Japan's most popular novelist has finally woken up to events in his own country. But can this ageing adolescent really grow up?by Murray Sayle / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Japan was very much in the news in early 1995 and, for once, not because of its economy. On 17th January, an earthquake struck the port city of Kobe, devastating working-class districts and killing 5,000 people. Two months later, the followers of semi-crazed Buddhist guru Shoko Asahara attacked the Tokyo subway with homemade nerve gas, killing 12 people and injuring 1,000. Japan had seen nothing like it since Hiroshima.
None of this disturbed the routine of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most successful writer, who returned from a spell in America in September. Brought up in Kobe, it did not occur to him to inspect the damage. A resident of Tokyo, he rarely used the subway. Neither the Kobe nor Tokyo horrors had any immediate impact on his imaginary world, or the six-mile jog, daily swim, solitary dinner and early bed that were his contact with the real one. Well past 40, Murakami was stuck in a golden groove, turning out stories of boy meets girl meets monster, while time carried Japan further and further away from the mood of his youth and Murakami’s stock of material.
Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949, the only child of two lecturers in Japanese literature. As a form of rebellion, he says, he refused to read the Japanese classics and, to this day, seems to know little of them. Instead, when his parents moved to Kobe, he discovered secondhand bookshops stacked with American paperbacks in English. He mostly read detective writers like Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, later moving on to F Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote. “They provided a small window in the wall of my room through which I could look out onto a foreign landscape, a fantasy world,” he recalls. Murakami was a teenager in the 1960s, a member of the first generation to remember nothing of Japan’s long war and the hungrier years of recovery. By the time he was 25, in 1974, he was running a Tokyo coffee and jazz bar called Peter Cat, and like a good host listening to his customers, mostly a bit younger than himself. The last cause in which Japanese youth showed even a flicker of interest-“Crush the US-Japan Security Treaty” (actually anti-Vietnam)-ran out of steam with the treaty’s renewal in 1970. Unemployment close to zero, hunger not even a memory, Japan’s good times had arrived and Chandler’s world of jazz, wise-cracking babes and fast cars had, 30 years on, come to earth in new Japan.
Murakami published nothing until he was 29, when his first novel, Hear The Wind Sing, won a minor literary prize. Two years later, he closed Peter Cat and has written full time ever since, with astonishing financial rewards. His 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood (named after the Beatles song that runs through the nameless narrator’s head) sold 4m copies in Japan, and several of his other hits have topped a million. Sales on this scale suggest sociological rather than literary forces at work. Murakami is one of a handful of writers who has made it big at a time of a pronounced generational changeover, usually after wars. His model, F Scott Fitzgerald, hit a similar jackpot with the now unreadable This Side of Paradise (1920) about student life at Princeton. Noel Coward did much the same with his plays I’ll Leave It To You (1920) and The Vortex (1924). Lord Byron even made it with a poem, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (1812, when Napoleon was on the ropes). The form goes back to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774, Prussia vs Austria).
The selling point of all these commercial coups has been the same. Young people believe that their generation is unlike any that went before and they flock to buy a writer who speaks their language. Their parents read the books in an attempt to understand their offspring. Murakami writes much as Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe talked, as no one has ever written Japanese before. Murakami’s characters are young. They have few names, or none-in one story everyone including the cat is called Noboru Watanabe (for which read John Smith). They have neither parents nor children and, if they work at all, it is in new, un-Japanese trades like advertising and PR. Far from working for Toyota, they drive Mercedes Benz. Murakami’s books have no coherent storylines and there is little interest in how a situation will end, or a life work out.
Murakami’s trademark is his non-Japanese brand-naming, taken to the point of parody. In one story, “The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” published in the New Yorker in 1990, the narrator cooks spaghetti for breakfast, lunches at McDonald’s, listens to Robert Plant, reads Len Deighton and talks about TS Eliot. Apart from a reference to chopsticks, or even with it, he could as easily be in Sydney or San Francisco. Murakami has explained that he wants to remove all specifically “Japanese” elements so that what remains will be “essential Japanese nature.” In a mostly negative way, he succeeds. His characters are not only empty, they are wildly innocent: no acrobatic sex, no violence, not a trace of the drug plague that has blighted western adolescence. Murakami followed foreign fashion with the now dated spice-up for bland writing, magical realism. He has a thing about smoke-filled tunnels. In one story, aliens called INKlings breed under Tokyo. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (blown up from the New Yorker story) he tried to explore part of Japan’s blood-stained past, an obscure battle fought in 1939 in Manchuria. But the juvenile idea that reason is no use in a meaningless world drained even this tentative experiment of meaning.
His interest in the subway gassings was, he recalls, finally sparked by a letter in a magazine-he couldn’t remember which, or quote it and, as a man of letters, disdained the journalistic drudgery of looking it up-from a woman whose husband, damaged by the gas, had been cold-shouldered by his colleagues because he wasn’t like them anymore, and had felt obliged to resign. “How could Japanese society perpetrate such a double violence?” he agonised. “Soon after that I decided to interview the survivors.” This produced his first non-fiction book, Underground, published in Japan in 1998. Interviewing real people at least got Murakami away from his desk, with interesting results. He turned out to be a good listener. Nights behind the bar at Peter Cat had probably helped. He talked to clerks, shop assistants, computer engineers, “office ladies”-people with nothing in common except the need to get to work. He found spontaneous heroism and devotion to duty (very Japanese) amongst them: the assistant stationmaster who died dragging parcels of nerve gas out of a train; a ticket collector fatally gassed, helping victims to safety.
Murakami’s late start, however, weakened his book. By the time he set to work, the guru Shoko Asahara was behind bars and his principal lieutenant was dead, shot by a Korean gangster. Murakami found few victims who knew anything about Asahara. They made wild guesses at what the motive of the attack might have been: “people are too assertive in Tokyo these days,” “children are not taught to respect human life,” and similarly puerile explanations. After the first dozen or so, the victims’ accounts got monotonous: strange smells, panic, vision slowly fading to black as the gas affected their optic nerves-a real-life reprise of Murakami’s sci-fi fantasies about dark tunnels under Tokyo, but telling us nothing about the guru or his cult. Murakami did some fast-study homework on Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, one of whose strands apparently may endorse killing as a way of relieving victims of their burden of sin and bad karma. But this gave no answer to the question that baffled Murakami and the Japanese media: why did so many bright young people follow the guru, perhaps to the gallows? The reason leapt out of Murakami’s own writings: they were repelled by the emptiness and crass consumerism of the sort of people he wrote about and, seeking meaning in their own lives, turned to an ancient religion repackaged by a charismatic fakir.
Still, it was a brave start, and the title of Murakami’s new book, After the Quake, hints that his turn from magical realism might have inspired a more ambitious look at the real Japan. No such luck. He still hasn’t been back to Kobe, and the characters in his new collection are Peter Cat people. In the opening story, for instance, the wife of the unbearably handsome hero watches Kobe burning on television and then leaves him, taking his collection of Beatles and Bill Evans records with her. A note explains “…living with you is like living with a chunk of air.” That’s it for martyred Kobe. A friend of the deserted husband decides to fix him up with a lay, as Mickey Spillane might have said, and asks him to deliver a box to a girl in Kushiro, in northern Japan. They meet up and duly make out. The box turns out to be empty-the hero was delivering himself. Neat, but where have we read this plot twist before? O Henry? Damon Runyon? Woman’s Own? Soon we are back in the tunnels under Tokyo, where a talking frog dies grappling with a giant worm about to cause another earthquake, even less plausible seismologically than Shoko Asahara’s high-tech conspiracy theories.
To be sure, the sex in Murakami’s new collection has a more medical tinge. The jazz the characters listen to now includes Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins and Errol Garner-exactly what an old Peter Cat hand might recall. These details may be signs of maturity, but more likely of advancing age. Uncertain where it is going, afraid of the future, Japan has a crying need for a real realist along the lines of John Dos Passos, Emile Zola or even an updated Dickens. Murakami still has time. Has he already lost the inclination?