Books

Darkness and forgiveness: Haruki Murakami reflects on power and violence in the world and literature

Kyodo

Warning: The following interview contains spoilers for Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, “Killing Commendatore.”

The second installment of a two-part interview with novelist Haruki Murakami

In “Killing Commendatore,” the knife pierces the Commendatore’s thin body until it comes out through his back. His white clothes and the protagonist’s hands are soaked in blood.

I think it is important that the physical sensation of holding the knife, stabbing the other person, and feeling the splatter of blood can be conveyed to the readers directly through the story — only as a simulation, of course. Some things can only be brought to life through descriptions of physical matters.

The protagonist of this novel is an artist who paints oil portraits.

As I had never done an oil painting, I wrote the novel by reading about painting in books. A few painters later told me when I asked that there were no mistakes in the novel. Paintings and stories both have the same basic principle of creating something from zero.

The protagonist lives in a house belonging to famous Japanese-style painter Tomohiko Amada. During his studies in Vienna, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. Around the same time, Amada’s younger brother Tsuguhiko, served in the military during the Sino-Japanese war for the fall of Nanjing. Those two experiences are written about in the novel.

The plot moves forward greatly when the Commendatore is unearthed from the property where the protagonist lives. It’s a story about excavating and resurrecting the past.

You said that the Commendatore may be “a historical link,” “a messenger from the past.”

However deep you dig a hole to try to hide something, there’s always a time when that something comes out. We live shouldering history and however hard we try to hide it, it will come out in the open. History, I believe, is a collective memory that we must bear.

Mr. Murakami, you were born after the war in 1949.

It was a period when people still held vivid memories of killing each other, led by their national logic. I continue to be acutely conscious of the fact that, even now, war is not something far and remote. When people believe they are standing on firm ground today, they may find it is only soft mud.

Do you think the capacity for violence that people had during the war still exists in modern society?

I believe that a world of mysterious creatures in the deepest recesses of our minds, which I have gingerly and carefully treated in my writings, is gradually and quietly working its way through the internet, via social media, into the open.

One cannot help noticing in our daily lives, some indications of violence that lurk in the deepest, darkest recesses of our minds. Sometimes I fear that something from the past is resurrecting.

What role should an author take upon himself in such a society?

We novelists craft our stories freely. But the principle of natural ethics must exist within that freedom. It is the responsibility of novelists to provide concepts that will become basic standards, however weird and cruel the description of evil is.

“Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche” is a collection of interviews with victims of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system perpetrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

When I was writing it, I felt that I must as a novelist create a story that would defeat the one that Shoko Asahara (leader of Aum) told his followers. At the time when Aum was active, religion was powerful. But I believe that nowadays, social media rather than religion has a greater power to diffuse ideas and concepts more directly and strongly. I’m not saying that social media itself is evil, but we must not forget that this type of power still exists.

Might you say “Killing Commendatore” is a story about fighting against that type of power?

The violence in social media appears as fragmented pieces, lacking connectivity to each other. I personally believe that a story is better the longer it is. That’s because at least it is not fragmented. There must be an axis of value consistent throughout. And it must stand the test of time.

That’s the power of stories.

Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold.

In “Killing Commendatore,” a mysterious wealthy businessman with the unusual name of Wataru Menshiki appears. His name means “avoiding colors” so many people have been reminded of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.”

That’s right. I hadn’t realized that. Menshiki is an homage to Gatsby in Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

Gatsby lives in a place where he can see Daisy’s house, whom he loves. Like him, Menshiki lives in a mansion in the mountains in Odawara’s outskirts where he can see the house where Mariye, presumably his daughter, lives.

Gatsby worked his way up from poverty to a life of glitz that attracts attention because that’s his goal. In contrast, Mr. Menshiki lives an ordinary, calm life. Their personalities and characters differ. I only borrowed a setting from Gatsby.

Menshiki comes to ask the protagonist to paint his portrait. He says that having his portrait painted is “an exchange.” An exchange of parts with each other. The protagonist makes an exchange with his dead younger sister Komichi, and Mariye feels similarly about such interactions. The word “exchange” made an impression.

Since there are a limited number of characters, the story wouldn’t stick unless they give each other something. The person who actually made the pit in the property appear is Mr. Menshiki. Without him, there would be no story in the first place.

That’s right. Because Menshiki is the one who called the workers to have it dug.

In that sense, communication has a very important meaning in this story. There was not that much communication among the characters in some of my novels in the past. They were accumulations of relationships between two people. The characters were pretty much isolated and many of them did not even have names. But as I continued to write, I was gradually able to write about multiple interactions. “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is a novel where multiple people interact with each other.

“Killing Commendatore” has a limited number of characters but is characterized by the multiple communications among them.

It is quite an important point that different people come little by little to offer each other something of themselves. Before “Norwegian Wood,” many of my novels do tend to ignore function of communication. But since then, I feel that I have created worlds where people cannot live without communication.

I think one of the main characteristics of “Killing Commendatore” is that it’s written in the first-person narrative form, which we haven’t seen in your work in a long time.

I started out writing first-person narratives but gradually moved to the third-person narrative.

Your earlier works, which are written in the first person, are impressive. But “After the Quake,” a collection of stories with the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake as the backdrop, is told in the third-person narrative.

“1Q84” is a long novel told in the third person. And once I finished writing it, I wondered again what I could create with a first-person narrator.

Is there something that can be done in the first person that is difficult in the third-person narrative?

A monologue is easier to narrate in the first person. A first-person point of view can be written simply and unaffectedly, and readers can identify with the “I” easily. If readers can do that, it makes me happy as an author.

I see.

“The Great Gatsby” is also a first-person narrative. So is Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye,” which I like, and J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” They are all books that I have translated. I wonder why.

At the beginning of “Killing Commendatore,” it says that the protagonist and his wife have both signed and sealed their divorce papers but that they “ended up making a go of marriage one more time.”

The main point of the novel is that the protagonist, after going around in the dark, comes back to where he was to start over, just like a Japanese religious experience called tainai meguri. I wanted to indicate that at the outset, both to the readers and to myself.

This is the first novel that you write a conclusion at the beginning, isn’t it?

Yes. Until now, in many of my stories, if you lost something, you did so forever. But I decided from the start that this would be about restoration. So it was important to me to add that announcement at the beginning of the book.

And you write at the end, “I will not become like Menshiki” and “That is because I am endowed with the capacity to believe.”

Mr. Menshiki does not know whether the young girl Mariye is his daughter or not.

Perhaps he doesn’t really want to know.

Either to create ties with the outer world or not, he cannot decide exactly. He does not know himself whether he is committing to something or not. He seems to think that he grasps everything but in reality doesn’t really understand. He keeps his balance and coolly wanders in his own limbo.

The protagonist is not like that.

The main difference between the protagonist and Mr. Menshiki is that the former loves his wife. His feelings for her don’t change even after she leaves. He thinks that he would want to start again from the beginning if she returns. He seeks that kind of commitment.

What makes him do that?

It is love, of course, but more than that, the trust is important. Perhaps that is what Mr. Menshiki lacks.

There is a scene where the protagonist enters the deepest abyss of his mind after killing the Commendatore. Of all such abysses that you’ve written about, this seems the darkest.

I believe that there is no restoration without going through the most profound darkness. Accepting someone who has returned is forgiveness. Forgiveness is an emotion that emerges for the first time only after one goes through a very dark place and comes out on the other side.

I felt the protagonist’s loneliness, which accompanies physical acuteness as he made his way through the darkness.

The sense of forgiveness is beyond distinctions like “goodness,” “evil,” “light” or “darkness”. To obtain it, it is necessary to kill the “concept” of the Commendatore with his own hands. Only by doing so does one get “forgiveness,” I feel.

Your books, as is the case with “Killing Commendatore,” have been translated into multiple languages and read by people in many different countries. What is it about your books, do you think, that attracts readers throughout the world?

What surprises me when I go overseas is that there are many young readers from their teens to their 20s. This is clear when comparing them to Japanese readers. I believe that foreign readers, including these young people, are seeking some type of freedom.

My writings are not written in the so-called literary fashion but are plain and free. To put it another way, it should be handy and useful as a good tool. That characteristic probably doesn’t get lost even when my books are translated.

If you learn the tricks, you can use them to freely cut out meanings from things in your surroundings or emotions. Recently I feel that foreign readers are perhaps seeking that universal sense of freedom. Of course, this is only an opinion based on my intuition.

The Japan Times is reprinting this interview as provided by Kyodo News. The interviewers were critic Yutaka Yukawa and Kyodo News senior feature writer Tetsuro Koyama.