Books

Noted Japanese author Haruki Murakami looks back over 40 years of literary endeavors

Kyodo

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

Best-selling Japanese author Haruki Murakami sat down for an interview with Kyodo News in April on the 40th anniversary of his debut novel “Hear the Wind Sing.” Here he speaks about his latest work “Killing Commendatore,” the evolution of his writing style, and the growing presence of violence in social media.

Murakami begins: “Exactly 40 years ago in May I received the Gunzo Award for New Writers. I believe the award ceremony was on May 8. It was held at the Dai-ichi Hotel in Shinbashi in Tokyo.”

You have been a professional writer for 40 years. Even Natsume Soseki’s writing career only lasted for around 10 years. That’s a remarkable achievement, isn’t it?

I had a turning point every 10 years. And at each point, my writing style and the type of stories changed. I was never bored with writing. There was always a new goal. I think that was a good thing.

I’d like to hear more about one of your novels, “Killing Commendatore,” which has just come out in paperback.

The first thing I had was the title. It comes, of course, from Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni,” but I was attracted by the strange, restless resonance of the words “Killing Commendatore” (“Kishidancho Goroshi”) and I wondered if I could write a story set in Japan with that title. This is where it all began.

So it started with just the title?

It was also the case with “Kafka on the Shore.” I first came up with the title, then I started thinking of what kind of story I could create, and then I start writing. That’s why it takes a lot of time. I think “Norwegian Wood” was probably the only book where that was not the case. It didn’t have a title until the very end.

I believe that “The Garden in the Rain” was also a potential title (for “Norwegian Wood”) …

And, this time for “Killing Commendatore,” I wondered if I could include somewhere elements of the story “Nise no Enishi” (“Fate Over Two Generations”) from (18th century writer) Ueda Akinari.

You’re talking about a story from the collection “Harusame Monogatari” (“Tales of the Spring Rain”), the one that involves digging up a “sokushinbutsu” — the Buddhist monks who observed asceticism to the point of death and entered mummification while still alive, right?

I have seen several mummies on my travels in the northeastern Tohoku region. I also read a book that I happened upon in a used bookstore in Kyoto, which explained how mummies are made, and so forth.

“Ugetsu Monogatari” (“Tales of Moonlight and Rain”), another collection of Ueda’s stories, also appears in “Kafka on the Shore,” doesn’t it?

I like Akinari, especially the story “Nise no Enishi.” It’s about finding out that a self-mummified monk had become a good-for-nothing guy after he is dug up and resuscitated. Ueda Akinari was cynical about the world, and so he wrote such perverse stories. They are not your usual supernatural stories.

Hmm, I see.

My father’s home is a Buddhist temple of the Jodo-shu (The Pure Land School) in Kyoto. Sure enough, when he died, a priest of the school recited a Buddhist sutra. I spoke to the priest and found out that his temple’s grounds had Akinari’s tomb, and I asked him if he’d show it to me. A crab was engraved on it. When I asked why, he told me that Akinari — always the cynic — asked as a dying wish that his tomb be engraved with something that could only walk sideways.

What a fascinating story.

The temple apparently took care of Akinari to some extent in his later years.

There’s an overlap between “Killing Commendatore” and Akinari’s “Nise no Enishi.” When the protagonist from “Killing Commendatore” begins digging in the thicket of the house he lives in, “a hole” from the past appears.

The theme of my stories tends to become naturally about exploring the unconscious or subconscious…the bottom of the conscious mind. As we delve deeper into the conscious mind, we find all the way at the very bottom a grotesque world of dark creatures. Ultimately, we can only depend on our instincts to figure out what to pull out from this darkness, right? We have no choice but to sharpen all facets of our awareness and surrender ourselves to our instincts. We cannot depend on logic or on previous examples because, in a sense, that would be dangerous.

In “A Wild Sheep Chase,” it was “Sheep Man.” In “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” it was the other world through the well. In “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” it was “INKlings.” And now we have “the Commendatore.”

I read the book eagerly awaiting the Commendatore’s appearance. Since he’s just around 60 centimeters, he’s very cute.

If he were too big, it would be difficult to work with him and he would appear menacing. Since he’s small, he’s compact, and it’s easy to focus our attention on him and handle him. Everything becomes proportionally smaller. He is a presence but separate from daily life.

“Kafka on the Shore” had non-humans like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s mascot Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker. But it is the first time that a non-human appears so frequently and moves the story along.

That’s true that there hasn’t been one like the Commendatore who appears many times throughout the story.

The Commendatore calls himself “an Idea.” In short, a notion.

“That’s exactly right, but I don’t think it’s feasible to ascribe only one definite meaning to him. I thought about this after I finished writing the novel, but I think the Commendatore is a composite of the main characters’ alter egos. He is perhaps like a mirror reflecting the different sides of each character. Along with that, he may also be a historical link or a messenger from the past. However, all of these are possibilities and even I don’t know what is correct. We can only leave it up to the readers to think about.

You have also written that (the Commendatore) is a somewhat neutral concept.

I won’t say that he is a good being but he is not a bad one. He is, I believe, a “guide” who has gone way beyond those types of values. And he is not something that is visible to everyone. He can only be seen by those who can see.

The Commendatore’s language is distinctive. He uses “aranai” (translated as “negative” in English versions of the book, but in Japanese is formed from “aru” — to be and “nai” — not.) Although he is speaking to only one person, he always calls the person “shokun” (“my friends”).

Translators really had a hard time deciding how to translate those words.

The protagonist, constantly referred to as “my friends,” believes that the Commendatore may not possess the concept of the second-person singular. And “aranai” is the negative form of “aru,” implying that the Commendatore is a conceptual being.

That’s right. It also feels a bit like a translation of a German philosophical work. “Aranai” seems like the German words “nicht sein” (not be). I’ve done translations for a long time, so I am used to fashioning words in various ways. Perhaps that’s why they appear in my mind quite naturally. The resonance of a word is very important to me. It may also be because I am quite influenced by music.

You do a lot of translations and frequently go overseas. You’ve lived abroad for a long period as well. But all of your novels are set in Japan, including “Killing Commendatore.”

It could be because I have an interest in exchanging “the interior” and “the exterior.” For example, in this novel, the Commendatore — who is supposed to be a Westerner — appears wearing Japanese-style clothes from the ancient Asuka Period from the sixth to eighth century. That makes readers wonder and become intrigued by the dissonance. It wouldn’t be a story if he appeared wearing exactly the type of clothes Don Giovanni would wear.

That’s probably true.

When I first started, there were many novels set in foreign countries. But I wasn’t very attracted to them. I was more interested in what one might describe as the work of exchanging meanings, or a bartering of spirituality. It was almost impossible to do that with the established literary style, so it was necessary to rearrange the literary vocabulary.

And those works set in Japan are later translated into foreign languages.

I think it shows the possibility that an “Idea” or “concept,” as embodied by the Commendatore clad in ancient Japanese clothes, can move across cultures despite their differences. On the other hand, even if you have the same concept, meanings may differ depending on the type of soil they are rooted in. While I am writing, I am interested in how they diverge and overlap.

As the title states, the Commendatore is killed in this novel. The Commendatore is killed at the beginning of the opera “Don Giovanni” and murdered again in your novel.

I think it is the first time the word “kill” appears in the title of one of my books. “Norwegian Wood,” for example, has a few characters who commit suicide, but these are people killing themselves. In that story, death, actual killing, has a very important meaning.

Entering “the end of the world” in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” is the same thing as death. When the protagonist in “Kafka on the Shore” walks into the deep forest, he is walking into the world of death.

In “1Q84”, the leader of a cult convinces the female protagonist Aomame to kill him. He tells her that she must do so in order to keep her love Tengo alive. In “Killing Commendatore,” the Commendatore himself tells the protagonist to kill him in order to save Mariye, a girl who goes missing. And the protagonist sticks a kitchen knife into his little heart.

Obviously I’m referring to stories, but the physical sensations that arise during a murder are important. In “Kafka on the Shore,” Johnnie Walker kills cats with a scalpel. The physical sensation of slashing is crucial as if it’s actually tangible.

Could you go into more detail?

The act of killing is rebirth in a mythological sense. Something is killed, and something is reborn. There are the mythological stories of patricide. A new being is born by killing something. That is a story that appears often in mythology. For example, a new bud grows out of a dead body. There are stories like that in Japan’s “Kojiki” (“Records of Ancient Matters”).

It’s about death and rebirth.

In the real world, we cannot kill flesh and blood people but people can experience “killing” vicariously through stories like “Killing Commendatore.” This is a crucial role of a story, and in this particular story, “killing” the Commendatore that embodies the “Idea” is a necessary symbolic act.

Is this common in your other stories?

Ever since I started writing my novels, I have strongly aspired to trigger physical responses in my readers through my words. For example, many people said they really wanted to drink beer after finishing “Hear the Wind Sing.” As its author, that made me very happy.

Was that also the case with “Norwegian Wood”?

In “Norwegian Wood” I wrote about physical sensations that occur during sex as realistically and straightforwardly as possible. I was disliked and criticized a lot because of that but realism that is tangible to the readers is extremely important to me. I couldn’t write a story without it. Generally speaking, I feel that there are fewer modern Japanese novels that realistically describe physical sensations, unlike Raymond Carver’s stories, all of which I translated. I have learned little by little from such writings.

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