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Haruki Murakami: Japan's master of the surreal

2nd April 2011 - Adam Howard

Norwegian Wood BookWith a reasonably major adaptation of Norwegian Wood in cinemas and a new novel out later this year, and a Japanese fiction promotion currently underway at our Foyles Westfield branch, there's never been a better time to assess Haruki Murakami's body of work.

It seems to me that Murakami occupies an enviable position in the literary world - he enjoys immense critical acclaim whilst also being immensely popular, in both the East and the West. His novels, whilst being very dense and very strange, have gained a huge cult following, and it's not hard to see why. They always retain a lightness, a playfulness, even when the subject matter is at its most surreal and intense. His prose sings and dances its way through nightmares and dreamscapes, past talking cats and raining leeches, down wells and through underground caves, never losing focus or intensity even when its characters pause to consider Schumann or the correct way to cook pasta. He seems to have crafted a style that's completely unique - it's something that's light and readable, but also incredibly complicated and sometimes almost impossible to fully comprehend.

Take a look at his magnum opus, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. If you were to ask me the plot, I'd say something along the lines of, "Well, it's about this guy, and he's looking for his missing cat, but it's not really about that, and his wife goes missing too, and then he meets a lot of women and they all tell him their stories, and he sits at the bottom of a well for a while, and a guy gets skinned, and in the end his wife is trapped in a dream hotel or something." It sounds off-putting, directionless and more than a little silly, but the actual experience of reading it is something quite different. Yes, there's no real structure in any traditional way, but Murakami never loses control. Every incident and development feels pointed and deliberate.

But what is his point, exactly? He deliberately makes sure the meaning of his plots are ambiguous, but there still remains recurring themes and motifs throughout his work which point us to the purpose of his novels. For one, Murakami fancies himself as something of a historian, or at least an interpreter of history. This is most clear in Underground, his only non-fiction book, which is an account of the Tokyo gas attacks, and after the quake, a short story cycle set during the 1995 Kobe earthquake, where he directly engages with recent events and attempts to tap into Japan's collective consciousness.

Linked image of Kafka on the Shore paperback jacket

He is at his most powerful, though, when he directs his eye towards the cultural fallout of the Second World War and the uneasy way Japan has attempted to assimilate its culture with that of the west ever since. Though he rarely addresses it directly, it casts a long shadow over his characters, especially in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. Look at, for instance, Lieutenant Mamiya in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recounts witnessing his commanding officer being flayed alive (surely one of the most disturbing moments in all of contemporary fiction) in 1938 Mongolia, and the way that manifests later when Okada has a terrifying vision of a busker's skin peeling off and crawling towards him. Or, in Kafka on the Shore, where one character is led on his journey by Johnny Walker, and later, Colonel Sanders - obvious metaphors for Western consumerism. The strangeness, the surrealism of his narratives seems to be borne from a society trying to work itself out through dreamlike hallucinations and metaphysical slippage. It's like the country's collective psyche has been knocked out of sync with reality.

It's a shame, really, that the only two film adaptations of his works so far are Norwegian Wood and Tony Takitani, two of his most normal stories. I'd love to see how a director like David Lynch or Kiyoshi Kurosawa would visualise Okada's trip down the well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or the underground mountain in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Perhaps, though, it would be too difficult to bring his unique style to the screen, and I fear the simple joy of his prose would be lost in translation. No one can write about music or food the way Murakami can, and it's refreshing that someone can handle such complex themes in such an unusual way, whilst still retaining his mass appeal. Japan should consider him a national treasure.

 

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