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…


About Tony

Championing the wonders of fiction in translation... ...but quietly (the kids are asleep...).
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19 Responses to J-Lit Giants: 7 – Haruki Murakami

  1. Great final post! Well done with your choices too. Actually, The Elephant Vanishes was the first Murakami that I read, and strangely enough I discovered him through Wong Kar-Wai again. I explained the connection in my Murakami post. Thanks for a great January in Japan!


  2. sakura says:

    Mine was The Wind-up Bird Chronicle which blew me away followed by Norwegian Wood which I loved even more. They still remain my favourites.


  3. Marina Sofia says:

    I do like his shorter work, so thank you for reminding readers of them. Japanese magic, I call them (magical realism does not quite do them justice). In addition to the books mentioned above, I also liked Kafka on the Shore and Dance Dance Dance. I admit I have not attempted 1Q84 yet – its bulk puts me off…


  4. Tony says:

    ResearcherNo1 – Mine was actually 'afterthequake'; my wife borrowed it from the library and didn't like it, but I loved it 🙂


  5. Tony says:

    Sakura – Two great books (and due for a reread soon…).


  6. Tony says:

    Marina – I would read '1Q84' as three books – it's not nearly so daunting then 🙂


  7. JoV says:

    A great wrap-up to my favourite author. I love Norwegian Wood, Hard-boiled wonderland is memorable for me because I read it as my first and I was blown away. I love his non-fiction most. Underground and What I talk about when I talk about running. After Dark is just as good. Thanks for hosting the challenge. 😉


  8. I've yet to be blown away by Murakami. I've read Hard Boiled Wonderland and Kafka on the Shore and found myself enjoying parts but feeling the whole a little less than the parts. There is enough there to bring me back again though.


  9. Tony says:

    Jo – Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I've yet to try the non-fiction for two reasons: one, because I'm afraid of not liking it; and two, because they've stopped making them in the beautiful UK black-and-white covers 😦


  10. Tony says:

    Séamus – Not everyone is blown away by Murakami; it's definitely a matter of taste. If he clicks for you, it's a great feeling though 🙂


  11. Great overview of this writer, totally agree with your choice of the elephant vanishes & Norwegian wood, but my third would have been Kafka on the shore, but that could be because that was my own route into his work & purely chosen because it had Kafka in the title.


  12. Tony says:

    Gary – I quite liked 'Kafka on the Shore', but I'd leave it to later. Interestingly, Jay Rubin thought this one was a bit of a wasted opportunity after the high point of the scene with the cats in the bag (not one of his favourite books!).


  13. tanabata says:

    Even though Norwegian Wood is probably my least favourite Murakami novel (I know, I know!), I do often recommend it to people new to Murakami since it is his most “normal” chronological story. I think A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance are a great intro as well. Lots of the similar themes of his other books but not quite so long and perhaps intimidating. On the other hand, if someone wants to just jump in the deep end, The Wind-up Bird, definitely. ;P


  14. Tony says:

    Tanabata – I definitely wouldn't recommend 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' as a first effort 😉


  15. Thanks for this great wrap-up post and concise account of Murakami and his writing. I started with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which might not be the best place to start but I loved it anyway as I do most of his fiction, but his work I like the most, and this is quite unusual for me as I'm not a big fan of non-fiction is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I just love his understated enthusiasm and drive as a runner and there are great nuggets of running philosophy, but don't be put off if you are not a runner yourself as much of what he writes about can be translated to any sport.
    Thanks for a great month of J-Lit Tony. You deserve a beer or two!


  16. Tony says:

    Sarah – Thanks Sarah 🙂 I have one last wrap-up post to write and publish, then I can relax (possibly with some J-Lit!).


  17. mel u says:

    Very good summery post. I think I would tell those new to Murakami to read the selections you made and maybe add Sputnik Sweetheart to the list. I was disappointed by 1Q84. Maybe my hopes were too high and I had a hard time not wanting to see all he little people burst into songs. Then there is the obsession with breasts. Mentioned 84 time in the book. If Murakami published another 1000 page book I will read it also but maybe not expect a masterwork.


  18. Tony says:

    Mel – Thanks 🙂 'Sputnik Sweetheart' is one of my favourites, but it does die a little towards the end (and in many ways, it copies themes and events from 'Norwegian Wood'). Jay Rubin was very hard on this one…

    There is no doubt that '1Q84' was a missed opportunity, but I still think you were too hard on it. The translators themselves agreed that it really needed considerable editing; unfortunately, Murakami is too big a name for publishers to cut his work anymore. Interestingly, 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' is considered his masterpiece despite the huge cuts to the English version 😉

    It will be very interesting to see what Murakami comes up with next. It has actually been quite a while since '1Q84' (Book 3) came out in Japanese, so surely something must be in the pipeline (even if we won't be able to read it for a few years!).


  19. mel u says:

    Tony, yes maybe I overreacted. Perhaps in a while I will try it again


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