Over the past three decades, author Haruki Murakami has been translated into over 40 languages and become an international superstar. In Japan he debuted in 1979 with “Hear the Wind Sing” and regularly sold thousands and even tens of thousands of copies of his novels, but when he published “Norwegian Wood” in 1987, he was thrown into the pop culture spotlight, selling in the hundreds of thousands and eventually the millions. Internationally, he started to be published in translation in the 1980s but didn’t boom, at least in English, until the late ’90s, by which time the trio of translators Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel started to catch up with Murakami’s log of work.
At this point, almost all of his major novels have been published in English and many other languages, which is perhaps part of the reason that the release of his previous novel “1Q84” in May 2009 was covered so widely in the international press: News of a release in Japan whets the appetite of his loyal overseas readership.
The fact that the book was a runaway success in Japan is also part of the reason. Murakami kept the content of the story a secret (unlike with 2002 “Kafka on the Shore,” the plot of which leaked before publication), which undoubtedly increased interest and expectation in Japan. “1Q84” went on to sell over a million copies of each of the first two volumes in hardcover, and as it was covered in the press on morning news shows and in newspapers and magazines, it became an almost unprecedented trend generator.
At some point in the past year, Murakami decided that the story was not finished, so he produced an additional 602 pages (bringing the total page count to 1,657), which were released as Book 3 on April 16.
Its ripples can already be seen on bookstore shelves. Book 3 of “1Q84” is being flanked by a number of books referred to by the characters, and quite conveniently there is a new translation of George Orwell’s “1984.” Anton Chekov’s “A Journey to Sakhalin” is selling better than it has in years thanks to extensive quotes by one of the book’s protagonists. Most stores also have Murakami’s paperback catalog within reach, hoping consumers who are waiting for a paperback version of “1Q84” might impulsively buy one of his older novels to bide the time.
Murakami has also generated sales for music. While he is generally known as a fan of jazz, “1Q84” has renewed interest in classical music. The structure of the book itself is based on Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” and Leoš Janáček’s “Sinfonietta” seems to induce mysterious changes in the world of the novel. In the 20 years after “Sinfonietta” was recorded on CD, the album sold 6,000 copies; after the release of “1Q84,” it only took a week to achieve that same number. Additionally, the featured article on Japanese Wikipedia for April 17, 2010, the day after the release of Book 3, was Janáček’s page.
Judging from the first three chapters of Book 3 (at the time of writing, that’s as far as I’ve managed to read), you shouldn’t be surprised if you see OLs, salarymen and college kids lugging around Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” Murakami has also name-dropped the post-apocalyptic Australian novel “On the Beach”; however, it was also mentioned in the first two volumes and hasn’t received much fanfare yet.
In the May 2010 issue of monthly magazine Bungeishunju, translator Jay Rubin writes about his experience translating Murakami and ends his article with the prediction that Murakami “will sooner or later win (the Nobel Prize for literature). But I don’t know when that will be.”
If he does indeed win the Nobel Prize it may be in spite of and not due to his extensive cultural name-dropping. While it has been one of his major characteristics since his early works, it has become notably more blunt and didactic in tone since “Kafka on the Shore.” The practice indeed serves to provide a scavenger hunt of interpretive clues for curious readers, but it has also become fodder for haters and critics who are often eager to shoot down anything that is too popular.