A Simpler, More Physical Kind of Empathy

Lorna Sage

  • South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
    Harvill, 187 pp, £9.99, July 1999, ISBN 1 86046 594 3
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin
    Harvill, 609 pp, £12.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 18 604647 2

Talking to Jay McInerney in 1992, the year South of the Border, West of the Sun was published in Japanese, Haruki Murakami said that he wasn’t so much an international writer, as a non-national writer: ‘You might call it the Japanese nature that remains only after you have thrown out, one after another, all those parts that are altogether too “Japanese”. That is what I really want to express.’ His pleasure in jettisoning the picturesque and traditional signs of ‘roots’ is of a piece with the fact that he was a fan of the work of Raymond Carver, and became his Japanese translator. South of the Border is a minimalist’s novel. A 1984 interview with Carver is commemorated in a Carver poem:

We sipped tea, politely musing
on possible reasons for the success
of my books in your country. Slipped
into talk of pain and humiliation
you find occurring and reoccurring
in my stories. And that element
of sheer chance. How all this translates
in terms of sales.

Murakami would have appreciated the last gesture that switches from chance as a fictional device to the cultural lottery of late capitalism – it’s a connection his own authorial avatars often make. They are determinedly not traditionalists: on the other hand, they are witnesses to the defeat of the radical movements of the Sixties and Seventies, and live in the real world of paradoxically empty freedom, mobility and disaffection. ‘It’s the way of the world,’ says the cool narrator of Dance Dance Dance, ‘philosophy starting to look more and more like business administration ... things were a lot simpler in 1969. All you had to do was throw rocks at the police. But with today’s sophistication, who’s in a position to throw rocks? ... You throw a rock and it’ll come right back at you.’ Murakami said to McInerney that he was now ‘after something Japanese’:

I would like to write about Japanese society from the outside. I think that is what will increasingly define my identity as writer. By the way, do you know there is no equivalent in Japanese for the word ‘identity’. That’s why when we want to talk about identity, we have to use the English word.

However, as the Carver poem suggests, pain and humiliation are eminently translatable into Japanese, and vice versa, and they occur and reoccur in Murakami’s fiction, too.

Western readers wouldn’t necessarily have known this until the last couple of years, however, because his own identity was a pretty slippery one, and the first of his novels to be translated were parodic and playful, and crammed with distracting trophies of his love-affair with American popular culture: A Wild Sheep Chase (1982, translated 1989), Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985, translated 1991). These books, together with Dance Dance Dance (1988, translated 1994), formed a loose trilogy of mixed-genre, jokey metafictions, texts that read very much as he said he wrote them, making it all up as he went along, saluting American detective fiction, science fiction and demotic fantasy (Vonnegut, Brautigan), as well as pop music and jazz and movies, and using brand names and other cultural imports as ‘props’ (in the theatrical sense: he did his degree in drama). In between, in 1987, he’d published Norwegian Wood, which sold two million copies in Japan. These books were obviously fun, and eerily recognisable (someone wittily rechristened the first ‘The Big Sheep’). For the young Murakami, who used to like to tell people that his vocation as a novelist came to him out of the blue while he was watching a baseball game, the United States had been what Roland Barthes called Japan, back in 1970, an ‘empire of signs’, a place where signifiers floated loose from their signifieds. He says that his America was a virtual reality, he pieced it together in his head in Kobe, where the secondhand bookshops were full of American fiction traded in by the US Navy. His parents were teachers of Japanese literature, and he was an only child, both things that inspired him to levitate in his head into this alternative, charmingly fairy-tale place.

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