Published:  12:00 AM, 09 March 2017

Haruki Murakami: 'I'm an outcast of the Japanese literary world'

Haruki Murakami: 'I'm an outcast of the Japanese literary world' A picture from the film version of Murakami's Norwegian Wood (2011).

"Strange things happen in this world," Haruki Murakami says. "You don't know why, but they happen." It could be a guiding motto for all of his fiction, but he is talking specifically about a minor character in his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The character is a jazz pianist who seems to have made a pact with death, and is able to see people's auras. "Why that pianist can see the coolers of people, I don't know," Murakami muses. "It just happens." Novels in general, he thinks, benefit from a certain mystery. "If the very important secret is not solved, then readers will be frustrated.

 That is not what I want. But if a certain kind of secret stays secret, it's a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it." The world's most popular cult novelist is sipping coffee in the sunny library of an Edinburgh hotel, which - perhaps disappointingly for admirers of his more fantastical yarns - is not reached through a labyrinthine network of subterranean tunnels. Murakami is relaxed and affable, rather than forbiddingly gnomic. "I'm not mysterious!" he says, laughing.

Tsukuru Tazaki, as the author calls his own novel for short, sold a million copies in two weeks when it came out last summer in Japan. (Murakami was born in Kyoto to two literature teachers, and grew up in the port city of Kobe. These days he lives near Tokyo, having spent periods in Greece, at Princeton and Tufts University - where he wrote his masterpiece, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - and recently in Hawaii.) It contains passing mysteries like the pianist who sees auras, but it is also a mystery novel in a larger sense. Tsukuru, its 36-year-old protagonist, is still in mourning for the years before he went to university, when he was part of an inseparable group of five friends - until one day they told him, without explanation, that they never wanted to see him again.

"In the first place I had the intention to write a short story," Murakami says. "I just wanted to describe that guy, 36 years old, very solitary … I wanted to describe his life. So his secret was not to be dissolved; the mystery was going to stay a mystery." But he hadn't reckoned on the inciting power of a woman to move the story forward, as Murakami's female characters so often do.

"When I wrote that short-story part," he continues, "Sara, [Tsukuru's] girlfriend, came to him and she said, 'You should find out what happened then', so he went to Nagoya to see his old friends. And the same thing happened to me. Sara came to me and said, 'You should go back to Nagoya and find out what happened.' When I was writing the book, my own character came to me and told me what to do … The fiction and my experience happened at the same time, in parallel. So it became a novel." Murakami has often spoken of the theme of two dimensions, or realities, in his work: a normal, beautifully evoked everyday world, and a weirder supernatural realm, which may be accessed by sitting at the bottom of a well (as does the hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), or by taking the wrong emergency staircase off a city expressway (as in 1Q84). Sometimes dreams act as portals between these realities. In Tsukuru Tazaki there is a striking sex dream, at the climax of which the reader is not sure whether Tsukuru is still asleep or awake. Yet Murakami hardly ever remembers his own dreams.

 "Once I talked to a very famous therapist in Japan," he says, "and I said to him that I don't dream much, almost nothing, and he said: 'That makes sense.' So I wanted to ask him: 'Why? Why does it make sense?' But there was no time. And I was waiting to see him again, but he died three or four years ago." He smiles sadly. "Too bad." His novels thus far have generally divided into two types. There are the overtly magical-realist romances (A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84), and the works on a smaller canvas, in which hints of the supernatural remain mostly beneath the mournful, mundane surface (South of the Border, West of the Sun; Sputnik Sweetheart). With its unresolved mysteries, tales-within-tales and maybe-dreams, Tsukuru Tazaki seems almost a hybrid of both styles. "I had been thinking my novels are divided into two categories, as you said," he agrees. "So it's just like Beethoven's symphonies, you know, odd numbers and even numbers. Three, five, seven, nine is kind of a big symphony, and two, four, six, eight is a kind of intimate work. I think my novels do the same thing. What do I think about this Tsukuru Tazaki?

 Yeah, it might be a new category." Such musical comparisons come naturally to Murakami, who along with his wife, Yoko Takahashi, ran a jazz bar called Peter Cat in Tokyo in his twenties, which he opened while still a drama student at Waseda University. Murakami sold the bar and concentrated on writing full-time after the publication of his second novel, Pinball. Since then, his life has been one of writing and long-distance running - as chronicled in his memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running - and also collecting records.

 His novels almost always feature a thematic piece of music (his breakout Japanese bestseller, Norwegian Wood, was named after the Beatles song). The unusual harmonies of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight" were perfect for this novel's haunted pianist, he thought: "Thelonious Monk's tune is full of mysteries. Monk plays some very strange sounds during the chords. Very strange. But to him it's a very logical chord. But when we are listening to his music it doesn't sound logical."  Meanwhile, Tsukuru and his former friends listen to "Le Mal du Pays", a piece from Liszt's set of piano suites Years of Pilgrimage (hence the novel's subtitle). It was the soundtrack to the novel's composition. "I wake up early in the morning and I play a record, a vinyl record, when I'm writing. Not so loud. After 10 or 15 minutes I forget about the music, I just concentrate on my writing. But still I need some kind of music, good music. When I was writing Tsukuru Tazaki I was listening to Liszt, the Years of Pilgrimage, and that song, 'Le mal du pays', remained in my mind somehow, so I just wanted to write something about that song. That's a beautiful record." Listening to it, Tsukuru feels as if "he'd swallowed a hard lump of cloud". (excerpt)

The writer is a British author and journalist

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