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Storyteller Murakami plumbs depths of the soul

by Tetsuro Koyama

Kyodo News

Internationally popular novelist Haruki Murakami is working on an extremely lengthy novel. But he appears to cherish every moment.

“Every day, I am sitting at my desk for five to six hours. I have been writing the novel for about one year and two months now,” he said in a rare interview.

Last fall, he published “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” a book about his experience as a marathon runner and a triathlete. It is also about the relationship between running and writing.

“I started running immediately after I finished writing ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ (in 1982). In writing that, I felt it is a hazardous undertaking to write a full-length novel. The motive for running is my thinking that I should take exercise to keep my health strong.”

Murakami used to be a heavy smoker but quit in 1982.

“It is not good to write the same novels as I did in my 30s. Unless a new possibility is opened up with each novel, stories do not develop,” Murakami said. “For that, I need the power to open something up. That is running. It is tough to sit, think and write for many hours every day. The priority is to be physically fit, and writing style is of secondary importance.”

He goes to bed early, wakes up at midnight and starts writing at 2 to 3 a.m. After he finishes writing in the morning, he goes running.

Murakami has published numerous novels, including “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” “Norwegian Wood,” “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” “Underground” and “Kafka on the Shore.”

Almost all the books he publishes in Japan become best-sellers, but the barometer of his popularity overseas is the fact that his annual earnings from abroad are already more than those in Japan.

“I was very surprised to learn that situation,” he said. “Two-thirds of the work done by people at my office is now about dealing with foreign publishers.”

Murakami is probably the first novelist in the history of Japanese literature to achieve such popularity. Asked what he thinks the reason is for such worldwide acclaim, he said: “I don’t know the reason clearly. But I think interesting stories and writing style have a universal osmotic force.”

Asked about “stories” and “writing style,” he replied, “Stories are a global common language. Interesting stories are read by everybody. For example, if (Charles) Dickens’ stories are interesting, they are read by people in every country. My writing style rarely depends on the character of the Japanese language. So, I think what is lost in the process of translation is relatively little.”

Why have stories become such a global common language? “Writing stories is work to plunge you into your soul. That is a dark world, and life and death are unclear and chaotic. It is a world with no language, and there is no standard for right and wrong.”

Each country has its own language, environment and philosophy, Murakami believes. “But when you fall down to the world of (the) soul, it is the same world. Because of that, stories can be understood beyond various cultures, I think. Therefore, despite differences in cultures, there are many similar parts in myths.”

Hayao Kawai, a noted psychoanalyst who died last year at age 79, is the sole intellectual with whom Murakami has repeatedly held talks. “When I talked using the word ‘stories,’ it was only Kawai-sensei who could correctly understand that meaning,” Murakami reminisced.

For Murakami, writing stories is to fall deep into his soul. “Stories are very beneficial but very dangerous at the same time. Kawai-sensei really understood this. He was not a mere researcher. He had the excellence of a man who crosses a battlefield because he actually examined patients.”

People have their own stories, but when they fall to the depths of their soul, they are sometimes unable to get out of that darkness.

“What I did in ‘Underground’ might have come from that sort of thing,” Murakami said. The book is a nonfiction work based on interviews with 60 survivors and other people involved in the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

“Why did those people (Aum Shinrikyo members who carried out the attack) go over to that side? We should fully probe that. It’s not good to put an end to it by simply sentencing them to die.”

Murakami was frequently in court for the Aum trials and saw cultists who had merely obeyed guru Shoko Asahara’s order to release the sarin. Through this experience, he “seriously thought about” the war, he said. “During the war, no one could say ‘No’ to senior officers’ orders to kill prisoners of war. The Japanese did such things in the war. I think the Japanese have yet to undertake soul-searching.”

As an example, Murakami mentioned an article contributed by former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to a Japanese newspaper in which he related the cruelty of Japanese troops who occupied Singapore during the war. But once the war was over and they became POWs to the British, they became conscientious and worked very hard to clean up Singapore’s streets, Lee wrote.

Murakami said: “I think this episode shows how terrible the Japanese are. The Japanese who are conscientious and work hard to clean up streets harbor the possibility of one day suddenly becoming human beings who do cruel acts. The people of other countries may have such a tendency, but the Japanese in particular have such a strong tendency.”

But he noted that he also learned while writing “Underground” that the Japanese have the power not to go to such a dangerous world and to return to an open world. In fact, he learned a lot from the sarin victims and ordinary people he interviewed and met.

“Each of these people also has weak points. But when the voices of those 60 ordinary people become one voice, I felt the voice had a persuasive power and I could trust it. It was an experience that changed me.

“Therefore,” he continued, “I sincerely hope that voice is not dragged into a war.”

Murakami, 59, is a baby boomer who is deeply interested in the problems of his generation. “Our generation tended to pick the best of everything by upholding idealism while engaged in a revolutionary struggle without believing in a revolution.”

But once members of this generation graduated from school, many became company employees. “This time, they became corporate soldiers, developed the economy, created a bubble and called it quits by bursting it. The baby-boom generation was at its core. So, I think someone has to take responsibility.”

The baby boomers have no deep sense of self-examination and readily change their stand with every new situation. The baby boomers are also typical Japanese. “As I myself am a member of the baby-boom generation, I have to pay for this as a novelist, a payment in the intellectual history of postwar Japan.”

The collapse of the bubble economy in the first half of the 1990s coincided with the collapse of the Cold War structure. Everybody thought peace was at hand, but what came was a chaotic world.

“Especially after Sept. 11 (2001), we live in a world in which nobody knows what will happen next. My novels are about stories in which nobody knows what will happen next. That may be the reason readers have an affinity for my novels.”

The Japanese also harbored the illusion that if they worked hard, they would become rich and happy, but that has been totally crushed. “So, they were forced to face the facts about what they are. But that is very uncomfortable.”

Murakami said stories have power in an era such as today’s. “People have their respective stories and live in such stories. That rescues people. What I want to write is such stories. Although the stories are not bright, people can be rescued by finding things that resonate in the darkness.”