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Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2007

SENTAKU MAGAZINE

Murakami's Nobel leanings

The news that 88-year-old Doris Lessing received the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature was not greeted by the Japanese media with as much fanfare as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's winning the Nobel Peace Prize. This perhaps was because Japanese literary circles were more interested in whether Haruki Murakami would become this year's Nobel laureate in literature.

Murakami would have been the third Japanese recipient of the literature prize after Yasunari Kawabata in 1968 and Kenzaburo Oe in 1994.

Murakami has long been an important figure in the Japanese publishing industry because whatever novel he writes becomes a best-seller. Indeed, his "Norwegian Wood" has sold about 9 million copies, including the paperback edition.

Still, editors must treat him with care. Kodansha, a major publisher, is said to have lost the right to publish his "Kafka on the Shore" to rival Shinchosha just because an editor's language and behavior put Murakami in a bad mood. An industry insider says Murakami became bad-tempered whenever someone mentioned the possibility of his winning the Nobel Prize.

The winner of the Nobel Prize in literature is selected by the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, all of them Swedish nationals. Of them about half are novelists and poets, and the remainder are made up of judges, linguists and others not directly related to literature.

Every autumn, the Academy asks the PEN Clubs of various countries to recommend candidates. The list of candidates narrows to 200 to 300 by the following February and to five by the next autumn, when the Academy chooses the winner by vote. The screening process is kept strictly confidential and the list of candidates is never made public. It is said that the Academy sometimes deliberately chooses someone least expected to win the award just to dampen speculation. Lessing falls into this category, according to certain sources.

Until Oe won the prize in 1994, a number of Japanese authors had been mentioned as "candidates," including Masuji Ibuse, Yasushi Inoue, Kobo Abe and Shusaku Endo. On the day the winner was announced, their residences would be surrounded by reporters seeking comments. It is doubtful, however, whether they were actually under consideration as candidates.

A Swedish translator well informed about the Academy said: "Had Kobo Abe lived a few years longer, he could have won the prize. The other names, however, were no more than rumors."

Why is it, then, that Murakami's name has been mentioned so much in Japan without the knowledge that he has actually been a candidate? One reason is that his works have become popular not only in Japan but also internationally. They have been translated into various languages and sold in more than 30 countries in Asia, Europe, North America and Oceania, to say nothing of China and South Korea, where translations of Murakami's works appear in bookstores almost simultaneously with the publication of the original Japanese versions. Seldom has any other Japanese novelist become so popular worldwide.

There are 18 titles by Murakami at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, which collects literary works from all over the world for screening purposes. That number is second only to 45 titles by Oe among Japanese writers, and exceeds 10 titles by Yoko Ogawa, nine by Banana Yoshimoto and seven by Ryu Murakami.

On the other hand, the Swedish Academy has a definite tendency to award the Nobel Prize in literature to those with strong anti-establishment ideologies. For example, Lessing was a former member of the British Communist Party, and last year's laureate, Orhan Pamuk, had been indicted for contempt of the state in his native Turkey.

This has led some to speculate that Murakami's writings, which have gained popularity for their simplicity, run counter to this tendency. According to an insider, even though Murakami appears uninterested in winning the Nobel Prize, he has been shifting himself toward the Swedish Academy's posture, as exemplified by his nonfiction work published in 2005 as "Underground," in which he interviews victims of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo. This insider goes on to say that while Murakami may have had different motives, it appears certain that he had the Academy in mind when he wrote that book.

Hope for Murakami's winning the Nobel Prize heightened in 2006 when he won the Cena Franze Kafky (Franz Kafka Prize). Winners of this prize, namely, Elfriede Jelinek and Harold Pinter, became Nobel laureates two years in a row.

The Swedish Academy is said to operate under a rule that prevents a first-time entrant into the list of the final five candidates from being awarded the prize that year. On receiving information that Murakami was among the five last year, reporters from major newspapers chased him to Niigata where he was competing in a triathlon race and even to Hawaii. He declined all requests for interview.

When asked through his agent if he would meet the press if indeed he won the Nobel Prize, his response was he would answer questions only by e-mail.

This year, speculation as to who would win the prize heated up in many corners of the world. In sweepstakes in Britain, Murakami ranked second after Philip Roth. South Korean poet Ko Un ranked fourth and fifth, triggering a rush of Korean reporters to Stockholm. The Swedish Academy issued a statement saying the ranking in the sweepstakes does not agree with its views.

"The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" recently became the fifth work by Murakami to be translated into Swedish. A big question in everybody's mind today is whether any of his works will be invited for exhibition at the Goteborg Book Fair. That is because Oe won the Nobel Prize shortly after the Swedish translation of his novel was exhibited at that fair.

This is an abridged translation of an article that appeared in the November issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine of in-depth analysis of Japan's political, social and economic landscape.


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