WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT HARUKI MURAKAMI

“When we talk about a story, the author and the reader have equal rights to access that text. You don’t have to admire me as an author. We are equal. It’s a very democratic world, the world of narrative.”

— Haruki Murakami

Well, because it is a very democratic world, the world of narrative, let me tell you of what I talk about when I talk about Haruki Murakami.

He is for me a strange writer. Not a strange man, as I don’t know him personally. But professionally, literature-wise, he is so strange. With his simple, meditative, and direct writing style, he can describe all details about physical and psychological states of his characters. He also doesn’t like to construct his sentences excessively poetic, outsmart his readers, rather to use simple daily conversations which seem not so beautiful, but the effect of his expert in choosing the diction creates a great atmosphere and mood. He tends to plot his stories with simplicity in our brains, while actually he is constructing a very complex story world. Yes, we’ve been manipulated. And, absolutely yes, we are very delighted to be done so.

Sometimes, though, he could be very romantic. Still with his simple style of writing, he could create a very touchy, moody scene such as the following dialogue.

“Why are you staring at me?” she’d ask.

“Because you’re pretty,” I’d reply.

“You’re the first one who’s ever said that.”

“I’m the only one who knows,” I’d tell her. “And believe me, I know.”

(“South of the Border, West of the Sun,” Vintage, page 59)

I was absolutely petrified. So good the sensation was, I closed the book and tossed it onto my bed to enjoy it, wrote it down, and told my friends about it.

Aside from his simple, meditative, direct and lithe writing style, all the characters in his stories are very deep, yet readers are being driven to — and finally be able to — identify with them through Murakami’s solid skill. They are usually complex and introverted. And if you have read more than 3 of his works, you could find some common traits. Watanabe Toru of Norwegian Wood, Okada Toru of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 14-year-old Tamura Kafka of Kafka on the Shore, K of Sputnik Sweetheart, and Hajime of South of the Border, West of the Sun, all have some kind of similarity. They are all men, most of them in their mid to late 30’s, introverted, (a bit) romantic, have complex attitudes, dark (mostly because of their respective situations from which Murakami condemned them to be), pessimistic in the outside, realistic, a bit philosophic, isolated from their social world (again by his condemnation), and — well here’s one good thing — clever. Some other main characters in his other books I already finished don’t have too many similarities than those aforementioned characters.

The unnamed hero of Trilogy of the Rat — Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, A Wild Sheep Chase, and its spin off Dance Dance Dance — initially is a 20’s man with a rebellious, cool, and youthful spirit in Hear the Wind Sing. Strangely, yet anticipatively, the character underwent a transformation towards Murakami’s other aforementioned heroes traits. (Note that of the 4 books I mentioned before, I haven’t read Pinball, 1973. But after reading A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance, I assume the transformation started in that particular one).

In another book, After Dark, the only difference between the usual hero of Murakami and Mari Asai is her gender. That leaves me with 3 — 4 with Pinball, 1973 — other Murakami novels: Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1Q84, and The Colorless Tsukuru Tasaki and the Year of His Pilgrimage.

Murakami usually also creates his women characters with similar traits. They are usually weird (or strange, if you’d prefer), unpredictable, dark and deeply mysterious. Instant example is Naoko in Norwegian Wood. And in some of his novels he has another woman who is usually cheerful, light-hearted, easy going, optimistic, helpful, yet, still, strange (or weird, if you’d prefer). Instant example is Midori, again in Norwegian Wood.

And why are these 2 opposite types of female characters? (Ok, if you haven’t read Norwegian Wood and don’t want to be spoiled, please skip this paragraph. Proceed with your own risk). Murakami always gives 2 options by the end of his story to his hero. For example, Watanabe chose to be with Naoko. And when Naoko took her own life, Watanabe almost did the same. But then the thoughts of Midori came. The thought halted him, and he chose to be with Midori instead. Yes, as kind as Murakami is in person, he always gives his hero the dark, silent, harsh, isolated, cold path of Naoko (death, explicitly or implicitly) and the bright, eventful, cheerful, warm path of Midori (life, again, explicitly or implicitly). Yet, the choice that the heroes would choose differs from one another.

This is one of the most powerful aspects of his plot structure. Yes, you can guess and anticipate his characters. But no, you cannot guess what choice would they take, and the same goes to the why and the how. The readers never get bored and always have this kind of tense and mood just because of this ‘hidden’ aspect. There’s always a new event, or a new situation, or a new problem, or even a new character to have us readers attached and empathize with the main character.

There are so many more elements which Murakami usually put in his novels, such as cats, wells, dreams, and ears. And those obsessions of his glue us to the world he creates, whether we like them or not.

Murakami is also a Japanese writer who consciously chooses to assimilate his native culture with western culture. Jazz and classical music, western foods, European cars and other western-styled cultures are sublimely mixed with life in Japan where the characters live in. But although western culture plays a very important part of his stories, deep inside he is still a Japanese guy, an Asian guy, an eastern guy. And yes, his characters’ attitudes toward society mirror the writer: they always reflect upon themselves, finding what’s wrong with them, rather than explosively bombing the society with curses and judgments.

Unlike J.D. Salinger in his book Catcher in the Rye whose character represents the western culture way of thinking and his outward behavior by criticizing, opposing, condemning, and forcing the society to change subjectively, Murakami created eastern-culturally characters who chose to solitarily and objectively reflect upon the mistake of themselves, correct their fault, and try to fit into the society by being a freshly better social member. This eastern (read: particularly Japanese) way of thinking and behaving represent the eastern way of spirituality. There are always questions like “What is wrong with me?” “Why can’t I fit into the society and being a normal and good social member?” “I am and have nothing special, but why do these things happen?” These contemplations touch me as his reader. They make me look inside and question myself of my wrongs, to find it and fix it, and in the end to become a better person for myself, and indirectly also for people around me and the society.

His imagination is so rich. He often creates magical realist or surrealist otherworld and blends it with this world, the so-called reality. This device makes the readers wonder: “Is this real?” or “Is that guy the hero’s alter ego?” etc. This fusion of the reality and its surreal mirror is so thin, so soft. The reason behind this element of fusion is that he wants to portrait the modern Japanese daily life and to criticize it for being too rigid, too robotic, too depressing. This critic is often implicitly told by or through his heroes. The heroes often get their enlightenment by the end of the story, yet they didn’t find their own mistake deep inside — though not always. It means: the fault is in the modern society of Japan. It is a very subtle yet sharp way of criticizing Japanese globalization and capitalism.

Boom. Yes. The heroes’ method of reflecting upon themselves is his tool for criticizing the society. What Murakami wants from us readers is simple: reflect. Do not throw the first stone. But hey, if you are done reflecting and find that yourself is not guilty, then keep doing what you do, as your life goes on. Just remember to be careful and not to get beaten then eaten by those rotten systems.

Murakami’s works show you both the pretty face of the world and its ugliness at once. And human has two choices toward the world.

Thus the path of Murakami: One is Naoko. And the other one is Midori.

Which girl, if I may ask, will you choose? Hm?

Rakkhita Sutaro

July 1st, 2013

2.29 AM

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4 thoughts on “WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT HARUKI MURAKAMI

  1. I am a newbie Murakami reader here, just only read Norwegian Wood. First, i know this novel from my friend, then I read it, and I can’t stop read about it and think about it. Its somehow frustrating but hypnotizing. I’ve never been read a novel like this. Its just like you are going to the pitch black cave and you keep going through it, just go deeper and deeper because your screw up curiosity. I like the bizarre characters and scene here. Such as when Midori said she’s naked in front of his father altar, when Watanabe and Midori playing guitar even there’s a fire near them, and the morning’s sake drinking. When I told this Midori’s story to my friend, she give this weird look to me. Haha, and i think there’s this question in her head, what kind of nuts people in the world there who prefer to play guitar while there’s a fire nearby and see it as the beautiful scenery? and then she doesn’t want to discuss this book again.
    After reading this book, somehow I always has this itchy feeling to go away to random places, drinking some alcohol, meet strangers and tell them about the Greek theatrical history.

    Thanks.
    n s

    • It’s a unique (if not good) thing, I think, the influence that Norwegian Wood, or rather Murakami himself, inspires you to. Because it also inspires me, though the inspiration came of different forms.

      Thank you for reading this article and for sharing your thoughts about the books, NS. 🙂

  2. But if i may ask you, which side is actually show the “prettiness” of the world? Midori or Naoko?

    • Both of them are prettiness of the world in their own way for me. So you have to have those 2 opposite sides in everything. Because without one of them, there would be no conflict, no dilemma, no contradiction. No fun. And in the end, no beauty.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

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