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The magic of Murakami

Jai Arjun Singh | August 17, 2005

Even for fans of his work, it can be perplexing that Haruki Murakami is such a highly regarded writer.

The literary groups that tend to direct public opinion on such matters (like the one that eventually left Murakami off the first Man Booker International long list earlier this year) aren't the sort you'd credit with excessive love for a story about a Nietzsche-quoting frog who plans to save Tokyo from an impending earthquake by going underground and battling a huge worm; or a split-narrative that might have been devised by the love-child of Raymond Chandler and Philip K Dick; or an allegory about a sheep with a mysterious marking on its back, which might secretly be controlling the world.

But what the acclaim probably reflects is this great Japanese writer's ability to get under a reader's skin with stories that use fantastical frameworks but convey simple truths about our lives. It's very difficult to ignore him.

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and lived in Japan until 1987, when (as the author profile on his books wryly tells us) 'on becoming a national celebrity he fled the country and did not return until 1995'.

The celebrity was the result of the enormous success of Norwegian Wood, a beautifully written story of lost love and friendship, and still his most read novel; if you see a bookshelf with just one Murakami on it, it will in all probability be this one.

But while Norwegian Wood with its relatively straightforward structure is the most accessible of his books, it isn't a representative Murakami work -- that place is reserved for his unsettling, surreal narratives. (If you find a bookshelf with more than one Murakami -- like mine -- it'll probably contain all his books; there is no middle ground.)

'Surrealist' is an overused word but it may apply particularly well to Murakami; in an interview he once claimed that while writing something he literally had no idea what would happen on the next page.

Now even if that's true in only a limited sense (surely the broad plotlines of his novels are planned out in advance!) it puts him in the distinguished tradition of, say, Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, who famously made a short film by randomly placing images from their dreams together.

At any rate, much of his work feels like it's been written by someone viewing the world through a lens designed by those two gentlemen.

The power of Murakami's best stories resides in their imaginative strength (which is considerable) and luminous turns of phrase (brilliantly translated by Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum) but also in the way they cut so close to our real-life fears and insecurities. 

In the dreamlike short stories collected in After The Quake, for instance, he treats the 1995 Kobe earthquake as a metaphor for the fragility of human relations, where the ground beneath our feet is constantly shifting.

Likewise, in one of his most abstruse novels (and one of my personal favourites) Hard Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, Murakami gives us two equally strange parallel narratives in alternating chapters: in one, a data processor learns that he is the last surviving victim of a brain implantation that has condemned him to spend eternity in a mind loop; in the other, we follow his experiences in a strange Town, which represents this eternal world, and where he struggles to be reunited with his shadow.

This is a bizarre double-narrative if ever there was one, but if you open yourself to it, it slowly transforms into a moving story that addresses age-old questions about death and the hereafter; this is 'what dreams may come', done Murakami-style, and the way it couches its themes makes it more effective than a conventional treatment of the subject might have been. And that's something common to all of his best work.

A Tip: start with Norwegian Wood and then work your way into his more offbeat work, of which A Wild Sheep Chase and the short stories in The Elephant Vanishes and After The Quake are probably the most accessible.
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