Diving Deep Into the Other Worlds of Japan's Most Famous Living Writer

by James Orbesen

22 January 2015

 
cover art

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami

Matthew Carl Strecher

(University of Minnesota Press)
US: Aug 2014

Perennially snubbed for literature’s brass ring, the Nobel Prize, Haruki Murakami nevertheless is regarded as one of the finest living writers. For many Westerners, Murakami is their first contact with Japanese literature. And that’s quite interesting, considering the author’s conflicted, maverick-esque status in Japanese letters, and his lack of willingness to fit in and play by established rules.

Matthew Carl Strecher, professor and Murakami devotee, has much to say about this tension in his latest work, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami. Strecher neatly maps out the impression the young Murakami made on the hidebound world of Japanese literature, and its overarching literary guild, one entrenched by respect, routine, and what literature ought to do:

Many established critics were nonplussed from the beginning by his new style, or rather nonstyle, which signaled a rejection of the Modernist urge toward literary language, and some found his prose lacking in depth. Others found his characters’ disaffected urban lifestyle too detached for their taste. Murakami was just a little too ‘cool’ for their comfort and failed to measure up to standards of intellectual social critique that had marked Japan’s great writers since the 1960s.

It’s an inauspicious start for one of such talent. However, brilliance can often be misunderstood or misapplied. Breaking ground requires breaking eggs. That sort of refusal to fit into systems or to toe the party line expresses itself again and again in Murakami’s work, highlighted with real insight and gusto by Strecher. After all, this is the author who, when accepting the prestigious Jerusalem Award, opted for an unconventional speech, consciously confronting his lettered peers and their artifices of power and influence:

Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others—coldly, efficiently, systematically… Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.

However, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami doesn’t simply trace Murakami’s status as an outsider in a highly homogenized society. Strecher’s project is far more ambitious. This isn’t his first text focusing on the Japanese man of letters, but it seems to be the most wide ranging, looking at how issues of personal identity, metaphysics, dreams, and the unconscious factor into Murakami’s fictions. This is bolstered by Stretcher’s turn examining the less known works of nonfiction and literary journalism.

It’s in that latter category that Strecher seems to really break ground. His analyses of Murakami’s fictions are insightful, well argued, and sing with prose that is intelligent while unpretentious. When it comes to linking those more visible works of fiction to the methods Murakami pursues in his literary journalism, the reader gets a much better picture of the author’s overall project.

Again and again, the inquiry doubles back to that famous egg-and-wall allegory. Murakami, despite his early reputation for writing disaffected, urban men skulking around ineffectively, has deep concerns for the individual. Such a concern often runs counter to the popular notion that Japan is a tightly bound nation where the good of the whole runs counter to the good of the one. Strecher uses Murakami’s literary journalism to knit together the various shorts and novels that have comprised the author’s career.

There is the occasional jump to a conclusion that seems to splinter under its brevity and simplicity, such as this summation of Murakami’s student readings:

…the teenage Murakami chose for his reading matter the novels of American writers such as Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, and J.D. Salinger. This proved useful to him, for what he was not learning in the very dull English classes he endured in public school, he picked up on his own reading these works in their original English… This was, then, the literary origin of the man who has since become such a key figure in Japanese literature.

Given Strecher’s long digressions on post-modernism, relativism, and general suspicion of objectivity, it seems odd for him to settle on so neat a narrative that comes almost packaged as handed down wisdom, a folk tale, perhaps.

Regardless, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami is an excellent exploration of what makes an undeniably talented author unique. Through deep literary analysis, revealing anecdotes and interviews, and a clear sense of direction that knits the Murakami of fiction with the Murakami of journalism, the reader is left in awe of these other spaces, metaphysical and not, where some of our deepest feelings and fears are confronted and sometimes, even, excised.

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami

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