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Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008

From Murakami's memoir to your own diary

WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel, London: Harvill Secker, 2008, 192 pp., £9.99 (cloth) MURAKAMI DIARY by Haruki Murakami, London: Vintage, 2008, 176 pp., £9.99 (paper)

Toward the end of this memoir on writing and running, Murakami asserts, rather confusingly, that (bi)cycling is somehow different from running: "It's the same movements repeated over and over. You go up slopes, on level ground, and down slopes. Sometimes the wind's with you, sometimes against you." These three sentences could act as a metaphor for Murakami's autobiographical exercise.

The reader watches ideas blur by without any feeling of depth. Any thought of contemplation is swiftly forgotten as, like the rhythm of a jogger's feet, cliche falls after cliche. As always with Murakami, the writing is sometimes beautiful, always pared down and often laconic — yet, occasionally, so laid back the reader gets the impression that a certain Olympian novelist is resting (wrapped in one of those silver-foil blankets) on his laurels.

The reader trudges wearily after Murakami as we follow him on his training exercises, his neighborhood runs and his triathlon preparations. As he attempts to reach the peak of fitness, we look onward hoping for a glimpse of the usual smooth and level surface of his prose, yet are presented with the commonplace "raining cats and dogs" or the purple and prosaic "like an unfortunate destiny, like the dark-hearted queen of the night, thirst kept pursuing me."

Although Murakami states that when he runs he doesn't "think much of anything worth mentioning," he uses marathon running as an analogy to novel writing — speaking in terms of talent, focus and endurance — and it is in these sections that the memoir reads like the wind is behind us. Mostly, however, Murakami's hectoring voice and egotism makes the reader feel that he is trying to make headway against a hurricane of narcissism and platitudes.

Less philosophical than his novels, this short book is more a collection of homilies on the benefits of running, keeping fit and maintaining a good diet. A fish-and- vegetable-eating fitness fanatic replaces the image of Murakami as a beer-swigging, chain-smoking Japanese version of Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver. Indeed, even though Murakami has pronounced his dismissal and dislike of the life and works of Yukio Mishima (Murakami's novels and short stories having introduced a new strain of Japanese writing to the West directly opposed to Mishima's formalism), this memoir approaches Mishima's "Sun and Steel" in its fetishization of the body — Murakami's style admittedly less pumped up than Mishima's. Even the metaphors are similar — compare Mishima's four rivers of life with Murakami's "deep, secret water veins," so important to his writing.

Along with Jay Rubin's "Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words," this book provides us with an insight into Haruki Murakami the man and novelist. However, for fans — and that includes me — the memoir doesn't go far enough in providing correlations between writing and running; nor does it present us with a revelatory philosophy of the interaction between mind and body. Rather, like a three-legged marathon runner, it stumbles past the finish line, tired and exhausted, neither one thing nor the other, with the reader/crowd wondering why it bothered in the first place.

In the afterword, Murakami explains how he wrote "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" in between other projects. Part journal, part autobiography, the book suffers from its author's over-enthusiasm. Apparently, Murakami is working on a lengthy novel — the sort of long-distance exercise his readers enjoy — that I'm sure will be a return to form.

"Murakami Diary" is much more like it. A very handsome 2009 illustrated diary, with extracts from various of his works, this is one for all Murakami fans.

Cats jump across the days, covers of Murakami's books cut through the months, cherry blossoms indicate the start of spring, and maple leaves drift across September's dates in flicker falls. Red ribbons turn into seismic ink marks while mysterious women hide among the pages.

Quotes from the novels and short stories preview days of importance in Murakami's and his character's lives. Alongside the phases of the moon, the drawings of koi, and photographs of Japan, there is plenty of room to jot down all the magical and mundane Murakami-isms as you go about your day. One can ponder the importance of spaghetti in Murakami's writing or tap into the secrets being carried across the telephone lines. Maybe use it as a dream diary, marking down how many times sheep or wells or beautiful women wearing veils appear.

The Vintage design department has outdone itself. The diary is a beautiful and useful idea for any festive gift-giving — there should be more things like this. I can't wait until 2009 to start to use it.

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