Books

Haruki Murakami: Literary lightweight or global superstar?

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

You know you’ve made it as an author when there are week-long conferences dedicated to your work that attract scholars, critics and translators from all over the world and which you, the author, do not feel the need to attend.

In the case of author Haruki Murakami, the international conference that took place in March this year in the city of Newcastle, U.K., is just one of several such gatherings that are planned for the first half of this year. Similar discussions have been scheduled for France (Strasbourg), Philippines (Manila) and Australia (Sydney).

As Aurelie van ‘t Slot, a Dutch scholar of the phenomenon of Murakami’s world-wide celebrity, points out, Murakami’s book releases in the Netherlands are now accompanied by “launch cruises” of up to 2,000 people. In Taiwan meanwhile, there is a dedicated “Center for Haruki Murakami Studies,” with lectures and readings on Murakami being promoted as a means of learning about Japan in a country where hotels and apartment blocks style themselves “Murakami Heights” and “Norwegian Wood.”

It’s heady days in terms of Murakami’s extraordinary popularity. As Barbara Thornbury of Temple University observes, a love of Murakami is now a major driver in recruitment to Japan studies courses around the world in the way that martial arts and anime used to be in decades past.

Yet for all the adulation, serious critical appreciation of Murakami’s works lags. Some critics still dismiss Murakami as a literary lightweight, a purveyor of global pulp, lacking the heft of great writers of the postwar era such as Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) and Yukio Mishima (1925-70). In 2002, the noted Japanese critic Shigehiko Hasumi famously referred to Murakami’s fiction as a “fraud” and Murakami has more recently been cited as a leading example of what novelist Tim Parks referred to in 2010 as the “dull new global novel.”

The profound influence of American fiction on Murakami’s work — Murakami is a prolific translator of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), J. D. Salinger (1919-2010), Raymond Carver (1938-88) and others — means that his prose is often criticized as reading like American fiction translated into Japanese, an abnegation of Japan’s profoundly rich literary heritage. For some this is a travesty; for others a liberation.

Motoyuki Shibata, emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo and a leading translator of contemporary American fiction and collaborator on Murakami’s translations, sees Murakami as opening the door to a whole new generation of rising writers who are inspired by the release from the dense, ornate styles and traditions of earlier, “formidably serious” Japanese literature.

Shibata cites contemporary authors such as Yoko Ogawa and Mieko Kawakami as examples of authors thriving in the post-Murakami style.

Yet Shibata is also keen to point out that Murakami connects to previous currents and traditions in Japanese literature — Murakami’s decision back in 1978 to write some pages of his first novel “Hear the Wind Sing” in English before translating it back into Japanese reminds Shibata of literary revolutionary Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909), a scholar of Russian literature who struggled to compose Japan’s first modern novel “Ukigumo.” Futabatei found his voice, and launched Japanese literature into modernity, says Shibata, by composing some pages in Russian and then translating them back into Japanese.

Matthew Strecher, a professor at Sophia University and a leading authority on Murakami, wryly recalls that when he published his first book, “Dances with Sheep” (an allusion to Murakami’s novels “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”), in 2002, many were skeptical that Murakami was worthy of such critical attention.

But by the time Strecher’s recent book “The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami” (2014) appeared, studies on Murakami had undergone exponential growth, with scholars at the Newcastle conference analyzing the relationship of Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” to Thomas Mann’s (1875-1955) “The Magic Mountain,” or teasing out the connections between Murakami and Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

Gitte Hansen, the Danish organizer of last month’s conference has a particular interest in the treatment of gender in Murakami’s novels, an ever burgeoning area of scholarship, and points out the difficulty of communication between men and women that is depicted in much of Murakami’s work.

These days, the diversity of critical research on Murakami is startling — you can read studies on the role of food in Murakami’s stories (there are entire menus in Japan inspired by Murakami) or delve into research on the types of religious cults depicted in “1Q84.” You can, as Barbara Thornbury has, see Murakami’s novels as a conduit to considering the modern urban landscapes of Tokyo, or else, like Irish scholar Alicia Keane, turn inwards and compare his anonymous interior spaces to the introspective world of Samuel Beckett (1906-89).

Murakami’s latest novel, “Killing Commendatore” — due to be released in English this autumn — takes Murakami’s fictive universe in yet another direction, setting the novel in the onsen (hot spring) town of Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, contemplating the nature of art itself, complete with what Strecher describes as a journey into the “underworld,” while making historical connections with World War I, the Anschluss of 1938, and the Rape of Nanking.

Strecher, an eloquent advocate of Murakami’s importance, warns that amid the fandom, we should not lose sight of our critical faculties. Strecher has, for example, drawn attention to what he sees as Murakami’s cursory treatment of the Nanking Massacre in his latest work and called for him to be more aware of being a major commentator on East Asian history for readers across the world.

Strecher is also critical of Murakami’s failure to introduce more female narrators and rounded female characters. “There are an awful lot of ‘bokus‘ (the male personal pronoun) in his stories, but very few ‘bokuettes,'” he laughs.

Whether you believe that Murakami is the savior of modern Japanese literature (“We must get used to the idea that he will one day die,” remarks Strecher) or you believe that he is symptomatic of why Japanese literature is stuck in the doldrums, what is clear is that the next wave of Japanese literature is sure to come as some kind of reaction to the extraordinary success of Murakami.