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Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009
Murakami: Titan of postwar literature
By ALEX MARTIN
Haruki Murakami is probably the most internationally acclaimed and influential contemporary Japanese author alive today. Over a career spanning 30 years, he has illustrated the apathy and ennui enveloping postwar Japan through sometimes wildly fantastic storytelling with surreal twists and turns, sprinkled with elements of Western philosophy and psychology.
Murakami is also known as a translator of modern American fiction, including novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote and J.D. Salinger.
He has ventured into nonfiction, releasing "Underground" in 1997 — a collection of interviews with the victims of the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult.
His most recent novel, "1Q84," whose two volumes have yet to be translated into English, instantly became a national best-seller with more than 2 million copies already sold since its release in May.
His books have been translated into 40 languages worldwide.
Following are some questions and answers about Murakami:
Who is Haruki Murakami?
He was born in Kyoto on Jan. 12, 1949, but his family soon moved to Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, where he spent the bulk of his youth. His parents were both teachers of Japanese literature, a fact often cited as one of the reasons Murakami delved into Western literature and music.
"Because my father was a teacher of Japanese literature, I just wanted to do something else. So I read Kafka and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and I loved it very much. Dostoyevsky is still my hero," he said during a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.
Murakami went on to study at Waseda University in Tokyo during the heated student movements of the late '60s, where he met and married his wife, Yoko.
Between 1974 and 1981, Murakami and his wife opened a cafe-jazz bar called Peter Cat that was first located in Kokubunji in western Tokyo and later moved across the city to Sendagaya.
He wrote his first novel, "Hear the Wind Sing," when he was 29, writing a few passages after finishing each day's work at the bar. The novel won the Gunzo Shinjinsho literature prize.
Murakami went on to publish several more books, but his first major commercial success came in 1987 with the publication of "Norwegian Wood." A coming-of-age story of loss, nostalgia and sexuality, the novel sold several million copies in Japan and elevated him to superstar status.
Soon after he left Japan and traveled around Europe with his wife. They eventually settled down in the United States in 1991, with him as a writing fellow and later as a guest professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
But he returned to Japan in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo sarin gas attacks, and has lived here ever since. Murakami is known as a keen marathon runner — something he began when he was 33 — and has even released a collection of essays titled "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running."
In a recent interview with Roland Kelts, author of "Japanamerica," Murakami explained that the book was "not just about running, also about a way of life. It's not a how-to book. The way I run is the way I have lived, so the book is about the connections between living, running and writing. My attitude toward life."
What is his writing style?
Murakami's stories are characterized by their often humorous dialogue and surreal plot turns, usually involving heavy usage of metaphors and frequent references to aspects of American and European culture.
Murakami has said he has been heavily influenced by American authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler and Richard Brautigan, as well as Franz Kafka and his hero, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
In a 2005 review in The New Yorker, John Updike wrote: "Though his work abounds with references to contemporary American culture, especially its popular music, and though he details the banal quotidian with an amiable flatness reminiscent of Western youth and minimalist fiction in the hung over 1970s, his narratives are dreamlike, closer to the viscid surrealism of Kobo Abe than the superheated but generally solid realism of Mishima and Tanizaki."
Murakami has said that the emphasis in his novels has shifted over the years from one of "detachment" to "commitment."
Although his novels were known for their introverted and socially "detached" protagonists, in recent years he has increasingly incorporated social and historical issues in his writing.
"The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," released in 1995, dealt in part with Japan's wartime occupation of China, while a new-age religious cult similar to Aum Shinrikyo and the student movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s are central to the plot of his latest novel, "1Q84."
What literary prizes has he won?
Murakami has won numerous literary prizes over the years, including the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize in 1985 and the Franz Kafka Prize in 2006 for his work "Kafka on the Shore."
Notable, however, is the Jerusalem Prize that he received last January. In the wake of an Israeli offensive in Gaza, many protested his attending the award ceremony in February.
Murakami, however, defied such calls and traveled to Israel on the grounds that "like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told."
During a speech in front of Israeli dignitaries, including President Shimon Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Murakami explained his belief in how the "the egg" — each individual — must work to prevent "the wall" — systems of states and organizations — from losing control, referring to Israel's large-scale offensive in the Gaza Strip.
"If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg," he said.
Murakami is often mentioned as a possible future recipient of the Noble Prize in literature.