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HARUKI MURAKAMI

Writer on the borderline

by Roland Kelts

Haruki Murakami is Japan’s most important and internationally acclaimed living writer. “Norwegian Wood,” his fourth novel, has sold more than 2 million copies since it was published in 1987. His latest, “Kafka on the Shore,” has sold more than 200,000 copies since its publication in September, and has topped the bestseller lists in Japan for more than two months.

Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and raised in nearby Kobe. He moved to Tokyo to attend Waseda University at 18, then lived in Europe and America before returning to Japan in 1995. Since 1979, and his first novel “Hear the Wind Sing,” he has written more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction in his native language and translated more than 30 titles from English into Japanese. His own books have been translated into 16 languages, with 10 now available in English.

At 53, Murakami is dauntingly prolific and almost aggressively healthy. He swims and runs daily, and has run marathons in New York, Boston and Sapporo. He is in bed by 9 p.m. and up at 4. “You need power to be a good writer,” he explains in a deep baritone that is as comforting in timbre as it is precise in expression.

Murakami’s new story collection, “After the Quake,” speaks intimately to readers in the post-Sept. 11 world. Its six fictions are linked by the Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck Kobe and surrounding areas in January 1995, and by the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks in Tokyo that March. The book has a healing, meditative power that prompted one U.S. reviewer to call it “close to flawless,” and another to identify it as Murakami’s “get-well card.”

Murakami lives with his wife, Yoko, in Oiso, a beach resort near Tokyo, but usually works out of a city-center apartment. Recently, he has become more active in making public appearances abroad. This fall saw him busy with readings, interviews and book-signings in New York and Germany, and he plans to visit Britain next spring. Murakami is unusually accessible to his fans, responding to them via e-mail on his Web site ( www.kafkaontheshore.com ).

The first book in English about Murakami’s life and work, “Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words” by Harvard professor and translator Jay Rubin, appeared this summer. These days it seems Murakami is everywhere, but he spared a recent morning for this interview in his Tokyo apartment.

Why do you think your new book, “After the Quake,” is resonating so much with readers after Sept. 11?

When I wrote those stories, I was thinking about the earthquake and the sarin gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo. But I think the Sept. 11 attack is directly connected. It was a huge catastrophe, but it was done by humans. I think that’s why American readers feel sympathy in that book. If it was only about the earthquake, the sympathy would be weaker, but that book is about the violence in nature and the violence in human beings. So, the book is very sad. The shock I felt when I interviewed the victims of the sarin attack for “Underground” [nonfiction; 2000] changed my life, my entire point of view, and even my style of writing. I didn’t imagine that such a thing could happen. I was doing those interviews for a full year, and I interviewed about 60 people. I was living in the world of life and death. People who were on the train that day might have died. They smelled the gas.

What shocked you the most?

Details. The simple words of their lives. That’s what I think about when I write fiction these days: more details and simpler words. In my younger days, I was trying to write sophisticated prose and fantastic stories. I think “Underground” was the turning point in my writing. Another thing I think about now is intolerance. We’re really seeing a conflict between closed systems and open systems in society. These days, the closed-circuit systems are getting stronger — fundamentalists, cults or militaries. They are getting very strong and it’s getting dangerous. But you can’t be intolerant. You can’t destroy closed systems with arms. The system will survive. You could kill all the al-Qaeda soldiers, but the system itself would survive. They’ll just move it somewhere else.

Why are closed systems getting stronger now?

The world is very chaotic today. You have to think about so many things — your stock options, the IT industry, which computer you should buy, junk bonds. You have 54 channels on DTV. You can know anything you want from the Internet. It’s so complicated, and you feel lost. But if you enter a small, closed circuit, you don’t have to think about anything. The guru or dictator will tell you what to do and think. It’s simple. So people like to enter those small, closed systems — just like the very intelligent people who gather in Aum Shinrikyo. But once you enter that system, you cannot escape. The door is closed.

Is the world becoming more violent?

Not exactly, but the nature of violence has changed since the Cold War. During the Cold War, violence was easy to find. It was static in form. But after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the forms of violence began to vary, to change so easily. Sometimes we can’t recognize evil in nature. We become uneasy and uncomfortable.

Nonetheless, you identify evil sources in your fiction, like Worm in your story “Superfrog Saves Tokyo.”

Yes, but in the daily world, people point fingers at other people: “It’s the Arabs or the Chinese, etc.” Worm is a symbol of the evil inside us. It’s not an outer thing, like al-Qaeda or Aum or the Russians. It’s just the evil within.

But when the evil is outside us, do you support war to fight it?

I’m a writer. I don’t support any war. That’s my principle. I don’t want to express my opinion about actual politics, because if I do, I have to be responsible for my decision. My priority is my books, at least at this point. What I have to do is write the narrative of this time. I can do that better than most people can, so it’s my profession and my duty. If I write about “Superfrog” and the evil Worm, some people say: “What is this ‘worm’? Is this al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein?” And I say: “It’s just Evil.”

You once said that you’d been feeling insecure since you were 20 years old.

Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying to express in my fiction. But I’m not a prophet or a Cassandra predicting bad things. I’m just a fiction writer. I express these things, but I’m always looking for a solution.

Are you finding one now?

That’s a tough question. I feel like I’m walking in a deep forest, in the darkness of the underground. The older I become, the more closely I can look at the landscape of that world. I feel like I’m getting closer to the core, the center, but I don’t know if I’m getting closer to a solution or not. I believe my readers feel the same way. It’s not just me; it’s very important for all of us. That’s the purpose of fiction.

To bring people closer together?

Yes, through sympathy or empathy. I answer my readers’ e-mails, you know. I read about 100 per day, and I write 10 to 20 replies. I think it’s necessary for me. I’m not interested in professional criticism, pro or con. I just don’t care. But I think it’s very important for me to read the words from my actual readers, the ones who pay their money to buy and read my books. They are very important. Sometimes they actually help me to think about the books I’ve written.

Most of them write about what they like and don’t like very honestly. That helps. Very small things help me. Some readers say they like this detail — a very small thing; just a piece of conversation, or the clothing a character is wearing or the beer a character is drinking. If you read 1,000 e-mails, you catch a vibration from the readers out there.

That sounds almost spiritual.

Yes. In that sense, the Internet is a very important and interesting thing. It’s like direct democracy, like they had in Athens. Everyone’s together in the forum, you know? Ten or 20 years ago, I had to look to the media to see the readers. But we don’t need media anymore. We just make conversations with the readers, directly. It could be dangerous, I guess. But if you’re smart and you take time, it helps.

Is “Kafka on the Shore,” your latest novel in Japan, comparable to your last long novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”?

I think that it’s actually connected to “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.” I wanted to write a sequel 15 years ago, but I gave up. But I feel like “Kafka on the Shore” is connected to that book on a deeper level. Two parallel stories combine in the end. The structure is similar. And the theme of both books is a story of two different worlds, consciousness and unconsciousness. Most of us are living in those two worlds, one foot in one or the other, and all of us are living on the borderline. That’s my definition of human life. The title is about the borderline of land and sea, living and dead.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been translating “The Catcher in the Rye” [to be published in Japanese next spring]. Most people think that book is about a child against society, but it’s not so simple. The book is really about a disease of the mind. J.D. Salinger was writing about spiritual damage. And now we know what has happened to Salinger, and it’s a tragedy. His book has inspired some assassins — the man who killed John Lennon, and the man who tried to kill Ronald Reagan. It has some connection to the darkness in people’s minds, and that is very important. It’s a great book, but at the same time, Salinger was very close to that closed-circuit system in himself. He’s in the open system as a writer, but I think his book is ambivalent about the two systems. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so powerful.

Your reputation in the West is quite different from your reputation here. Why do you think that is?

One of the reasons is that “Norwegian Wood” sold a couple of million copies here, and most critics don’t like bestselling writers. Without that novel, I’d be in a more comfortable critical position in this country. But, fortunately or unfortunately, it sold like hot cakes here. That’s my problem in Japan. But in the West, fortunately or unfortunately, my books sell very moderately. So readers there think of me as a kind of cult writer. Before “Norwegian Wood,” I used to be a cult writer in Japan, too. That book destroyed my reputation, but it’s a reputation only in the media here. My readers have been very loyal, and I think they understand what I am trying to write.

They know you’re sincere?

Yes. You know some musicians who, every time they make a new CD, you go to the shop and buy it. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, REM and Wilco are like that for me. At some point you’ll be disappointed, but most times they don’t disappoint you. I’m trusted by my readers, and most times they won’t be disappointed.

There’s a lot of disappointment in Japan today.

Yes, but during the bubble economy, Japanese people were very arrogant. I didn’t like that at all. Now, people are becoming more modest. I think that’s a good thing. We got poorer, but the arrogance disappeared to some degree. Fiction writers like us are the storytellers of the age. And we are writing about the age we live in. Some people say there are good times and bad times, but I don’t know and I don’t care. Nobody really knows which time is good and which one is bad. What we writers have to do is just observe and recognize what is happening.