July 2008

Shaun Manning


What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Taking place, as it does, in the real world, Haruki Murakami's slim memoir is less strange and beautiful than his fiction. Instead, the author presents the story of his life as a runner in straightforward language, charming in its simplicity and honesty. Murakami frames his development as a novelist, as well as his early adventures as a night club entrepreneur, within the physical experience of his daily run. The book will be an enjoyable sprint for fans of Murakami, and should also appeal to runners, even those not familiar with the author's other books.

The first two-thirds or so of What I Talk About's 192 pages are adapted from journal entries written as Murakami prepared for the New York Marathon in 2005. Beginning with his holiday in Kauai, Hawai'i, three months before the race, Murakami explains his habitual routine. Running at least one hour every day, six days a week, and listening to the Lovin' Spoonful on his minidisc player, he examines the adjustments and fluctuations this regimen has gone through since he began running more than twenty years ago. Murakami's intent is not to proselytize (“no matter how strong a will a person has... if [running] is an activity he doesn't really care for, he won't keep it up for long”) but merely to reflect. He notes with surprise that “I'm never able to keep a regular diary for very long, but I've faithfully kept up my runner's journal,” so perhaps any documentary examination of the author's life would have to take place in the context of his running.

There are, however, several interesting revelations about Murakami's writing process here. From his statement that he owes the form his novels have taken to his career as a runner, to the reasons he prefers giving speeches in English rather than Japanese, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running contains some fascinating and unexpected insights into the author's writing life. There is also some discussion of English-language works he's translated into Japanese, including the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver, from whose work this book's title is adapted.

Murakami enjoys anthropomorphizing his own muscles in this memoir, frequently ordering them about and likening them to reluctant laborers. “As long as you explain your expectations to them by actually showing them examples of the amount of work they have to endure, your muscles will comply and gradually get stronger,” he says. “If, however, the load halts for a few days, the muscles automatically assume they don't have to work that hard anymore.”

The author notes that different muscles are required for various athletic feats. Murakami describes his grueling experience running a sixty-two mile supermarathon, and spends the final third of the memoir on triathlon training. This transition comes at a point where the reader expects to see a diary about the New York Marathon the author has been training for, and the shift is not altogether smooth. He does get to this point about ten pages later -- which, in a book of this size, is a not-insignificant delay. Murakami's response to this marathon, and to the triathlons that follow, are handled with extreme humility but nevertheless display an uncommon strength of character.

The pared-down diary style of writing in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is sometimes distracting in its simplicity, and there is a degree of repetition, especially in his assertions about faded youth. But Murakami's story is frequently fascinating, invariably amusing, and told in a voice that immediately puts readers on his side. We want to allow this charming gentleman in his late 50s the chance to tell his story, and we're better for hearing it.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0-307-26919-5
192 pages