Imagine the scenes as the news breaks on a warm night in October.
In a shogi dojo, where the announcement is heard from a radio in the background, a master strategist suddenly abandons the “badger defense” she has been patiently constructing, and launches a suicidal frontal assault on her opponent’s king to take out her frustration.
In a temple somewhere, a note is passed to a Zen master who is meditating on the perfect balance between the powder and the water in his cup, a moment before he splurts green tea down his chin and meditates on the unfairness of life instead.
In the Kyodo newsroom, a wail of disappointment is heard, Champagne is returned to the fridge and trembling hands struggle to a keyboard to punch out the bitter news.
Such scenes may or may not have played themselves out as people learned of the recipients of the 2019 and the delayed 2018 Nobel Prizes in literature (I did say imagine), but Kyodo actually came up with this headline: “Nōberu mongakusho wa gaikokujin ni” (“Nobel Prize(s) in literature go to foreigners.”)
Why the exasperation? Again, I’m just guessing here, but perhaps it’s because Haruki Murakami — Japan’s favorite son next to Ichiro Suzuki — was once again passed over for the honor, marking an entire decade without recognition from the Swedes.
If life were as it is in a Murakami novel, you would simply live your life, doing relatively ordinary things. You would make pasta, listen to great music and take precise care over mundane tasks such as vacuuming the house. Then happenstance would see your life intersect with a darker, more magical and much sexier world coexisting alongside the familiar one. The wild winds of the other world would whip against you, threatening to tear you from the familiar and the rational, forever. But a refusal to abandon your principles, tenacity and an old-fashioned trust in true love ought to see you through.
A Murakami character — often a writer, painter or other creative type — certainly wouldn’t let a lack of external recognition bother them. If they did have a creative loss of confidence or personal crisis, they might jump down an abandoned well (“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”), hide out in an obscure hotel in Hokkaido (“A Wild Sheep Chase”), or hole up in an isolated mountain retreat (“Killing Commendatore”) until they had found their internal spark again. But one can’t imagine these characters, or Murakami himself, fretting by the phone on the day of the Nobel announcement.
Yet despite continuing to write best-selling novels, poor Murakami has to put up with a lot of mockery every time the Nobel Committee rules against him, or at least in favor of someone else.
On Oct. 10, the day the prize winners were announced, morning television ran segments on Murakami fans gathering for a celebration and, later on, news stations broadcast those same fans fighting back tears of disappointment as literature’s top prize was denied to their hero yet again.
This now annual occurrence naturally leads to sniggering from those who are not superfans. But it isn’t the writer himself who is pictured blubbering when the results are announced. Quite to the contrary, he has spent the 2010s quietly going about his work.
The decade began with the release of “1Q84.” This tale of a man and woman trying to reach one another in a strange parallel world drew a Japan Times reviewer’s prediction that it could one day be recognized as Murakami’s “magnum opus.”
2013 to 2014 saw the publication of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” which follows the quest of a damaged man to find out why his circle of high school friends had suddenly ostracized him years earlier.
Murakami then picked up the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award in 2016 (showing that some Scandinavian nations have better taste than others). And last year saw the publication in English of “Killing Commendatore,” an odd tale of a portrait painter who struggles to find an essential spark within himself that he hadn’t known he was missing. Given this recent output, Murakami’s spark seems still to be burning fiercely.
As a big fan of these, and earlier works, I’d like to ensure that the 2020s do not also pass by without a can of meatballs and copy of ABBA’s greatest hits joining Murakami’s hard-won Danish salami and Carlsberg beer in his larder (also the best place to put ABBA CDs). At least I assume that you get some goodies thrown in with the awards. In that spirit, here are some tips to ensure Murakami doesn’t miss out on the Nobel Prize in the coming decade.
First, get a European passport. This strategy worked for Sir Kazuo Ishiguro. The Nagasaki-born writer was prescient enough to move to the U.K. at the age of 5, and got his Nobel Prize in literature in 2017. The U.K. has produced 11 of the literature award’s 116 recipients, compared to Japan’s two. Modestly sized Sweden itself has produced eight, compared to China’s one, India’s one, and Russia’s three (By some counts — many writers were born in a European overseas colony, or changed nationalities, or are otherwise claimed by multiple nations).
Second, stop writing so much about whisky, jazz and sex. Yes, Murakami has produced disturbing alternate realities, twisting plots and unforgettable characters such as female assassin Aomame and her soulmate Tengo, scarred by his NHK license fee collection rounds with his father. However, these are always seasoned with a generous sprinkling of whisky, jazz and sex to keep fans reading. But does it all detract from the gravitas of deep themes such as alienation and fatalism? Would too much salt, pepper and mono-sodium-glutinate put off a Michelin reviewer from giving out stars to a famous chef? Probably.
When Yasunari Kawabata won the prize in 1968, the committee said it was “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.” When Kenzaburo Oe won the prize in 1994, the committee said he, “with poetic force, creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”
Will the committee ever praise Murakami’s “great taste in booze and music, and pleasingly racy sex scenes?”
Perhaps the verbally dextrous committee would find a way of giving the wording a more cerebral veneer. I humbly suggest, “With poetic mastery of metaphor and narrative, he blends the peaty water of life, syncopated rhythms and dark eroticism into a frightening picture of society today.”
Not everything is in Murakami’s hands, however. My third suggestion is for Japan to stop picking up so many Nobel Prizes in other disciplines. The decade began strongly with a win for Eiichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki in 2010 in the field of chemistry. 2012 saw a win for Shinya Yamanaka in the field of medicine. Three Japanese physicists shared a prize in 2014 (Hiroshi Amano, Shuji Nakamura and Isamu Akasaki), and there was a Japanese winner in both medicine and physics in 2015 (Satoshi Omura and Takaaki Kajita, respectively). In 2016 and 2018, another two Japanese researchers — Yoshinori Ohsumi and Tasuku Honjo — won in the field of medicine. And 2019 rounded off the decade with a win in chemistry for Akira Yoshino.
Could the Nobel Committee be trying to avoid bestowing multiple prizes to winners from the same country? It would be human nature to try and balance these things out. Maybe Japanese scientists should hold off on proving that neutrinos have mass, or developing therapies to fight roundworm parasites or suchlike, until Murakami gets his prize?
Finally, the word needs to go out to Murakami’s superfans and the local media to stop making him look so desperate. Haven’t they ever heard of playing hard to get? Japanese writer Yukio Mishima was reportedly so keen on the prize that he asked Kawabata to lobby on his behalf. He never won. But Bob Dylan did. And he was so disinterested that he didn’t bother returning the calls of the prize committee for days after they chose him.
Murakami’s stellar writing career began in the 1970s with the award-winning, “Hear the Wind Sing” (1979). As another decade peppered with his great literary contributions passes without the ultimate recognition, perhaps it is time to reflect that, as Tengo says in “1Q84,” “Life is not like water. Things in life don’t necessarily flow over the shortest possible route.”
Let’s fetch Murakami from whatever well, obscure hotel, or mountain retreat he’s sipping whisky in, and give him his prize before another decade slips away.
This feature is part of a series of articles and essays across different sections of the newspaper that are reviewing the 2010s.