What makes a writer’s voice addictively readable, selling millions of copies in 50 languages? And how can the same voice remain deeply personal while also speaking to readers all over the globe?
For Haruki Murakami, Japan’s maestro of contemporary fiction, first-person narratives were his signature style for years, until he transitioned to the third-person in recent works such as “1Q84” and “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” His collection of short stories “First Person Singular,” which will be released in English April 6, marks a welcome return to the voice that helped the writer gain international acclaim.
Translated by Philip Gabriel
From student life in the 1960s to mysterious women, jazz music and Beatlemania, the eight stories in the collection are riffs on familiar themes — it’s a realm where, in the words of one character, “bits of reality and unreality were randomly changing places.”
“These new stories, except for the title story, were all published in a Japanese magazine over a two-year stretch,” says English translator Philip Gabriel in an interview with the Japan Times.
“When the fourth and fifth ones came out, the collection in Japanese was given the collective title ‘First Person Singular’ (‘Ichininsho Tansu’). The title story was written specifically for the collection when it came out as a book, and was the only story previously unpublished in Japanese. For the English edition, we slightly changed the order of the stories.”
At age 72 and with a 40-year career in writing fiction, Murakami now shares an international market with previously underrepresented voices such as Japanese female authors, and readers are increasingly interested in social commentary and new perspectives. Still, his new offering stands out from the crowd, sticking to his tried-and-true formula and retaining a disarming earnestness as he takes everyday moments and goes deeper. Always searching, always humble and with a sense of wonder as he veers into the mildly bizarre, Murakami gets philosophical without sounding pretentious. His narration is intimate and immediate, as if the events were actual memories.
A key element of Murakami’s international success has always been the translation of his work. Alfred Birnbaum, who like Gabriel is another frequent Murakami collaborator, once joked that he spent more time translating and editing “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” than the author spent writing it.
Having worked on honing Murakami’s voice in English for more than three decades, does Gabriel still find difficulty in the task?
“It’s fair to say I’m used to Murakami’s style, but every new story presents its own unique challenges,” says Gabriel, a professor of Japanese literature at the University of Arizona. “In two of the new stories, for instance, Murakami uses poetry, including short but evocative tanka poems. As far as I know, this is a first in his fiction. Poetry is always a challenge to translate, since each word has so much weight. As for maintaining a ‘Murakami voice,’ my goal is to convey, as honestly as I can, the voice you hear when you read the original.”
Before you imagine some high-minded verses, rest assured that some poems lean toward the goofy. Some may say it takes cheek — and celebrity — to serve juvenilia to a global fanbase. But Murakami has been running on cheek ever since penning his first novel at a kitchen table, and in this collection readers are treated in “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” to the poems of a young man in the bleachers as he watches a losing game and starts musing on the athletes’ physique.
“From the outfield seats by myself / How else can I enjoy myself besides staring at the / outfielders’ butts? / If there’s some other way, I’d sure like to know,” Murakami writes.
It may be larks like this where Murakami says a silent farewell to hopes of finally nabbing the Nobel prize in literature. But the innocence in his style feels natural, and his popular appeal was never planned.
“I think if you’re a fiction writer and you’re too intelligent, you cannot write,” Murakami recently told The New Yorker magazine. What sounds rather like self-deprecation may be an artist understanding himself and his work in a notoriously self-serious profession. It may also explain why, at a time when data is seen as certitude and profundity is hard to pull off, Murakami’s humble ambiguity continues to enchant his readers. The new stories may be finger exercises, not as daring or deep as his previous oeuvre, yet they still show a master craftsman drawing on generous playfulness.
In “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” a university student dreams up a review of a record that never existed, only to see the fictitious album at a used-record store in New York. Is the great saxophonist playing bossa nova from the dead?
“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” has a traveling writer meet a talking monkey at an onsen. After administering a backrub, the animal tells of his strange obsession with the names of beautiful women.
And in “With the Beatles,” another student memory from the 1960s, a high school teenager is dating a Beatles fan, then has an odd chance encounter with her brother. Years after the breakup, he learns that the girl took her own life.
“I think when Murakami looks back at a character’s younger days, the result is often quite moving and wistful,” Gabriel says. “I found ‘With the Beatles’ to be one of these stories. Plus, I’m a big Beatles fan, and was hoping at one time that Murakami would make a whole collection of stories based on titles of their songs. He already has two stories, ‘Drive my Car’ and ‘Yesterday,’ which got my hopes up.
“I also like ‘Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,’ because it’s one of the first times he’s revisited a character in a later short story. It made me wonder which of his other characters I would like to catch up with in their later years. The monkey’s obsessions and isolation pull at me, and who wouldn’t like to meet a kindly monkey who scrubs your back?”
The perspective of a man looking back on his life, trying to make sense of the past, has long been a staple of Murakami stories. But in “First Person Singular,” he writes from a new vantage point: the height of old age. As the writer told The New Yorker, he aims to tackle the challenge of growing older with grace and aplomb, although “it’s not easy to be a gentleman and a novelist.” Surely the idea takes getting used to for some of his fans, too.
When in the collection’s opening story, titled “Cream,” the teenage narrator meets an elderly man in Kobe and it is hard for him to guess the stranger’s age, the reader realizes with a shock that the real-life Murakami is closer to the age of the old man, not the narrator. “To me, they all just look like old people,” the narrator says.
A bit later, as the teenager hears the voice of a Christian missionary blaring from a loudspeaker mounted on a van roaming the mountainside, the effect is described as follows:
“The voice spoke precisely, as if trying to convey something extremely important as objectively as possible. It occurred to me that maybe this was a personal message directed at me, and me alone. Someone was going to the trouble of telling me where I’d gone wrong, what it was that I’d overlooked.”
The passage is a perfect description of Murakami’s voice, the unique way he has been reaching readers for most of his career. As for the things the maestro has overlooked, you may find them in “First Person Singular.”
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