In early 2015, Haruki Murakami began an advice column on his blog called “Murakami-san no Tokoro” (“Mr. Murakami’s Place”). In it, the famed author replied to questions sent in by his readers.
“So what do you think of the annual fuss surrounding the Nobel Prize and whether you’ll get it?,” asked one.
“To be honest, it’s a bit annoying,” he replied. “This is not a horse race.”
This year, British bookmaker Ladbrokes predicted Murakami’s chances of winning at one point to be 4-to-1, which made him the front-runner for a time, followed by Syrian poet Adonis and novelist Philip Roth.
Publicly, Murakami has never been impressed by awards, which is in keeping with the libertarian streak in his writing and his personal tastes. His whole persona is atypical of a Japanese male of his age — he’s 67 — and this has provided much fodder for his critics. But this is also a major reason why he’s adored by fans in Japan (known as “Harukists”).
Murakami seems to be distant from his Baby Boomer contemporaries, those who lived through the student activism of the 1960s and went on to fuel the rapid economic growth of the 1970s and ’80s. He consistently projects an above-it-all image — a general distaste for postwar-style blood, sweat and tears.
His very first book “Kaze no uta o kike” (“Hear the Wind Sing”), published in 1979, laid out the foundations of this perspective. Heavily autobiographical, the first person narrative recounts a young Japanese dude’s three weeks during summer. He does little else besides swim laps in a pool, talk with his friend “Nezumi” at a bar, down countless bottles of beer and have sex. The mindset of the narrator in “Hear the Wind Sing” is pure Murakami: There’s no struggle, no social injustice and no misery.
Kenzaburo Oe who won the 1994 Nobel Prize in literature — the only Japanese novelist to do so besides Yasunari Kawabata in 1968 — was an adamant critic of Murakami’s writing. Oe “saw through Murakami,” according to literary critic Kazuo Kuroko, who has written extensively on the reasons why Murakami can’t or doesn’t deserve to win the Nobel. Kuroko agrees with Oe, who described Murakami’s fiction as having “a total lack of an active attitude in dealing with society as a whole, but showing a passive willingness to be influenced by certain facets of popular culture.”
Indeed, Murakami has never been a fighter, more a nibbler and discerning consumer of U.S. pop culture, which he translates into tasty book-sized morsels for the benefit of his Japanese readers. As for his position on sociopolitical issues, he claims a kinship with the weak and repressed of the world, but it doesn’t appear that he has acted on those sentiments. In the late ’90s Murakami also stressed that he would shift from “detachment to commitment,” and to prove this point he wrote books that were more socially conscious, including “Underground,” in which he interviews those affected by the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in Tokyo.
“Underground” is meticulously researched and showed a new side to Murakami. But the detachment persists: he observes without interacting, converses without empathizing.
Does this mean he sucks? Definitely not. Japan’s youth culture owes much to Murakami, as does contemporary American literature, for the translations he has made into Japanese. If not for Haruki Murakami, Japanese fiction would still likely be weighed down with soul searching and self-loathing or incarcerated in the prisons of family and tradition.
No, he didn’t win the Nobel — but who cares? He’s in excellent company: none the American authors he professes to revere has won — not F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Irving, Raymond Chandler, J.D. Salinger or Raymond Carver (supposedly his No. 1 mentor).
I think Murakami’s biggest contribution to Japanese literature is that he has pulled off the acrobatic feat of writing Japanese works of fiction in a language that’s not quite Japanese. It’s rumored that Murakami writes all his fiction in English first, before translating it into his mother tongue. This may be weird but it wouldn’t be surprising — Murakami’s Japanese has a stilted, elusive quality offset by an unmistakable Western whiff, as distinctive as a signature cologne. Naturally, his worlds are that much easier to translate into English.
To the Japanese reader, Murakami’s words are soothing, like the first strains of a favorite song, and evoke a certain nostalgia. It’s not for a personal past but something remembered — something that happened to a character in an American novel or a movie or even in a song by this year’s Nobel winner, Bob Dylan, whom Murakami often discusses in his writing.
Reading these words, we can, for a brief time, indulge in the fantasy of a distant summer where we’re entitled, carefree dudes, swimming endless laps just for the fun of it. As long as that foundational Murakami book lasts, we’re free from heritage, tradition and the obligation to uphold the Japanese ideals of hard work and self sacrifice. What a relief.