Writing in a style that is deceptively plainspoken, Haruki Murakami finds a dreamlike common ground between Japan and the West, conscious and subconscious. His heroes lose themselves in quests that we may not always understand, but are hopelessly compelled to follow.
The The story of how Haruki Murakami decided to become a novelist says a lot about his work, because it is as strange and culturally diffuse as the works he writes. While watching a baseball game in Toyko in 1978 between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp, Murakami witnessed an American hit a double. At the crack of the bat, Murakami -- who had never had any ambition to write because he assumed he didn't have the talent -- decided that he should begin a novel. He then started his first book, in the night hours after work.
If you're waiting for a connection between the double and the epiphany, there isn't one. It's often that way in Murakami's fiction, where cultures blend and seemingly incongruous, inexplicable events move the story forward. People disappear or transform as quickly as the worlds around them, and the result is a dreamlike atmosphere that blends mystery, magic realism and sci-fi while remaining unmistakably distinct from all three.
Murakami was brought up in a suburb of Kobe by parents who were teachers of Japanese literature; but the literature of his parents did not interest him and he read mostly American authors, listened to American jazz and watched American shows. For this reason, though his books are set in Japan and originally written in Japanese, they do not seem terribly foreign to English speakers. South of the Border, West of the Sun's title derives from a Nat King Cole song; and you're as likely to find a reference to McDonald's, Cutty Sark or F. Scott Fitzgerald as you are to anything Japanese.
Murakami began his career with the coming-of-age novels Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973, but he hit his stride with A Wild Sheep Chase, a novel about a twentysomething ad executive who is drawn into the quest for an elusive, mutant sheep. The novel appeared in the U.S. seven years after its 1982 publication, introducing American audiences to this unclassifiable author. It contained many of the traits that mark Murakami's novels: a solitary male protagonist who drifts just outside society; first-person narration; and philosophical passages nestled within outlandish, unconventional plots. An admiring New York Times Book Review called Murakami a "mythmaker for the millennium."
The author's commercial breakthrough in Japan had come with the publication of Norwegian Wood in 1987, which sold two million copies. The story of a man who becomes involved with his best friend's girlfriend after the friend's suicide, it stands alone as the author's most straightforward, realistic work. Murakami acknowledges the book's impact on his career, and stands behind it; but he is also aware that it represented a departure from the surreal books that had made him a "cult" author with a modest following. "After Norwegian Wood, I have not written any purely realistic novels," Murakami said in a 2001 publisher's interview, "and have no intention of writing any more at this time."
Murakami's return to surrealism with Dance Dance Dance (the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase), however, did not slow his career growth. Further translations of his work and publication of his stories in the New Yorker assured a growing following in the States, where his best known (and, to some, his best) work is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which appeared here in 1997. It's a masterful work that draws together all of the themes Murakami had been exploring in his fiction up until then: modern ennui, the unpredictability of relationships, a haunting backdrop of Japanese history.
In addition to his sublime and profoundly strange short stories and novels (Sputnik Sweetheart; Kafka on the Shore; Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, etc.), Murakami has made occasional forays into nonfiction -- most notably with Underground, a compilation of interviews with victims of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and his 2008 memoir of the New York City Marathon, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He has also translated several works by American authors into Japanese, including title by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, and John Irving.
Good To Know
Murakami owned a small jazz bar in Tokyo for seven years after college, an experience that he enjoyed and called upon when creating the main character of South of the Border, West of the Sun, who also owns a Tokyo jazz bar.
Murakami's first three novels, -- Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, and A Wild Sheep Chase -- comprise The Trilogy of the Rat.
His most often cited influences are Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan.
Murakami told an interviewer from Publishers Weekly in 1991 that he considers his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 "weak," and was not eager to have them translated into English. The translations were published, but are not available in the U.S. Third novel A Wild Sheep Chase was "the first book where I could feel a kind of sensation, the joy of telling a story. When you read a good story, you just keep reading. When I write a good story, I just keep writing."
Daniel Handler, aka children's author Lemony Snicket, is a vocal fan of Murakami's who once wrote a review/paean to the author in the Village Voice entitled "I Love Murakami." "Haruki Murakami is our greatest living practitioner of fiction," he wrote. "....The novels aren't afraid to pull tricks usually banned from serious fiction: They are suspenseful, corny, spooky, and hilarious; they're airplane reading, but when you're through you spend the rest of the flight, the rest of the month, rethinking life."
Murakami has taught at Princeton University, where he wrote most of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Tufts University. The twin disasters of a gas attack on the Tokyo subway and the Kobe earthquake in 1995 drew the author back to Japan from the United States.