by Barry Edelson


The Strange, Sensational World
of Haruki Murakami


Is it possible to love a book that you don't understand? For readers of the novels of Haruki Murakami, this is a constant paradox. His books are imaginative, humane, suspenseful, witty, charming, provocative — and largely incomprehensible. His prose style is superlative, even in translation, and his mastery of form exceptional. I am far from alone in considering him probably the greatest writer of prose fiction living today, in any language. He is also perhaps the world's most commercially successful writer of "serious" fiction. His latest offering, "1Q84", reportedly sold a million copies in his native Japan right out of the gate: mighty impressive for a novelist whose is most famous for baffling readers at least as much as for enlightening them.

On the level of sheer story telling, the appeal of Murakami's novels is easy to see. For one thing, he is a romantic. The central characters are mostly young people, struggling to understand their own identities, find their place in the world, and establish meaningful relationships with others. They are drawn with loving care, the outlines of their daily lives painted with extraordinary detail. He has a special talent for making the reader care deeply about the humdrum lives of rather ordinary characters, elucidating elements of our shared humanity in the most routine aspects of living. We cannot help but like his characters, and want things to turn out well for them.

Where his novels tend to veer off into the mist is in the other-worldly nature of the circumstances into which the characters invariably find themselves drawn. In "1Q84", for instance, the novels follows the story of two 30-year-olds: Aomame, an exercise trainer who sidelines in something rather more nefarious, and Tengo, a math teacher at a cram school who aspires to be a writer. The story is told, for the most part, in alternating chapters, with events in their two lives intersecting in numerous complicated and, to some degree, rationally impossible ways. Simply, it is a story about a boy and girl who form a strange but strong bond in elementary school and spend the next 20 years trying to find one another. However, it would be hard to imagine any ordinary author taking 925 pages to tell such a tale. But "1Q84", while in some ways just a love story, also concerns itself heavily with religious fanaticism and power, the mysteries of birth and death, social conformity, and perceptions of reality, among many other weighty considerations.

Without giving too much away, Tengo is coerced by his editor into re-writing a novella submitted to a literary competition by a peculiar 17-year-old girl called Fuka-Eri. Her story, "Air Chrysalis", is very intriguing but is also very poorly written. Against his better judgment, Tengo accepts the challenge of ghost-writing a new version of the story, preserving its essence but rendering it into stylish prose. "Air Chrysalis" depicts some bizarre events in the life of a young girl who grows up in an isolated compound controlled by a religious cult, of which her father is the leader. Tengo and his editor both know that, if they are exposed, both of their literary careers will be finished, but they are compelled to see the project through. They could hardly be aware that the supernatural events in the novella are an accurate representation of the girl's actual experiences, that the seemingly emotionless girl would find a kind of soul-mate in Tengo, and that the public exposure of the cult's inner secrets would lead to consequences far more serious for all of them than a violation of literary ethics.

Aomame's story concerns her relationship with a wealthy client, an elderly woman known only as the dowager, who engages her services in taking lethal revenge upon men who abuse women. Aomame's exceptional fitness and athleticism, her stoical nature and isolated existence, make her a perfect choice for this decidedly difficult work. Like Tengo, Aomame is a loner, and like Fuka-Eri, her parents also belonged to a tiny religious sect. As the cult attempts to chase down the people behind "Air Chrysalis" and thereby protect themselves from public scrutiny, Aomame's secret mission for the dowager brings her into contact with the very same dangerous group, and the two story lines become thoroughly intertwined. As the stories gradually converge, Murakami treats us to not one, but a series of gripping climaxes, all the while weaving fantastical elements that appear as naturally as if they were scenes of domestic life: a second moon hanging in the sky, the appearance of so-called Little People who have some mysterious impact on events, the weaving of the strange object called an air chrysalis in which some sort of beings are gestating. (This is an evident borrowing from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"; the name Aomame literally means "green pea" — enough said.)

What exactly any of the strange phenomena are meant to symbolize is rather difficult to say, and there are probably as many interpretations as there are readers. Consider this quote from an interview Murakami gave a few years ago about his previous novel:

" 'Kafka on the Shore' contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It's hard to explain, but that's the kind of novel I set out to write".

But, his readers will interject, that's the kind of novel he always sets out to write. It seems entirely plausible that one isn't meant to understand everything, and certainly not to tease out the symbolic significance of every odd feature, if there even is any significance to all of them.

There is one salient characteristic of Murakami's fiction that provides a clue to understanding the novels: his fixation with Western culture. Every one of his books contains numerous cultural references, mostly musical but some literary, as well. Virtually none of these references is Japanese. In fact, it is so common for him to employ pieces of classical, jazz or popular music as leitmotifs — Janacek's "Sinfonietta" figures prominently in this latest book, for example — that a rare reference to a Japanese song or artist is actually jarring. Why is everything Japanese banished from his novels, while Western books and music permeate every story? If your only knowledge of Japan came from Murakami's books, you could easily conclude that modern Japan doesn't have a culture of its own. Everything is borrowed from somewhere else. So where did traditional Japanese culture disappear to?

For answer, you have to go back to his most extraordinary book, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle", published in 1997, one of the most imaginative novels of the modern era. This is one of the few books in which Murakami overtly refers to Japan's actions during World War II, specifically the invasion of Manchuria and the brutalization of the local population. Unlike Germany, which has made reparations and many of whose writers and intellectuals have directly confronted their country's responsibility for the Nazi terror, Japan has always been notoriously reluctant even to examine its past, let alone begin to atone for it. In a society in which even an expression of regret by a leader for Japanese atrocities can still be political suicide, it must surely have taken some courage for Murakami to publish "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle". Through the experiences of several young contemporary characters — similar to those in his other books — set against flashbacks that are as searing as any you will read in a book about the brutality of war, Murakami paints a not very flattering picture of a modern country that, by failing to come to terms with its militaristic past, has cut itself off from its own history. It's as if the war created an impenetrable wall of separation between the young characters who struggle to understand their place in society and the world of their parents. Indeed, there are very few parent-child relationships depicted in Murakami's books ("1Q84" is an exception, for reasons that will make sense to the reader in this context), as if today's society sprang from thin air, without cultural memory or historical context. In all of the novels, it seems as if Murakami is suggesting that by failing to redeem itself, Japan has forfeited the right to its own heritage. More than 60 years after the end of WWII, Japan remains an occupied country in many subtle and psychological ways. With democratic societies once again beset by the threat of fanaticism, and even Japan the victim of home-grown religious-inspired terrorism (about which Murakami wrote a nonfiction book in the late 1990s), "1Q84" explores how an absence of cultural memory makes people vulnerable to alien and dangerous belief systems.

Many of the novels' mysteries make some sense in this context. The alternative versions of reality that are forced upon characters without explanation, the inexplicable appearance of strange characters and confounding situations, the desperate search for meaning in the most basic relationships, are all symptoms of profound societal dysfunction. It still doesn't explain all the bizarre details, like the second moon or the surreal phantasmagorias into which Murakami's protagonists are invariably propelled. But it does give the reader a foundation upon which to understand the disorienting quality that he elicits from the ordinariness of living. If the entire world makes no sense, then the strangeness of any particular turn of events matters less than the unshakable feeling of displacement that disturbs the sleep of Aomame, Tengo, and every one of Murakami's unforgettable people.



It is rare for such a popular novelist to have never had a book adapted for the screen, but Murakami's books do present some extraordinary challenges. Now it turns out that a film version of an early novel, "Norwegian Wood", is reportedly in the offing. It is written in a more realistic style than usual, though "realistic" is relative when we're talking about Murakami, and its meaning is no less esoteric than that of his other novels. If you haven't read any Murakami, and the book is rendered faithfully, the movie will likely prove to be utterly confounding. Even if you are familiar with his novels, good luck.

January 28, 2012


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