Two Murakamis mull quake in Japanese life

by Janet Ashby

A look at recent best-seller lists reveals several familiar faces. “Eien no Ko,” a two-volume novel about the long-term effects of child abuse, is back with the broadcasting of a TV dramatization (Monday nights on NTV). There’s another mystery by Nishimura Kyotaro and a book for improving one’s English, “Kore-o Eigo-de Iemasu-ka?”

The cheerful account of overcoming adversity by the wheelchair-bound Ototake Hirotada, “Gotai Fumanzoku,” is still on the list after a year and a half, and an English translation is also available, “No One’s Perfect.” Now Kodansha seems to have another such inspiring megaseller in “Dakara, Anata-mo Ikinuite” by Ohira Mitsuyo. The author attempted suicide in junior high school and spent six years as a yakuza woman until she met her new foster father and passed the bar exam at the age of 29. She is now a lawyer specializing in juvenile cases.

The two Murakamis, Murakami Haruki and Murakami Ryu, are also back on the best-seller list, the former with a well-regarded volume of short stories and the latter with a timely novel.

Murakami Haruki’s “Kami-no Kodomotachi-wa Mina Odoru” consists of six short stories, five of which were published in the monthly literary magazine Shincho last year. As the title of the serialization “Jishin-no Ato-de” indicates, the stories are linked by the Kobe earthquake of early 1995.

However, these are not stories of the earthquake itself and it only appears peripherally in the lives of the various characters depicted — an Akihabara salesman whose wife is absorbed in TV coverage of the earthquake and suddenly decides life with him has nothing for her, for example, or a Japanese doctor who is at a conference in Thailand when news of the quake reaches her.

Murakami is rather writing about the human condition and the arbitrariness of fate, with the cool but committed stance evident since his 1997 and 1998 “Underground” books of interviews with survivors of the subway sarin gas attack and Aum members. This is well shown in the two epigraphs he has chosen for the book: a Dostoevski quote in which one character says “What happened [yesterday] happened” and another says that’s too cruel, and dialogue from a Jean-luc Godard film in which a character hears a report of the death of 115 Viet Cong on the radio and protests that that’s not enough, that one should know more about them, if they had wives or children, or liked movies better than plays.

In an e-mail interview in a special issue of Eureka, “Murakami Haruki-o Yomu” (March 2000), Murakami says his many interviews for the “Underground” books had great impact on him, shaking up his worldview. He thinks that the new perspective, for him, of writing in the third person may be related to that, and notes that the narrator of his last novel, “Sputnik no Koibito,” was more a bystander than the main character, in a step away from the first-person novel.

He says he likes to rotate through long novels, medium-length novels, short stories, translations, essays and other nonfiction. They have equal importance for him but different functions; writing short stories is a means of using material left over from his last novel or experimenting with methods for his next novel.

He calls words a rough weapon (hageshii buki) which can easily hurt others or oneself. However, one has to hurt oneself in order to write novels and perhaps growing as an author is being able to do that in a more sophisticated way.

In contrast, Murakami Ryu takes up current social issues in a more direct fashion in his novel “Kyoseichu (Symbiotic Bug),” which deals with the so-called hikikomori, youth who withdraw from the world and shut themselves away in their own rooms, and the dangers of the Internet. Uehara is a hikikomori who encounters the hacker group Interbio on the Net, becomes fascinated by the kyoseichu, and under the influence of induced visions erupts in violence.

In an interview in the May issue of DaVinci, Murakami notes that the hikikomori phenomenon is unique to affluent societies and is also largely a male pathology; women tend to act out in more active ways, such as eating disorders or compulsive spending. He also thinks that although people are aware of such Internet problems as fraud or stalking, they are not conscious enough of the more subtle effects that Internet forms of communication (bulletin boards, mailing lists) can have on the personality.

He says that another important theme of the book is the problem of historical discontinuity. He thinks young Japanese feel little connection to the past both because of the rapid physical changes in the urban environment and because they have not been taught the historical course by which present-day Japan has come into being. During both the rapid Westernization of the Meiji Era and the Americanization of the postwar period, the past has been felt as shameful in Japan.

Another interesting volume in the bookstores now is “Tokyo Shosetsu” (Kinokuniya Shoten), a collection of short stories about life in Tokyo by Shiina Makoto, Hayashi Mariko, Fujino Chiya, Muramatsu Tomomi and Morita Ryuji. Actually this selection was made by a French editor for publication in French translation and the Japanese version is being published concurrently with that French edition, “Tokyo Electrique.”