A literary tour of Japan: Haruki Murakami's fiction

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The novels and short stories of Japanese author Haruki Murakami have been translated into 34 languages, with good reason. Murakami has become a masterful storyteller, one of Japan’s most celebrated authors, and an international best-seller. His powerful stories are rooted in themes of sexual desire, knowledge, change, and at times even for food. Often dabbling in the supernatural, Murakami is at times a surrealist. He spans genre, perfecting the love story and the fantasy novel. We’ve put together a collection of mini-reviews of some of his works so you’ve got something to busy yourself with once finals are over. Read them all, read one, but don’t dare to overlook Haruki Murakami.
“After Dark”

Murakami’s “After Dark,” one of the New York Times notable books of 2007, tells the story of two sisters, one who is always awake and one who sleeps for months. As in previous novels, Murakami shifts seamlessly between what is real and surreal, bringing together the stories of unrelated people in the streets of downtown Tokyo and exploring themes of loneliness and isolation in modern Japanese life. The book opens on Mari Asai, the central character, sitting in a Denny’s diner in a seedy area of Tokyo, hoping to escape from a troublesome family life. Murakami moves between descriptions of the sleeping sister, a prostitute who has been attacked by a businessman client, a “love hotel” manager, and an aspiring musician and law student. Over the course of seven hours, Murakami connects these people in paths that intersect across the streets of Tokyo. For people new to Murakami, “After Dark” showcases his style of magical realism and his exploration of modern Japanese life. Those who are familiar with Murakami may find his latest novel somewhat predictable and formulaic, but should still find it an interesting, engaging read.

Annie Lewine

“Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”

In the summer of 2006, I spent a week in a coffee shop with my brother. He refused to leave me behind in his Wrigleyville apartment as he ran around town interviewing a pre-pubescent filmmaker, and decided that I could do something coffee-shop-like as he combed through his interviews. I resented this setup, but air conditioning and an endless stream of coffees and ice teas were reason enough to give up my hopes of city exploration. At the recommendation of a new friend, I had prepared myself for the trip by purchasing Haruki Murakami’s “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.” I set about ignoring my brother immediately, found the most comfortable nook in the coffee shop, and buried myself in the text.

Murakami wove his schizophrenic landscapes of modern Japan, mad scientist laboratories, and sewer systems with a grace and absurdity I could hardly believe. Like the frantic rush of associative thought that comes right before dreaming, every bit of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” flowed and swelled as it should, even if the transitions between Bob Dylan and cooking and data terrorism bordered on senselessness. And like any good slide into unconsciousness, my setting followed after me: the tables and chair, the cute barista. Everything belonged to this bizarre surreality inflating in my head.

Two days and twelve mocha-chai-whatevers later, I was staring at a closed book, wondering what had just happened.

Mark Saldaña

“Norwegian Wood”

“Norgwegian Wood” has a secret. It’s actually erotica, despite its misinformed genre label of ‘fiction/literature.’ Even without the sex scene and the phallic metaphors, “Norwegian Wood” is erotica for everyone. No one has to know you’re into it.

In truth, “Norwegian Wood isn’t erotica. Erotic literature, yes, but that’s where the sex jokes end. Published in 1987, “Norwegian Wood” put Murakami in the public eye, both in Japan and on an international level. The book, set in the 1960s, tells the story of Toru, a college student, and his struggles with love and friendship. During high school, Toru’s best friend killed himself, leaving his girlfriend and Toru mystified by their sudden loneliness until the two are reunited during college. Their strange romance comes to a halt when the girl, Naoko, has a mental breakdown and goes to live at a new age clinic. The novel traces Toru’s sexual escapades with Naoko and a unique classmate as he struggles to grow up in a changing world.

At 296 pages, “Norwegian Wood” is one of Murakami’s shorter works, and like any good book, it goes by too quickly. Murakami immerses readers in Toru’s psyche, detailing the simple routine of his life as a college student while illuminating Toru’s and other characters’ psychological problems. What does it really mean to love something, to give oneself completely? Can that even be done, and at what cost? By presenting Toru and Naoko’s tortured relationship, Murakami forces us to consider the significance of how we love, physically and mentally. “Norwegian Wood” is fascinating for its entertainment value alone, but it also brings up serious questions and begs for the reader’s introspection-certainly the mark of a successful novel.

Amy Shaunette

“Kafka on the Shore”

Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore,” translated to English in 2005 by Philip Gabriel, is a modern, mind-enveloping story that dabbles in the metaphysical while still presenting a believable story of human connection.

“Kafka” tells the interwoven stories of the two main protagonists. Kafka, “the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world,” has run away from home to avoid an Oedipal curse. Nakata, an aging man, has lost his memory and ability to read, yet gained the ability to speak to cats in a bizarre occurrence during a field trip as a fourth grader. Military reports of the incident are sprinkled throughout the first half of the novel. As Kafka seeks refuge in a library while trying to find his long-lost sister and mother, Nakata finds himself inexplicably drawn to the boy, eventually ending up in Kafka’s town after brutally stabbing a vision of Johnnie Walker in the boy’s old home.

In true Murakami form, “Kafka on the Shore” wavers between reality and the metaphysical, weaving Kafka and Nakata’s separate but eerily connected paths together while discussing concepts outside of the human realm. However, the introduction of third-person narratives give him greater freedom when examining the characters. Murakami also injects subtle bursts of humor through Hegel-quoting prostitutes and cameos of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders, but he also he suggests throughout the novel that that they, like everything else, are merely concepts and metaphors.

I would highly recommend “Kafka on the Shore” to any fan of unconventional literature, especially if you have an interest in the metaphysical (even if you don’t, Murakami has the gift of making it palpable rather than gimmicky). Although it may take a few run-throughs of the decidedly lengthy novel to really get the gist of the story or unfold the riddles Murakami has laced within it, it would be well worth your time to give it a shot.

Melanie Raydo

“The Wind-up Bird Chronicle”

A ton of people have told me to read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” My creative writing professor referred to it as “one of those books you need to read in college.” Needless to say, this much hype builds up expectations. Fortunately, this book, despite its 607 pages, is pretty damn cool. Murakami tells a story unlike any other contemporary writers I’ve encountered, and the mixture of the weird, the existential, and the Japanese makes for one of the best reads I’ve recently had.

The book’s plot begins simply enough-a guy named Toru Okada loses his cat. However, this leads to the involvement of weird spiritual mediums named after Mediterranean islands, an encounter with a strange 16-year-old girl, and eventually the disappearance of his wife. Toru encounters a whole host of strange people, spends a lot of time sitting at the bottom of a well, and finally reaches a strange level of lucidity in his dreams, which allows him t
o search for meaning in his life.

This strange plot is particularly character-driven. The bizarre people Toru meets in his “quest” are as well-drawn as can be, and lend the book a lot of depth with the addition of their backstories (which are often told to Toru or given him through letters and dreams). “Wind-Up” is unafraid of the everyday, and of the sexual, although it deals with the latter without overdoing it. Perhaps my only complaint about the novel is the slight excess of events. There are a few things that happen during the long buildup that ultimately seem to have little meaning, and the relatively short climax and ending are a little puzzling after so many bizarre happenings. Nonetheless, the novel is ultimately quite satisfying. The metaphysics are perhaps the most interesting part-the power of dreams and the magical realism in the novel make it far more three-dimensional.

Overall, I wish I could speak Japanese so I could read the original. But even as a translated work, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is a phenomenal novel, and definitely one you should read in college if you can find the time to sink into all 607 pages.

Colin Williams

“The Elephant Vanishes”

To make a long story short, a bizarre employment miracle landed my Mom a temporary job in London the summer after my sophomore year of high school, and so for two months my family up and moved to England’s capital. Jostled from the gentle confines of suburbia into a somewhat cramped flat, I was awed by, even addicted to the constant flash, buzz, and whir of the hypermodern megalopolis.

It was appropriate that this was the setting for my first encounter with Haruki Murakami, via his short story collection “The Elephant Vanishes.” Three of the book’s stories, including the title piece, had just been adapted for the stage by the London-based theater company Complicite. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to see the play, but the press photos piqued my attention: the experimental production had given Murakami’s stories a bleak, almost cyberpunk aesthetic, steeped in post-apocalyptic futurism.

Much to my surprise, then, the actual stories in “The Elephant Vanishes,” while surreal, were infinitely more vulnerable, more idiosyncratically human than I had imagined. Murakami’s brand of literary weirdness reveals itself as a savvy, modern cousin to magical realism.

For all of its quirkiness, though, Murakami’s fiction possesses a viscerally contemporary sense of foreboding. The stories contained in “The Elephant Vanishes” – which compiles much of his earliest short fiction – reckon with postmodern malaise as much as they indulge in pure fantasy. For every green monster or dancing dwarf passing through his spellbinding mise-en-scene, we have tales whose seeming implausibility is undermined by their uncomfortable proximity to our own consumption-filled-and-fueled existence.

Take “The Second Bakery Attack,” in which a restless married couple, driven by a ravenous and inexplicable hunger, robs a McDonalds in the middle of the night. Their haul? 30 Big Macs. In “Sleep,” the narrator’s relentless insomnia is her joy and obsession, and the dead middle of the night becomes her playground. The story’s horrifying conclusion brings into question whether her condition is willfull empowerment or deep, self-destructive pathology.

It is impossible to ignore how vital the setting of Japan is to Murakami’s work. His take on his nation’s popular culture is certainly nuanced, yet the hyper-automated, technology-obsessed society of modern Japan – late Capitalism par excellence – is a setting that feeds his fiction’s blurry fever dreams just as it feeds the everyday consumer nightmare. It is both the joy and the horror of reading Murakami, then, to realize that the bizarre world in which he writes is, after all, our own.

Peter Valelly