficulties as they return to civilian life after World War II.

The Tin Drum (1959), a novel by Gunter Grass. In this novel, protagonist Oskar Matzerath, an inmate in an German insane asylum in the 1950s, recalls his experiences during World War II.

The Great Fire (2003), a novel by Shirley Hazzard. This award-winning novel is set during the Allied occupation of Japan immediately after the end of World War II.

 

Works in Literary Context

Western Influences. Murakami grew up during the American occupation of his Japan, and he admired the United States for its wealth and its cultural energy. The music of the United States also attracted him. For example, after hearing drummer Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at a live concert in 1964, Murakami often skipped lunch to save money for records. His encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and of much popular culture of the United States is immediately apparent even to casual readers.

Murakami has been called the first writer completely at home with the features of American popular culture that permeate contemporary Japan. At the end of Hard-Boiled Wonderland (1985), for instance, the protagonist begins to lose consciousness while listening to Bob Dylan on a car stereo.

Crisp, Clear Style for Ambitious Themes. Murakami has created an original, immediately recognizable style marked by humor, lightness, simplicity, and clarity, with bold, imaginative leaps and startling juxtapositions of images. In both his conspiracy novels and love-story novels, the author offers profound themes in his ambitious attempt to explore human relationships and political and historical issues that earlier works only faintly address.

Conspiracy, American-Style. His conspiracy novels are designed to make readers uneasy in one sense, but in another sense use narrators who seem bemused by, rather than genuinely threatened by, hollow consumerism or dislocated modern life. In this way, his conspiracy novels become captivating rather than suffocating. By way of curious characters and labyrinthine undercurrents, his novels suggest that Japan’s uniqueness has been preserved despite intrusive Americanization. These themes play well with American readers, who perhaps see in them two welcome consolations: that a McDonald’s on every foreign corner does not necessarily mean global displacement; and that it is possible for a country such as Japan to remake itself from an imperialist aggressor to an economically successful pacifist.

 

Works in Critical Context

For the critics who were used to sincere confessions of narrators easily identified with their authors, Murakami’s playful, apolitical adventures into the undefnable—complete with an American soundtrack in some instances—proved most unacceptable. Young readers, however, loved his work from the start. ‘‘The Murakami phenomenon’’ was established early in the author’s career and reached a crescendo in 1988, when girls were choosing their wardrobes to match the color of whichever volume of Norwegian Wood (1987)—the red or the green—they happened to be carrying that day.

Norwegian Wood (1987). Norwegian Wood is an adolescent adventure and an exploration of the thoughts and feelings of an emotionally detached thirty-seven-year- old Watanabe, who hears a Muzak version of the Beatles song this book is named for and is transported back to his college days. The two-volume work has sold more than 2 million hardback copies and has been Murakami’s most popular novel—particularly with teens and women in their twenties. The differences between this and his other novels is often noted; Brooke Horvath, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, states that the book ‘‘is less startling than [A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland], a quieter novel, but no less rewarding.’’

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.’’ This simple and often humorous style makes Murakami’s works products of a new sensibility: his stories are liberated from the ghosts of World War II and are far removed from the traditional Japanese mainstream of autobiographical realism.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Besides several other conventions, Murakami uses some involved symbolism in his novels. In his first works, he features a character who is the Rat; in his A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), he introduces Boku’s search for sheep and eventual encounter with the Sheep Man. With a team of your classmates, come to your own interpretations of such symbols, each student choosing one to research, study, and identify. It might be helpful to consult a literary dictionary, a dream encyclopedia, or even Eastern astrology or cultural symbol references—to come up with what each symbolic element represents.

2. Consider one story or novel by Murakami and identify and discuss several ways in which Murakami establishes one character’s identity—his own or that of his culture—and where that identity takes on new characteristics from a second culture. Cite examples from the texts.

3. Some of Murakami’s works are considered to be the kind of novel called a Bildungsroman—a building novel, or novel of personal development and growth. Kafka on the Shore (2002), for example, is a Bildungsroman about the quest for love and independence. Do some minor research on the term Bildungsroman. Then, consider how your own life would make a fine Bildungsroman: Trace the events and experiences that lead you on a quest (even a short-term one), facing challenges that changed you, and coming ‘‘home’’ to the society that now accepts you. How did you grow? How did you mature to fit in with society? Then, explain how Kafka on the Shore is a Bildungsroman by tracing the personal growth of either the teenaged Kafka or the elder Nakata. Do a time line or create a storyboard if it helps—to trace the character’s maturation process. Compare your personal story with Kafka’s or Nakata’s story of personal development. Where are the two of you alike? Where do you differ? How are you both products of the Bildungsroman?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Periodicals

Beale, Lewis. ‘‘The Cool, Cynical Voice of Young Japan.’’ Los Angeles Times Magazine (December 8, 1991): 36-83.

Lewis-Kraus, Gideon. ‘‘Convergence of Separate Odysseys.’’ San Francisco Chronicle (February 6, 2005): C-1.

Rubin, Jay. ‘‘The Other World of Haruki Murakami,’’ Japan Quarterly, 34 (October-December 1992): 490-500.

Web sites

Exorcising Ghosts. Haruki Murakami Resources. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.exorcising-ghosts.co.uk/.

Murakami Interactive. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.murakami.ch/main_2.html.

Random House. Haruki Murakami Official Website. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com/features/murakami/site.php?id=.