The Charms of Loneliness

Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami; drawing by John Springs

In considering the life and work of Haruki Murakami it’s good to keep a sharp eye on the relationship between individual and community, on questions of inclusion and exclusion, belonging and abandonment. Grandson of a Buddhist monk, his father a teacher of Japanese literature, Murakami has made a point of writing outside the Japanese tradition, against it almost, drawing to a large extent on tropes, images, and cultural references from Western literature, classical music, and pop culture. In this respect he has been praised for, but also accused of, pioneering a new global literature whose stories, whether real, surreal, or “magical,” are not radically located in any place or culture precisely in order to appeal to a worldwide audience.

Murakami denies this. While admitting that as a child he “wanted to escape from [Japanese] culture; I felt it was boring. Too sticky,” he also insists, “I don’t want to write about foreigners in foreign countries; I want to write about us. I want to write about Japan, about our life here. That’s important to me. Many people say that my style is accessible to Westerners; it might be true, but my stories are my own, and they are not Westernized.”

So for Murakami his rejection of traditional culture has meaning primarily within the setting of Japan; any international payoff is coincidental. However, a writer in conflict with his own culture and sympathetic to material that circulates internationally is bound to appeal to those in other countries who see themselves in similar positions. The appeal is all the stronger in Murakami’s case thanks to a fluid prose style that remains syntactically and lexically straightforward, however strange the content. Translation may not be easy, but it is certainly possible.

In interviews Murakami insists on being an outsider: “I’m a loner. I don’t like groups, schools, literary circles.” In each novel, he says, he wants his main character to be “an independent, absolute individual…a type of man who chooses freedom and solitude over intimacy and personal bonds.” On the other hand, from 1974 to 1981 Murakami and his wife ran a coffeehouse and jazz bar, as does his hero in South of the Border West of the Sun. So this is by no means a man averse to community, on his own terms. “I made the cocktails and I made the sandwiches,” he tells us. “I didn’t want to become a writer—it just happened. It’s a kind of gift, you know, from the heavens. So I think I should be very humble.”

With the same kind of humility Murakami insists that “I’m just like the people who read my books.” Thus if one culture and community is abandoned because it is “sticky,” another is nevertheless formed: the clients in the jazz club, the readers of his fiction; it’s a more fluid, casual culture, but also one where Murakami himself is now controlling rather than compliant, thanks…

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