Yes, there are Japanese authors who’ve been widely translated in to English that aren’t named Haruki Murakami. It’s difficult to know who might read this and so, it’s hard to know the relative interest and exposure to Japanese literature in general. What I can tell you is that my own exposure has been quite recent and therefore, limited.
With that in mind, it makes sense to start with Murakami. The man’s work has enough awards, acclaim and praise to render my humble cheers totally insignificant, and if Facebook followers were each a small drop of sarin, his horde could wipe out about half of E.L. James’ followers. Despite all of this, I was only introduced to his work a year or two ago through suggested reading during formal study.
Therefore, my thoughts on his work must be considered those of a novice. Words penned by those who are much more familiar with a subject I’m only just getting in to, talk of one of the “…world’s greatest living novelists” who is often seen to be at odds with Japan’s literary establishment. He has many notable works across many different formats. Sometimes he’s completely misunderstood – the reader just doesn’t “get it”. But what I find interesting about Murakami is that while I have heard him referred to as a “Japanese author” (I mean, he is Japanese, I guess), his writing is less an expression of Japanese culture and more of an exploration of the individual self and what it means to be happy. I think….
Considering all the above, I don’t write this to profess an authoritative opinion on Haruki Murakami or to present a comprehensive review of the books mentioned, but rather, perhaps to begin to make sense of my newfound interest in his work (and maybe encourage others to seek it out).
The following are 5 short mentions of notable works by the author, as selected by a novice with a burgeoning interest. Should anyone feel the inclination to comment on the subject, please do.
After Dark (2007) – アフターダーク(2004)
I’m not entirely sure if this one would ordinarily find its way to a “best of” list when it comes to Murakami’s work and yet, I include it because it was the very first one of his I read and I loved it. The author begins painting a scene, right from the start, of the wee-hours of a Tokyo night and a chance encounter in a Denny’s.
Each chapter begins with a clock, the story following real time as a baseball cap-wearing girl named Mari makes her way through a seedy part of the world’s largest city. However, time and place is not nearly as important as geography of the human mind.
After Dark favours mood over plot, and provides a look in to the atmosphere of alienation. I found it totally engrossing.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997) – ねじまき鳥クロニクル (1994-5)
As with many of this author’s novels, the metaphysical realm is where the hero must search for the answers to his problems. Unemployed husband, Okada Tōru, is the most passive and apathetic person you could imagine, and yet, he must venture in to an other-worldly labyrinth to save his wife from her evil brother.
Strange phone calls and encounters serve to shake him in to action. Nothing is ever straightforward with Murakami, and in typical form, a mystic woman offers Okada advice, telling him “I believe you are entering a phase of your life in which many different things will occur . . . bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seems bad at first.”
The story covers themes of sex and violence, all the while searching for those undefined questions hidden throughout Murakami’s work involving the human identity. If Okado is passive then his adversarial brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya, is the antithesis – all power-hungry and aggressive.
Personally, I think this story is quite bizarre, even as it takes its place within Murakami works of a surreal nature. It is as much a detective story as it is a philosophical metaphysical speculation. But there’s also a healthy dose of satire, and perhaps that’s why I like it, even though I’m not always sold on modern surrealism.
1Q84 (2011) – いちきゅうはちよん (2009-10)
A dystopian novel spanning three volumes, 1Q84 sold extremely quickly upon release in Japan. It covers all the good stuff; murder, violence, family, love, history …and cult religion. It tells the story of old childhood friends who, having become adults, lead completely different lives but their paths are destined to cross again.
Of course, shit gets weird. There’s two moons above Tokyo. Oh yeah, and the year is 1984…
Some critics pointed out that condensing what was written as three separate volumes in to an English translation almost a thousand pages long made for some inattentive repetition. However, as mentioned, the book sold so well that apparently, most didn’t really seem to notice or care.
Perhaps the popularity within Japan owed at least a little to its look at fringe religious groups. I’m sure that many people who read the book remembered the Aum Shinrikyo “doomsday cult” and their Tokyo subway terrorist attack in 1995.
This is perhaps not one of Murakami’s most critically-acclaimed efforts but certainly one of his most notable and popular, regardless of its critics. And like all his works, it takes a good, strong look at the nature of individual identity.
Kafka on the Shore (2005) – 海辺のカフカ(2002)
I mentioned earlier that people don’t always seem to “get” Murakami and quite frankly, I’m not sure I do either, at times. Nowhere is this more relevant than with Kafka on the Shore. It’s straight-up weird.
Three protagonists from three different generations have each endured a trauma that leads them to the “other world”. From there, shit gets very strange. I mean, fish rain from the sky and for some reason, Colonel Sanders makes a cameo as a pimp!
However, it seems that as long as the reader can hold on while the author ventures way “out there”, there is also some real talk of love and life. Well, I think there is. I might have to read it again…
In fact, during an interview posted on his own English-language website, Murakami suggests that the way to discover the true meaning of Kafka on the Shore is to read it multiple times.
Interestingly, during that same interview, the author also admits that while the title is a nod to Franz Kafka, he doesn’t believe that any of his work is directly influenced by the famous German author of works such as The Metamorphosis.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008) –
So, I’ve managed to select five separate works of Haruki Murakami without including Norwegian Wood. But nor have I included most of his stuff. As I mentioned at the start, this is not intended to be a thorough review of his work and so it was always going to be very incomplete.
When it comes to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak. It’s a memoir about the author’s love of long-distance running.
He’s been in to the pursuit of covering long distances on foot ever since the 80s and has completed many marathons since then. “A gentleman shouldn’t go on about how he keeps fit. At least that’s how I see it,” Murakami writes early on in a book about how he keeps fit.
I guess this is a subject matter you’re either going to be in to or not, but I’ve read many reviews of this book in which those people have told how inspirational they found it, and of course, perhaps it opens up the fact the author’s work isn’t always so weird and metaphysical. He writes with such grace and humility about his love of running that the reader kind of wants to go cheer him on at his next marathon, or, I dunno, give him a hug…
I don’t normally enjoy novels which might fit in to genres we describe as “magical realism” or “surrealism” but I know I like Murakami’s work and his “fierce imagination”. I’m sure that if I come back and write of my thoughts on this exact same topic in a few years, I’ll write completely different things and maybe be embarrassed at how little I understood.
Or maybe I’ll get hit by a bus in the meantime and be dead.