In Praise Of: Haruki Murakami

Why 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' should be on your summer reading list

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Like a lot of readers of my vintage and locality, my entry point into the world of Haruki Murakami was down the well.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the story of Toru Okada, a listless unemployed man-child who stumbles through a series of cock-eyed happenings without so much as stopping to scratch his head. He misplaces his wife, perhaps more significantly he loses his cat (both running themes for Murakami, as is running — covered in his non-fiction work What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) and when he’s not cooking spaghetti and whistling along to the radio in the middle of the afternoon, he’s having a good hard think in the darkened depths a dry well on a derelict plot in his neighbourhood.

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The similarity between Murakami’s well and Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole is not lost (even if in both cases the protagonists are). In the Japanese author's Wonderlands, the separation between this magical realm and the real world is often blurred, with the divide only a chance encounter with a moggy (Kafka on the Shore), a trip down an emergency staircase (1Q84) or indeed at the bottom of a borehole.

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It’s interesting perhaps that a well is also integral to another text that for many Westerners is a portal into Japanese culture — that of The Ring, itself a gateway into brutal Asian cinema. And this touches on another consideration with Murakami, that in the universes he creates, for Westerners it can be hard to distinguish between what is unusual and what is unusual even in a stimulus-rich nation that often seems so disconnected from our own.

That Murakami’s characters seem nonchalant when cats talk back to them, or unicorn skulls allow them to read dreams, or "Little People" appear before them and weave chrysalises out of thin air, or — as in his new, catchily named effort, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage — a wandering pianist with a mysterious heavy bag tells them that he can identify the colour aura of everyone around him, you wonder if such goings on are fairly pedestrian in Japan.

It feels wrong to call Murakami’s books fantasy, but there’s no doubt that they are fantastical. Even Norwegian Wood, probably his most "straight" story and the one said to mirror the events of his own life the closest, has one foot firmly planted in a slightly off-kilter parallel universe.

Here, the narrator’s girlfriend quits college and runs off to secluded mountaintop sanatorium, becoming distant both physically and metaphorically, and there’s nothing to suggest that this is out of the ordinary. The women of Murakami are no less flaky than the men. (It’s odd then to note that Murakami himself has been happily married for more that 40 years.)

If there is detachment from reality, it has allowed Murakami to bring real-world events into sharper focus.

As well as his love of marathons, he’s written non-fiction on the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack, but even his fiction tackles topics other writers have previously baulked at. After the Quake deals with the seismic activity that must be an everyday threat in Japan, but more recently 1Q84 considers domestic abuse in religious cults, while even The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was one of the first mainstream Japanese novels to come to terms with the Second World War.

"Mainstream" is another oddity. In his homeland, such is the fevered excitement about anything he puts his name to that national broadcasters actually ran a countdown to the release of Colorless Tsukuru, while the early print run of 1Q84 sold out in a single day.

Even the West has caught on, with 1Q84’s release afforded almost JK Rowling levels of coverage in the UK. Murakami originally struggled to get his books translated into English, with 1987’s Norwegian Wood only released in the US in 2000 — he’s since sold 2.5 million copies there alone. But no matter how many units he shifts, Murakami retains the appeal of a cult author. Step into his immersive world and you’re there alone.

Another group who have so far proved slow to warm to the writer is the judging panel behind the Nobel Prize in Literature. Murakami's name has long been uttered in relation to this award, but the noise grows louder. Following the release of the new book — which is less mystical than the bulk of his back catalogue, if still reassuringly weird — the calls for the prize are near deafening.

Historically, the award has been accused of European bias. In its early days, a number of literary heavyweights missed out because the judges took the manifesto of dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel — who bequeathed the majority of his wealth to a series of awards for the "greatest benefit on mankind" — to the letter. Told to honour only "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction", the likes of Joyce, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Proust were deemed a bit glum.

Whether the direction of Murakami’s ambling plot lines is "ideal" is a moot point. Whether there are plot lines at all is a moot point. But, like old Toru Okada — or indeed new Tsukuru Tazaki — when in real life are you aware of what the plot lines have in store for you? And wouldn’t mankind benefit greatly from remembering that?

In this world of distractions, perhaps all we need is a dark, dry well that we can go down, sit in and think.

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