My Conversation With Haruki Murakami Never Really Ends
Sean Wilsey chats with the prolific novelist about music, racism and a writing process that never stops evolving
Haruki Murakami has published nearly two dozen books in English, of which a majority are great, and several are better — that is deeper, funnier, more life-affirming and breath-taking and sleep-depriving — than anything I’ve read by another living writer.
A rough sketch of Murakami’s life goes like this: born in 1949, in Kyoto, his uneventful suburban childhood was enlivened by voracious reading of Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler (the latter in paperbacks left behind by American sailors).
A few years as a middling university student in Tokyo introduced him to the two loves of his life, jazz music and his wife, Yoko. He married her and opened a jazz club called Peter Cat (cats are a third love), which was such a success that Murakami’s life seemed set on its course (bohemian, obscure) until, as he told an audience in 1992, “Suddenly one day in April 1978, I felt like writing a novel.”
He was in the outfield stands at a baseball game, drinking a beer. As he told the novelist John Wray in The Paris Review, “My favorite team was the Yakult Swallows. They were playing the Hiroshima Carps. The Swallows’ first batter in the bottom of the first inning was an American, Dave Hilton. You’ve probably never heard of him. He never made a name for himself in the States, so he came to play ball in Japan. I’m pretty sure he was the leading hitter that year. Anyhow, he sent the first ball pitched to him that day into left field for a double. And that’s when the idea struck me: I could write a novel.”
It wasn’t easy. Murakami told Wray it was like drilling for oil “so deep that I had to dig and dig and dig. It was real toil.”
Before inspiring Murakami, Dave Hilton, novelist’s muse, had been the San Diego Padres’ number-one draft pick in 1971 and played for them through the ’75 season. When his American major league career was winding down, he went to Japan to play for the Swallows, a team named in the usual style of Japanese sports teams: after a corporation … and, it must have occurred to someone, in order to make a pun in English, because Yakult, a yogurt drink, is, yes, swallowed. (Another American on the Swallows once said of baseball in Japan, where fans are required by their companies to attend games, and attendance is dutifully taken, “I just don’t understand it.”)
Hilton described his start in sports in words that are reminiscent of Murakami’s remarks on his own start in literature: “I wasn’t that good at baseball, didn’t know how to get better, and did not have much physical strength or self-confidence … [I had to] train my mind to overcome the odds against me. I learned to play far beyond what I thought I could do.”
Every night after closing the club, Murakami sat at his kitchen table drinking beer and filling notepads. Six months later he submitted a novel called Hear the Wind Sing for a literary award. When it won he went to get Dave Hilton’s autograph — “I feel he was a lucky charm for me” — then went back to the kitchen table and wrote another novel, Pinball, 1973. This book (coupled with a movie deal on the first) was successful enough to allow him to sell the jazz club and become a full-time writer at age 32.
This was a culturally specific series of events. Japan is a country of readers, and real money is attached to literary prizes. A major plot point in Murakami’s 2011 novel, 1Q84, is the collaboration between an editor, a ghostwriter and a teenage girl to game a lucrative literary award. And the title, 1Q84, like the Yakult Swallows, is a bilingual pun: the number nine in Japanese is pronounced like the English letter Q. 1984.
After Murakami read and helped me get my first book translated and published in Japan, his editor, Riki Suzuki, took me to dinner in the Jimbocho neighborhood of Tokyo. We got off the subway and he pointed to a sign in the station that said “BOOKSTORE AREA.” I laughed and imagined a couple dusty, emeritus-type shops and maybe a Kinokuniya. That would have been a “bookstore area” in New York.
”How many bookstores are there?” I asked. (I was thinking, Ten?)
He laughed. “Too many to count.”
Then we ascended to the street, where I was overwhelmed by as many bookstores as there are banks and drugstores and check-cashing operations and lube shops in an American city. Some were the kind that you think of when you conjure up the image of what a bookstore ought to be, a kind of thermal spa bubbling with deep rejuvenation for the mind and soul. A paradisiacal library in this vein is central to Murakami’s 2005 novel, Kafka on the Shore.
The first bookstore we visited was full of used books that had, to quote Murakami’s Kafka, “the smell of an earlier time leaking out between the pages — a special odor of the knowledge and emotions that for ages have been calmly resting between the covers.” It was so full of books and patrons that there was barely room to move. Little corridors ran through walls made of these emotion receptacles. I was reminded of the catacombs in Rome. I found an American edition in three volumes of Commodore Perry’s report on Japan to the U.S. Naval Department (who’d published it).
Murakami’s novels were on the front tables of nearly all of these shops.
After the first two novels he went to work on A Wild Sheep Chase, technically the final book in a trilogy — the trilogy of the Rat, a recurring character — though he now considers it his first novel, because it’s where he found his voice. Later he told an interviewer he considered his first books “immature works, I think — very small books … flimsy, if that’s the right word.”
Hear the Wind Sing is 130 pages long and, in Alfred Birnbaum’s seamless translation, contains hardboiled highbrow dialogue that it is hard to imagine improving:
“Why do you read books?”
“Why do you drink beer?”…
“The great thing about beer is you can piss it all out….”
The Rat watched me continue eating as he said this.
“Why do you only read books?”…
“Because Flaubert’s dead and gone, that’s why.”
“You don’t read books by living authors?”
“Nothing of value in living authors.”
“When people are dead you can forgive them most everything.”
Style found, weakness purged, his nightclub lifestyle then changed. He started running marathons, eating monastically (his paternal grandfather was a Buddhist priest) and all but stopped drinking in order to maintain a rigorous morning work schedule that has permitted him to be so consistently productive. He also began translating contemporary literature from English to Japanese in the afternoons.
Since putting his regime in place Murakami has produced a consistent stream of astounding books, beginning in what he called the “surrealistic style” with Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (long his personal favorite), and then, in pursuit of a wider audience, changing course to write what he described to Publisher’s Weekly as a “totally realistic, very straight” story, even its title aimed at the mainstream: Norwegian Wood. The novel was so popular (as Murakami expected) that he fled Japan to escape the pop-star scale of his success.
Now, decades later, if you Google “Norwegian Wood,” the first result is for Murakami’s book, the second for the Beatles’ song … though each was the child of a man who loved a woman named Yoko.
On the lam in Greece and Rome, Murakami wrote Dance Dance Dance, a rollicking sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase (making a two-thirds-suppressed trilogy into a half-suppressed tetralogy) and South of the Border, West of the Sun, an elegiac version of Norwegian Wood — quieter and more mature. Still an expat, now teaching in the United States, he wrote The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, combining the best of his experimental and realistic voices, plus a deep sense of history, and grabbed hold of what makes a writer immortal.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was published in Japan in three volumes from 1994 to ’95, and in the U.S. in ’97, in a single abridged edition. The full book has yet to appear in English. The title refers to the mechanical sound of an invisible bird that pops into the novel just before scenes of near-unbearable suffering (a man being skinned alive; the execution of a zoo’s-worth of animals). Murakami has said that violence is “the key to Japan.” And yet the character who transmits these stories is given a name that evokes home, coziness and safety: Cinnamon.
And the harbinger itself is also cute, described by the narrator as “The bird that winds the spring … Every morning. In the tree tops. It winds the world’s spring. Creeeak.”
I asked Murakami about cuteness and whether it was, in concert with efficiency, a uniquely Japanese quality, and he replied: “The commodification of the cute and the efficient is not something unique to Japan. Mickey Mouse is cute, after all, and the Swiss Army Knife is efficient. And nations are violent systems by definition.”
It was a proclamation that entered my brain with gravitational force. Murakami’s speaking voice is deep and resonant — to such a degree that it seems like he must have unearthed it while drilling for his writing voice, his words bubbling like hot water out of a vent in the earth.
After writing The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Murakami returned to Japan. Short stories have always come naturally, and he has written some of his best post-repatriation, among them the just-published First Person Singular — which also contains some poetry and makes reference to a heretofore unknown ur-Murakami text, a self-published book of poems written at the ballpark, while he was running his jazz club, The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection. Five hundred copies printed. All signed. Three hundred sold. Two hundred given away.
He’s equally adept at non-fiction, reporting Underground, a journalistic account of the poison gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, knocking out a perfect memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, and collaborating on a manifesto, Absolutely on Music, with the conductor Seiji Ozawa. New fiction has continued to appear every couple years, nowadays translated by either Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel or Ted Goossen, who’ve created versions so seamless that the idea you might be missing something will never cross your mind. How can the best thing you’ve ever read be missing something? Rubin and Gabriel and Goosen seem more like mediums than translators.
Murakami is routinely a bookmaker’s favorite to win the Nobel Prize (getting 3-to-1 odds with Ladbrokes, the British sports-betting site, last time I checked).
As a demonstration of Murakami’s pop-cultural ubiquity, consider the fact that Nicolas Cage recently described his idea of happiness with the words, “I just want to look at my aquarium, look at my sea horse, read my Murakami, watch Bergman.”
Happiness — my own, Nicolas Cage’s, millions of others’ — seems like a good way to begin this mid-pandemic conversation, which we conducted over email.
Sean Wilsey: Having provided so much happiness to readers, how do you define it for yourself?
Haruki Murakami: I’ve never really thought of my writing as providing happiness to anyone. Nor have I ever been particularly conscious of style. What I think about when I’m writing is how to get my point across as simply as possible, and how to make the sentences flow. I try to avoid difficult language or roundabout descriptions. I just try to say what I want to say as clearly and understandably as I can. I want my readers not only to comprehend the meaning of the text but to see and hear the images I create.
But your idea of happiness — is it writing? When I imagine you writing I see you entering a flow and following it. I see you embodying that Bob Marley lyric: one good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain. But for you the music is stories.
I feel that most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from music. For me, writing is something that passes through the body. The most important thing about writing, I believe, is not its content (though content is important, of course) but its movement. If you make your text move well, the content will take care of itself.
Carrying on with the theme, you seem happier with your old work than you did in the past. I was struck that you decided to allow your first two novels to be published in the US after saying for years that you wouldn’t. What changed your mind?
I was not satisfied with those two works because in them I was still feeling around for my own style. That’s why I always refused to have them translated into any foreign language. But there ended up being more readers than I would’ve expected who took a liking to my first two books, and I finally decided getting them out there might be worthwhile as a point of reference if nothing else.
Is Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World still your favorite of your own books?
There’s always so much I’m dissatisfied with when it comes to my own works, it’s really hard for me to answer when someone asks me which is my favorite. It might not be the best metaphor to use, but a book I have finished writing feels kind of like a pair of underwear I took off and flung into the laundry.
You made me laugh out loud! They seem to be landing in other countries and languages.
Actually, that may not have been the most appropriate metaphor here (haha). What I was trying to say is that when you’re wearing your underwear, they’re very important to you. However, once you’ve worn them, that’s it — you discard them and have no more use for them. It’s the same with my novels. I don’t go back and read my books unless I have to. If I did, I’d probably end up wanting to rewrite them!
I loved your two “Shinagawa Monkey” stories, both about a talking primate who steals the names of women. Reading them I remembered that you own a bootleg Beach Boys album with a holographic image of a monkey in a deck chair on the cover.
Now that you mention it, I did have a copy of that record. I just remembered. But since I forgot all about it, the Beach Boys album cover monkey couldn’t have had anything to do with the Shinagawa monkey. I think I must’ve sold my copy, actually.
Has the pandemic interfered with your record shopping or changed your routine in marked ways?
I miss being able to go into record stores abroad. I love visiting secondhand record stores all over the world. I go to record stores in Tokyo from time to time. These days I’m mainly buying old classical records. I don’t buy much jazz anymore.
I feel that your female characters have shifted in your new story collection. The antagonistic female bar patron at the end of the title story seems emblematic of that shift. Are you consciously changing the way you write about women?
I can’t really say. I’ve never thought about it.
I ask because when the novelist Mieko Kawakami interviewed you, she pressed you on the topic, saying, “there’s a persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads. So the question is, why is it that women are so often called upon to play this role in Murakami novels?” The new stories seemed to really respond. What did you think about her observations?
If the revolution happened next month, I might be arrested for the crime of thinking erroneous thoughts, have a three-cornered red had stuck on my head, be cursed by the mob and strung up from the nearest lamppost. But that’s just the way it goes. I’ve enjoyed the way I’ve lived my life … I’ve never followed the tide of popular opinion in the way I write my novels. I’m not going to start now.
My teenage daughter said to me, “Murakami doesn’t really seem like a feminist, but he doesn’t seem like he’s not a feminist, he just doesn’t care.” When I asked her to elaborate, she said you don’t bother to distinguish between women and men. Do you agree?
The way I live my life, I don’t really have anything to do with all the “isms” of the world. I’m not an anythingist. I just make an effort not to write anything into my stories that would hurt or show contempt for someone because they’re male or female. Or could that be an ism in itself? You could call it Murakami-ism if you like.
Kawakami praised your 1992 story, “Sleep,” saying, “I’ve never encountered another woman like the character in ‘Sleep.’ It’s an extraordinary achievement.” Where’d she come from?
“Sleep” was something that just popped into my head when I was living in Rome. I lived in an apartment near the Vatican with a profumeria just outside my window. All the loudly dressed Roman women used to gather there. I got the idea for the story from watching that scene through the window. All I remember now is that scene.
Of course you went to Rome to get away from the success of Norwegian Wood, and it worked. How do you manage now?
I actually wrote most of Norwegian Wood in Italy. So it’s not like I went there to run away from all the publicity. However, when the book became a bestseller, I felt like I could do without all the hassle of going back to Japan so I ended up staying in Italy for a long time. And now? I feel like I’m more used to people in Japan and they’ve become accustomed to me. If I take the subway or bus or go to the secondhand music store, no one seems to care or even notice me. I can take it easy … although people do sometimes come up to me when I go to a baseball game!
In the new book you open the story “Carnival” by describing F* with the line, “Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.” Reading this I thought of Liesl, a character in Robertson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, who’s introduced as “certainly the ugliest human creature I had ever seen.” Were you thinking of or just channeling Davies?
I’ve never read that book. Isn’t it the sort of idea that would occur to any novelist? I mean, it shouldn’t require channeling.
F*’s analysis of duality in Shumann made me think of Faust: “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”
I haven’t read Goethe’s Faust very closely, and am not familiar with that line. But I do love Schumann’s music and I’ve always had a strong sense of its dualistic nature. Because of that quality, there aren’t many musicians who can perform Schumann’s music well.
Speaking of the demonic, have you read Leonora Carrington?
What about The Master and Margarita?
Yes, I’ve read it and I loved it.
What are you translating these days?
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. I actually wasn’t too impressed with it when I read it as a young man, but re-reading it at a more advanced age, I thought it was wonderful.
What’s changed? Looking at your work the same way, Would Wind-Up Bird or 1Q84 or the new collection be best suited for specific audiences?
What I think about is, 100 or 150 years from now, will people still be reading my books? What will they think when they read them? I’m less concerned about the present. To be honest, my books are a bit like a message in a bottle.
Anti-Asian violence has been at the forefront of the news in the United States. Having spent a great deal of time here, do you have any thoughts on the topic?
When I was in Massachusetts in 1991 I saw people beating up on Japanese cars. You could borrow a big hammer for a dollar and smash the hell out of a Toyota Corolla. Japan was seen as a threat to the American economy. Nowadays China has pretty much taken Japan’s place on that front.
What do you think is behind Americans’ xenophobia?
You’ll find people all over the world who feel like that. It’s not just America. People worry about change, and that anxiety can make them aggressive. All I can do is write novels that absorb those feelings of anxiety. One kind of anxiety might possibly be capable of absorbing another kind of anxiety.
We’ve talked about whether you’d consider ghostwriting and you said you’d like to ghostwrite the emperor. Does stepping into his role still intrigue you?
That was just an off-the-cuff remark. I didn’t really mean it. There would be way too many problems if I were to take that on. Besides, even if I wanted to, it’s hardly realistic.
Now I’m wondering about other outlets for Murakami-ism. For example, how did you decide to DJ a radio show? [Murakami has a once-a-month Sunday night show on Tokyo FM.]
Why did I start DJing on the radio? It’s really because I’m tired of listening to music on my own at home. I wanted to listen to my favorite music in the company of other people (it’s hard work listening to 15,000 records and a load of CDs all by yourself!). So after I turned 70, I started doing FM radio shows. Or maybe I was just inspired by the photo on the cover of Donald Fagen’s “The Nightfly.” I love DJing.
Riki Suzuki, your editor in Japan, said he’d been a customer at Peter Cat, the Jazz Club you ran before becoming a full-time writer. Did your customers play a role in encouraging you to write fiction? What was the makeup of Peter Cat’s clientele?
That’s like something from a past life. I can’t really recall ― thankfully. And I don’t want to think about what might happen in the next life.
You collect T-shirts. How long has this been going on? Are there shirts you long for? What are your criteria?
I don’t really collect them. They just sort of accumulate of their own accord. There are some people who collect vintage Ferraris. Some of us make it a point to pick up a T-shirt at the Goodwill store. That’s all it is. I figure the longer I live, the more stuff of all kinds I’ll accumulate.
I see Japan as the country that carries some of history’s heaviest weight, with two atomic bombings still in living memory. It’s also commodified an aesthetic of cuteness that goes beyond Mickey Mouse or anything we have in the U.S. Is there a connection between horror and frivolity?
A culture is going to have different layers and facets to it. Sometimes there’s an interrelation between some of those facets, other times there isn’t … and it’s something that’d give me a headache if I tried to analyze each instance, so I do my best not to think about it. I focus my attention on what I like, as far as I’m able. I have a personal opposition to both nuclear weapons and nuclear power, but I’m not particularly interested in Hello Kitty. Nor does anime concern me much.
I have a bad feeling I’m wasting your time with this question, but have you ever seen the show Midnight Diner? It’s very popular over here.
It’s my first time hearing that title. I had no idea.
Your baseball poems really made me laugh. I also loved the Tanka poems in the story “On a Stone Pillow,” and was moved by examples of your father’s Haiku, as quoted in your New Yorker piece about him. Will there be more Murakami poetry?
The tanka and other poems I write are all either just dressing for my stories or outright jokes. They’re not meant to be taken seriously. Since I’m basically a prose writer I always feel out of my depth in the world of verse. Of course I do enjoy reading some good poetry, tanka or haiku, but as far as writing it myself … Sometimes I’m asked to write song lyrics, and I always refuse. I just can’t do it. (Kazuo Ishiguro writes some really good lyrics, though.)
I once told the late Raymond Carver, “Your prose is like poetry, and your poems are like prose,” which seemed to make him very happy. He shouted out proudly to his wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, “Hey, Tess, you’ll never believe what he just said to me … !”
At this point Murakami’s gracious assistant told me, “Please understand that as Haruki is now concentrating on his own writing project, it is very difficult for him to spend time on interview requests such as this and it is likely that these are the last answers you receive from him. We would appreciate if you and InsideHook could work on your piece from these answers.”
So that was that … until I realized The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s opening contains a similar conversation between Toru, the unemployed narrator, and his wife, Kumiko:
“Can you write poetry?” she asked.
“Poetry!?” Poetry? Did she mean … poetry?
”I know the publisher of a story magazine for girls. They’re looking for somebody to pick and revise poems submitted by readers. And they want the person to write a short poem every month for the frontispiece … I’m not talking about great poetry, just something for high school girls. It doesn’t have to find a place in literary history. You could do it with your eyes closed. Don’t you see?”
“Look, I just can’t write poetry-eyes open or closed. I’ve never done it, and I’m not going to start now.”
That chapter opens with Toru listening to Rossini’s“Thieving Magpie” overture, and cooking spaghetti. Then the phone rings and a low-voiced woman politely asks for 10 minutes of his time, so they can “understand each other.” He tells her to call back because he’s cooking, and she says, “go cook your precious spaghetti.” A more literal, if ridiculous, translation of spaghetti being “little strings” — “go cook your precious little strings.”
But Toru was listening to string music. The same piece of string music that Stanley Kubrick used to choreograph the most brutal moment of violence in A Clockwork Orange.
After the woman hangs up, we get this paragraph:
With no outlet for my feelings, I stared at the phone in my hand until I remembered the spaghetti. Back in the kitchen, I turned off the gas and poured the contents of the pot into a colander. Thanks to the phone call, the spaghetti was a little softer than al dente, but it had not been dealt a mortal blow. I started eating and thinking.
Looking at what struck me as an incomplete interview, and an old-friend editor I didn’t want to let down, I was able to round things out with a second, mini interview with Jay Rubin, who translated The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I wanted to know how he’d settled on the inspired choice of “mortal blow” (a prior version of the opening chapter, translated by Birnbaum, left it at “overcooked”) and whether he’d considered going with The Clockwork Bird Chronicle.
“‘So go cook your precious spaghetti’ (in the British edition, ‘So, go and cook your precious spaghetti’) is not a great leap from the Japanese, which has a sarcastic ‘daiji na,’ meaning something like ‘precious’ or ‘important’ before ‘spaghetti.’
“‘But it had not been dealt a mortal blow’ is a little more of a stretch, but the Japanese does have the word ‘chimeiteki’ in it, which means ‘mortal,’ ‘fatal,’ ‘deadly’ or ‘lethal.’ Literally, the sentence goes: ‘It was a little too soft to be called al dente, but not fatally so.’ ‘Mortal blow’ seems like a reasonable next step in the march from real Japanese to real English, but if you like to think of it as an inspired choice, let me not disabuse you. I have no recollection of other choices I might have had at the time.
“I never considered The Clockwork Bird Chronicle or anything other than Alfred Birnbaum’s excellent Wind-Up Bird (I insisted that Alfred be credited on the back of the title page), though I did go back and forth between singular and plural ‘Chronicle,’ and even now I sometimes think I should have gone with ‘Chronicles’ as more often used in English titles, especially since there is a chapter where Toru is given the choice to read one of several chronicles written by Cinnamon. I settled on the singular so as to give the impression that the novel is itself one more-or-less postwar chronicle. Haruki used the word ‘kuronikuru,’ which could be singular or plural.”
On that same bookstore trip to Japan I visited Murakami. There was a distant mountain just visible out the window of the room where he did his writing, a room filled with records, and the novelist pointed at its summit and said, “There are binoculars. If they want people can go up there and look at me. They can look right into this room, and see what I’m doing.”
I can see him there now, concentrating.
Sean Wilsey is at work on a translation of Luigi Pirandello’s Uno, Nessuno e Centomila for Archipelago Books, and a documentary film about 9/11, IX XI, featuring Roz Chast, Griffin Dunne, and many others (more information can be found here: www.ixxi.nyc). He’s the author of a memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, an essay collection, More Curious, and, in collaboration with the actress Molly Shannon, a forthcoming memoir, Hello, Molly!
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