Finding Murakami in his own weird worlds

by

Special To The Japan Times

Consider this hypothetical conundrum: Haruki Murakami is (finally) awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, but what does the author have to say for himself on Japanese television?

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami, by Matthew Carl Strecher.
University Of Minnesota Press, Nonfiction.

More than likely, nothing. If you hadn’t noticed, Murakami doesn’t do interviews on TV here. If, or when, the Nobel is decreed, he’ll say something, all right — Murakami is far from media-shy — but he won’t say it on TV, because he is not a fan of being filmed. So NHK and all the other networks will have a big hole where Murakami should be. They’ll have to turn to talking heads to fill airtime.

Matthew Carl Strecher, a professor of Japanese language, literature and culture at Winona State University in Minnesota, thinks that for Murakami the call will eventually come. Strecher’s new book, “The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami,” is his third to pry open the writings of Murakami. He touches briefly on “Murakami’s Nobel,” as well as the author’s testy relationship with the bundan (Japan’s literary establishment).

But they are only asides. The focus, as made explicit by the title, is on the “worlds” where Murakami sends his characters, and where he too goes, in crafting his hugely popular novels.

In the preface to “Forbidden Worlds,” Strecher sums up his “energetic role in focusing so much on one Japanese writer” succinctly: “Murakami is my writer.” He was first introduced to Murakami in a pitch by author and longtime Murakami translator Jay Rubin during a graduate class.

” ‘You guys just should read this story — it will be different from anything you have ever read,’ ” — I read it and was completely hooked,” recalls Strecher in an interview with The Japan Times.

This was Murakami’s “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” first published in English in 1980 in The New Yorker magazine.

“The imagery kind of freaked me out,” Strecher explains, before proceeding to recount the short story and its effect on him as if he had just read it prior to our interview. Strecher is an authority on Murakami: Clearly he doesn’t speak for him (nor would he want to), but about his writing, at length and in great detail.

Strecher frames Murakami as a global writer who happens to be Japanese. In an essay published earlier this year, the writer Pico Iyer wrote that Murakami’s novels are both entirely Japanese and entirely global, although, as Strecher points out, for some critics Murakami’s writing isn’t “nearly Japanese enough.”

“I think we are into a new era now in which writers are no longer writing national literature; they are writing global literature,” says Strecher. “In that sense, they are connected by their ability to transcend cultural or national boundaries and go beyond, to appeal to a wider audience — not just their own people, but people whose cultural background have nothing to do with them. That’s the case you can make for Murakami.”

And even though a Murakami story or novel is “entirely Japanese” in terms of its cast of characters and locations and events both historic or imagined, there is a global and eager readership who even engage in that most anachronistic behavior (at least for books): lining up for the release of a new Murakami release.

Strecher posits a few explanations for Murakami’s worldwide appeal. Firstly, Murakami captures a sense of confusion that is universal, especially one with which young people can identify. “Who am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to become? And who is calling the shots here?” These are questions Muarakami’s characters grapple with, and they mirror society, especially within a restrictive education system.

“My favorite image is the person who decorates cupcakes: Picture a great big funnel with a great big mass at the top, but it funnels down into a fine point, and each time you squeeze the same little shape comes out. I think for Murakami this is a big problem,” Strecher says.

Strecher’s latest book is erudite without being overly academic. Graphs appear, but are few; he has a penchant for referring to his book as a monograph, but on the whole this is a lively and engaging read that covers a great deal of Murakami’s work — right up to and including his recent “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” — with pauses on other influential novelists and Strecher favorites (such as Umberto Eco). A noteworthy chapter is devoted to Murakami’s work as a “literary journalist” — notably his investigation of the aftereffects of the Aum cult and how particular societal events within Japan may (or may not) influence his own writing.

Strecher sees Murakami the novelist as a mold-breaker and fully deserving of the Nobel.

“He wanted to express his own feelings, his own ideas about society or what goes on in his own head, but he couldn’t do that through the traditional mold of Japanese literature,” says Strecher. “He couldn’t write the ‘I’ novel; he didn’t want to, and so what did he do? He reinvented the world for himself; he reinvented how to write fiction, which is a remarkable thing to have done. This is why I think he will win the Nobel Prize, because he has in a sense reinvented fiction in a way that suits him.”

If the day comes when the Swedish Academy calls Murakami about a Nobel Prize, NHK will more than likely be calling Strecher. It helps too that he’s fluent in Japanese. And he’s a fan.