Ordinary guy, extraordinary success

Japanese author Haruki Murakami insists on his ordinariness. But his exploration of the darkness within even the most average of Joes has brought him exceptional fame.


July 15, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

He was a 29-year-old bar owner watching a baseball game when inspiration struck. It was a sunny day in April, and from out of nowhere an inner voice spoke to Haruki Murakami right there in the bleachers, as if he'd slipped into some Tokyo remake of "Field of Dreams."

"You can write," the voice said, and Murakami heeded the call. Today, at 52, he is a best seller in his home country, and probably the world's most popular Japanese novelist abroad, with a loyal and growing following in the United States.

It's hardly the epiphany one might expect for a Japanese novelist. Then again, the Japan of Murakami's fiction isn't exactly familiar ground, either, especially for Americans overdosed on images of either samurai or salarymen, polite but inscrutable drones bowing their way past cherry blossoms and ruthless corporate overlords.

The men dominating Murakami's landscapes are blandly likable young fellows, often recently cast adrift by lovers or employers, quite ordinary guys who calmly narrate quite extraordinary events -- encounters with talking sheep, women disappearing into other dimensions, men vanishing down wells -- all of it played out against a Westernized backdrop of Beatles songs, Hollywood films and Fitzgerald novels. His tales unfold in conversational comfort, with an unpretentious style that beckons but never bothers.

"What I want to represent in my books is a kind of Never Never Land," Murakami says, in a recent e-mail interview conducted in English. "Cultural background does not mean much to me, generally speaking. But I am a Japanese writer and I write in Japanese. So I think you could say it is a Japan-oriented Never Never Land. Just like L.A. was a Never Never Land to Raymond Chandler." .

It's not as if Murakami himself leads any sort of never-never-land life, apart from the obvious freedoms offered by the income of sales in the millions. Except for the time he heard that inner voice in 1978, he says, he's always been about as normal as the next guy. Meaning, maybe not so normal after all, once you start digging beneath the surface.

"I am not a genius, not much talented, not so smart, not so intelligent, just an ordinary guy," he says "I like to write, and I am pretty persistent about it. But that is all. Before I became an author, I had been a bar owner, and made vodka gimlet and corned beef sandwiches every night until 3. Sometimes I had to kick out some drunk [jerks]. That is me.

"But I think everybody, anybody, has his / her own dark maze in him / herself. One's mind is an underworld full of ghosts and enigmas, and it takes his / her whole life, or more than that, to understand and estimate it. That is the main theme of my books. Understanding and estimating our own darkness."

He might be anyone

In the same way that some people are said to be more equal than others, Murakami might said to be more "normal" than most. His background -- born in 1949, raised comfortably by parents who taught Japanese literature, rebellious in his teens, got married while earning a college degree in theatrical arts, owned and operated a jazz bar in Tokyo -- seems in retrospect to have been the perfect training for becoming the literary voice of Japan's so-called shinjinrui (new human race) generation of postwar yuppies. His domestic audience is dominated by readers who, as they came of age, began to question the busy herd mentality of their elders, even as they let themselves grow somewhat spoiled and self-absorbed in the comforts provided by all the postwar striving of their parents -- the very effort that made Japan an economic superpower.

Which brings us back to his moment of truth. If anything, that sound in his head was the voice of experience, informing him that he'd finally graduated with full honors from what passed for the school of hard knocks in a prosperous society like Japan's.

"I had lived a pretty tough life in my twenties -- married when I was a university student, worked hard, a lot of debt, family dispute, etc. And when I became 29 I knew I had experienced enough. I recognized that I was not an innocent sweet boy anymore. I think that was why I started to write at that time. I felt I was qualified. Before that I had no intention to write anything at all. I did not have any fountain pen to write, actually. I loved to read books all through my life, but I had thought that I was not cut out to write a book."

Yet, once he started, "I knew I could write something which matters. All of a sudden, out of the blue, I knew it. It was quite an experience."

He worked fast, finishing his first novel, Hear the Wind Song, the same year. Not long afterward came his second, Pinball. Although both were translated into English in Japan, neither has been published in the United States, and probably won't be -- "I think of them as kind of immature," he says.

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