February 2009

Lorette C. Luzajic

Fascinating Writers

What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth of Haruki Murakamiís Mind

“Murakami aims to provoke not just a frisson of unsettlement, but a deeper, more consequential unease,” said Newsday, waxing unusually poetic, about Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Stumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole into a strange, hyperreal universe, complete with ghosts, mind games, ciphers, symbols, puzzles, and a cast of characters you’re not sure is real, you find yourself in a deep well with no white rabbits running late. You’re in Japan, somewhere on a slippery slope between science and fiction, between awake and dreaming, between history and the future. In this peculiar darkness, this psychonautical suspension of disbelief, you go deep into your own preconceived notions of what is real.

Every great work of literature must at least allude to that great unknown, the meaning of life. This one leaves you in the cool dark abyss at the bottom of a spooky well, to contemplate this very theme, as you mine 600 pages of daily routines, unanswered phone calls, indecipherable dreams, depressions, mounting debts, unborn babies, and the unknowable heart of the people you love, looking for that meaning.

You’ll never take for granted the ordinariness of spaghetti or your wife’s cat ever again.

And though it’s quite likely that if this were your project, your editor would hurl it back at you for its clunky overcrowding of symbols and signs, for half finished stories, abrupt departures, missing pieces, and missed connections. Under the exquisite craftsmanship of Haruki Murakami, however, the density manages to resonate as streamlined, supremely minimalist, and utterly believable. New York Magazine said it best: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is as “sculpted and impacable as a bird by Brancusi.”

Murakami has been called one the “world’s greatest living novelists” by The Guardian, a sentiment shared by nearly everyone who has read his work. Favorites include The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The appeal may lie in his peculiar magical realism, where anything can happen, where people believe strange things, where the most impossible illusions become ordinary facts of life. All the big questions from Shakespeare translate seamlessly into Murakami’s dimension -- what is real? who am I? is love worth dying for? what does it all mean? The themes that run through every single story he writes are about "what lies beneath." What is in the human heart? What mystery can be penetrated beneath the ordinary? What worlds lurk within worlds, like Matryoshka dolls? And what is really there, beyond the way things appear to be?

Tibetan filmmaker Tenzing Sonam said it perfectly in The Hindu Literary Review. “Superficially, this world is usually Tokyo but in reality, it is a chthonian alter-universe, a labyrinth of the subconscious, where Murakami is simply the lead explorer, as shocked and confounded as we are by the unexpected glimpses thrown up by the wandering arc of his flashlight.”

Well, Murakami may be hailed as the genius of postmodern literature, but he declares he’s nothing of the sort. Apparently, we’re supposed to take his books at face value, not look among the endless clues and cues for deeper connections or solutions to the mysterious. "If I choose to write about sheep, it's just because I happened to write about sheep. There is no deep significance,” he has said.

Oh, really? “Myself, I'm a very realistic person. I don't trust anything New Age... or reincarnation, dreams, Tarot, horoscopes. I don't trust anything like that at all. I wake up at 6 in the morning and go to bed at 10, jogging every day and swimming, eating healthy food. I'm very realistic. But when I write, I write weird. That's very strange. When I'm getting more and more serious, I'm getting more and more weird. When I want to write about the reality of society and the world, it gets weird,” Murakami said.

Indeed, it all began in 1974, in the middle of an ordinary baseball game, baseball being one of the author’s favorite things in life. Out of thin air, Murakami suddenly realized he could write a novel, his first, published at the age of 29. Hear the Wind Sing was indeed translated into English, but it’s hard to find, because the author does not want us to read it. Apparently, it is awful, lacks plot, and reads pretentious. It couldn’t have been THAT bad -- it won the Gunzo Award for new writers.

Prior to this random baseball game that spun his life into an unexpected path, Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1949. His parents were both lit teachers. Hence, he was enamoured with literature, especially Raymond Carver, Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Kafka. But he saw no reason to write, for he could never have thoughts as brilliant as these idols. He studied theatre arts in university, but had little use for class, preferring to read. Always fascinated by western culture -- jazz, baseball, literature -- he traveled around American and Europe before moving back to Japan to marry. He and his wife opened a jazz bar called Peter Cat that served cocktails and hosted live acts. Jazz is Murakami’s great passion, perhaps greatest. He reportedly owns some 40,000 jazz recordings.

Indeed, it may be jazz rather than mystery and magical realism that defines Murakami’s work. The random and spontaneous imagery, recurring like classical composer Berlioz’s idée fixe throughout his many works, sounds like bursts of horn and trumpet. Emotions and confusion reigns supreme, and yet the story always finds its way back to the melody. At other times, the score is serene and mellow, yet bitten with the unexpected. And when nostalgia infuses the spirit of the character, the pacing still has masterful rhythm, total control. Was there a connection?

“Not consciously. Jazz is just my hobby. It is true that I was listening to jazz for ten hours a day for several years, so maybe I was deeply influenced by this kind of music -- the rhythm, the improvisation, the sound, the style,” the author once said. But later, he seemed to see the profound connection after all, that underground labyrinth of chance that plays out our destiny. In an essay for the New York Times, he wrote, “It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model.”

The only way we can really unlock any clues about the life of Murakami is to survey his work, read and reread it, analyze it to death. Legendary Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, famously private, snarled once that if we want to get to know her, then read her books. I’ve always been on the mind that historical and personal context enriches an artist’s work. But Murakami, who is generous with interviews, gives surprisingly little away, remaining elusive before our very eyes, forcing us back into his stories for the story.

But he insists there’s nothing hiding, that the details are mundane. He’s been married for more than 30 years to his lovely wife. He’s taught in America, at Princeton no less, and traveled the world, but always returns to Japan to live. His hobbies have been the same for his whole life, no secret there -- reading, jazz, baseball, and running. He runs marathons the world over, giving himself reason to travel, and motivation to jog every day. He’s healthy, not given to the writer’s usual selection of vices. His schedule couldn’t be more average -- early to bed, and early to rise. The things he loves recur throughout his books, plain as day, and quite universal -- cats, Duran Duran, spaghetti, sex.

And all of those, quotidian as they may be, are these elusive keys for which we grasp. “Sex is a key to enter a spirit... Sex is like a dream when you are awake; I think dreams are collective. Some parts do not belong to yourself,” Murakami told The Guardian’s Matt Thompson. And if you don’t concern yourself with your wife’s cat, you will lose something irretrievable between you.
It is these moments, these mysteries, of entry into another, into that parallel dimension where souls merge, that we must live for. Murakami says his stories offer, “a freedom from the real world." These brief connections are essential, because “everything passes. Nobody gets anything for keeps.”

And that freedom from the real world is in high demand, all around it. Murakami’s books have been translated into some 40 languages -- the usual ones, plus Icelandic, Latvian, Serbian, Persian, Slovak, Turkish, Korean, and some I’ve never heard of such as Faroese and Galician.

Curiously, it may be only his own people who don’t quite get the Haruki Murakami thing. “In Japan they prefer the realistic style. They like answers and conclusions, but my stories have none.”


Lorette C. Luzajic is the girl behind www.thegirlcanwrite.net. Fascinating Writers is a spin off of her “gossip for smart people” blog, Fascinating People. She also writes Fascinating Queers and Fascinating Canadian women, and writes regular features for food magazine Gremolata.com. Lorette is the author of The Astronaut’s Wife: Poems of Eros and Thanatos, and her second book, Weird Monologues for a Rainy Life (irreverent ramblings from the end of the world), launches in April. They are available at the usual online sources, or through her site.