Friday, October 19, 2007


Last week I mentioned to a group of students that I was a big fan of Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer recently rumored to be up for the Nobel Prize in Literature (and ultimately won by Doris Lessing), and one young girl of twenty sitting in class said: "Oh, he's my neighbour! He lives in the town one over from me! He's good friends with the parents of my best friend, and she remembers him disciplining her as a child."

(What I sometimes love about living abroad, and its casual sense of displacement: I can mention, offhand, one of my favorite writers in class, and a student, offhand, will tell me that he's her neighbour.)

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is probably the most popular modern Japanese writer in the western world, if only because there are very few modern Japanese novels translated in the first place, and even though his latest book was just released here in Japan, I doubt it will be translated into English.

Why is that?

Because it doesn't fit into the perception of who he is as a writer in England and America and Canada and Australia.

The typical Haruki Murakami novel is an odd, rambling, metaphysical and philosophical exploration into the ordinary lives of ordinary Japanese people living humdrum lives, who nevertheless somehow find themselves on mysterious symbolic journeys into the underworld of our collective unconscious. (Rendered ably into clear and smooth English by translators Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum.) He's like David Lynch, but without the morbidity. He's Paul Auster crossed with Raymond Chandler mixed with Raymond Carver and a dash of John Irving and a smidgen of Garcia Marquez. (In his spare time, Murakami himself has translated all of these authors into English, as well as one of his personal favorite writers, F.Scott Fitzgerald.)

But his new book, written in his native Japanese, fits nicely into none of the categories that he's known for in the English-reading world.

It's nonfiction, to start with, and the title could be translated as: The Things I Talk About While Running. (Well, that's my St.Catharines-raised-so-cut-me-some-slack translated version of it; if translated directly from the Japanese, it might read something like: Regarding Running, While Talking, These Are The Things I Talk About. Hey, it sounds okay in Japanese...)

Is it another one of his patented dark and strange and otherwordly journeys into the unordinary minds of ordinary Japanese urbanites?

Um, not quite.

Best as I can figure out from a quick flip-through and rapid perusal, it looks to be a chronicle of exactly what the title implies: his life as a runner.

For Murakami is not only a serious novelist, he's also a serious runner; he's completed the Boston Marathon numerous times, as well as the New York one, and he's added the Hawaii Ironman Triathalon to his repertoire in recent years. He's famous for his disciplined writing and exercise routine, and the cover of the book features a photograph of the author running down the centre of a contry road, the middle yellow line splitting off into a perfectly split fork, the blue sky and green grass waiting just up ahead, beyond the frame of the photo. The book contains a series of photos of Murakami finishing various races around the world.

Serious book-aholics may ask themselves: Why, exactly, is a writer of Nobel-like qualities writing about the stuff that he thinks about and talks about while running? What's going on here? Not exactly hard-core lit, if you catch my drift.

What's going on is that Murakami has always written about his life in somewhat easygoing, easy to read Japanese prose, but none of this has been deemed palatable or marketable to western readers. (And, truth be told, he's not exactly beloved by the Japanese literary establishment either, who he's shunned and ignored repeatedly throughout the years.) I've got another little paperback sprawled across my desk that was written by him about ten years ago, all about his observations of American life as observed by him while teaching at Princeton in the early nineties. In the bookstores I've seen books by him featuring his travels around Australia and Greece. (I think.) He's written an enormous amount of material that has nothing whatsoever to with what he's known for abroad, for what his image is abroad. What his brand is abroad.

In the west, however, we want him to remain a mysterious and whimsical, brooding and fanciful Rod Serling of the modern age. We want him to fit in the box that publishers have created for him. We want to read the stories that we think fit the image of what his stories have been in the past, and the particular style that we have become accustomed to.

A book about his marathons? His love for running? What he talks about while running? That doesn't compute with what we've been given of him in English. It would be like David Lynch making a documentary about his passion for BMX racing.

One interesting trend I've noticed is that western media tends to pick and choose what they like about certain Asian artists, and they classify them, and the classification is then seen as the reality.

Japanese film director Takeshi Kitano is beloved by cineastes worldwide, but in his homeland he is better known as a former comedian who hosts silly and stupid variety shows on prime time television. Every few years he directs a movie, and it is usually strange and violent and glorious and artistic, and the western media takes notice, and the rest of Japan waits to see what goofy shit he comes up with on Saturday nights on TV.

Not that it matters much, I guess.

Maybe it's just the fact that I feel like people are missing out on stuff. (Or that I'm missing out on stuff.) On insight. On chances for reflection. I understand the economics of the situation; truth be told, there probably isn't much of a market in English for Murakami's book on his running and his various mutterings to himself while he runs. It would confuse and confound the reading public that has seen him been branded as his own, odd practitioner of a sort of eastern magic realism.

But the publishers don't give us his English reads the benefit of the doubt, me thinks; if we like a writer, we like a writer. Period. We'll read what they read, regardless of the subject. Bring it on, all of it, I say. Let us hear in English what he has to say, through the stories that have made him famous, yes, but also through his memoirs that have yet to reach the light of day in Canada and America and England and elsewhere.

In any event, were this to happen with his newest book, it wouldn't be for a good little while, so it's now my goal to make my way through his newest memoir in Japanese by the middle of December. If I can polish off five pages a day, kanji dictionary on my left side, Japanese vocabulary dictionary on my right side, I'll be happy. By the end of it, I'll probably not be able to tell you what it was all about, but my brain will be thankful for the exercise.

If I don`t make it all the way through, I'll dip back into the works of his that have already been translated into English, the stuff I'm familiar with, the style I'm familar with.

But something will be missing.

A sense, perhaps, that there's more to him, a fuller him, than the author bio on the back of the English versions of his books gives him credit for.

And therefore more to all of us, too.