Wednesday 30 January 2013

J-Lit Giants: 7 - Haruki Murakami

Well, we're rapidly approaching the (calendar-dictated) end of January in Japan, but before February sweeps us off the stage, there's just enough time for one more J-Lit Giant to get up there and strut his stuff.  So, who gets the honour of closing the show?  You might just have heard of this one...

Haruki Murakami (born on the 12th of January, 1949) is quite possibly the most famous Japanese writer ever.  An exaggeration?  I don't think so.  In the English-speaking world, he has no rival for the title, and I'm sure that the same is true in most other countries.  Even in Japan itself, his fame may have outstripped that of traditional writers such as Natsume Soseki or Yasunari Kawabata.  But who is Murakami?

Murakami studied drama at the famous Waseda University in Tokyo, but before even finishing his degree, he got married to his partner Yoko, and they opened a bar (Peter Cat) together.  His life consisted of bar work and translation until, in a moment which could come from one of his works, he decided at a baseball game that he should try his hand at writing a book himself.  The rest, as they say, is history...

His early works earned him healthy sales and a certain amount of respect, but with the release of Norwegian Wood (his most conventional novel), Murakami's fame skyrocketed to such an extent that he was forced to flee Japan to escape the attention.  The later release of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a book many consider to be his best, brought critical acclaim to match his commercial success.  Kenzaburo Oe, who had been a critic of Murakami's work, praised the novel (which won one of Japan's most prestigious awards, the Yomiuri Prize).

The release of 1Q84 saw Murakami's fame at its peak in the west with publicity and hype at levels unheard of for a novel in translation.  However, in terms of literary success, Murakami's reputation is very much on a knife-edge.  Many believe that 1Q84 was overblown and repetitive, and that the book needed serious editing before being released in English.  Then again, many of these are probably the same people who complained that the English translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was majorly cut...

Murakami's literary legacy is uncertain (and probably best left to future generations!) - what is clear is that he has successfully crossed over into the English-language scene like few foreign writers before him.  He is prolific, and in addition to his fiction work (and his numerous translations of modern American literature), he has written volumes of non-fiction on a wide variety of topics, the majority of which are unlikely to see the light of day in English.  For anyone who has an interest in Murakami, Jay Rubin's biography (which I reviewed earlier in the month) is also a great read - but I'd recommend that you try a good few of his fiction works first ;)

One of the questions I've been asked most often in all my blogging career is which Murakami work to start with, and like all good questions, it is not an easy one to answer.  I've given different answers on many occasions, but here are three that might help you to ease your way into Murakami's world:

1) The Elephant Vanishes - Although Murakami considers himself a novelist, many readers prefer his shorter work.  The stories in this collection are a great introduction to his bizarre world, and if there are any which don't really take your fancy, there is always another one just over the page :)

2) Norwegian Wood - This is a wonderful, nostalgic novel looking back at a crucial time in the main character's life.  In terms of Murakami's ability to evoke images and emotions, this is as good as it gets.  Be warned though that the realistic style adopted for this novel is very unlike the themes he explores in most of his other work.

3) A Wild Sheep Chase - I would have chosen Murakami's first two novellas (Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973) here, were it not for the fact that they are once again almost impossible to find in English.  Instead, why not join Boku and the Rat in the third-part of The Trilogy of the Rat, a mesmerising hunt for a very special sheep, taking in a woman with beautiful ears and a very special hotel.  I doubt you'll regret it :)

So there we have it - a very short guide to one of the biggest J-Lit Giants around!  Please feel free to contradict me, suggesting alternative titles to start with (or slamming my choices).  The floor is now yours...