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This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher. Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works. All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.
Today, we’re going to talk about Haruki Murakami. Love him—or hate him—he has been the big name Japanese novelist in translation for about 30 years. Now, if you are someone who doesn’t like Murakami, let me suggest 3 reasons for you to listen today anyway:
#1: Murakami is really important to Japanese literature in Japan. Yes, even in Japan, lots of people don’t like him—as we’ll discuss. But columnist Kaori Shoji (a woman, for the sake of what follows) explains that “generations of Japanese owe him for showing [them] a world outside the archipelago, for writing about jazz and beer and summer afternoons spent swimming laps at the pool, for dedicating an entire book to marathon running as a pleasurable hobby, for girls who enjoy sex and own up to their sexuality, for boys who are clumsy about relationships and bafflingly knowledgeable about coffee”.
[#2:] The second reason you might want to listen today: Murakami changed the way non-Japanese people think about Japan. One German critic commented that Murkami shows German readers “a Japan they never knew… no kimono, no refined Eastern aesthetics, no proud Japanese spirit closed off in mysterious darkness…” And that same observation applies to virtually every non-Asian audience.
#3: Murakami is vitally important to the growth of Japanese literature in translation. I mentioned in an earlier episode that contemporary fiction translated from Japan is way more popular in English than fiction translated from almost any other language. Murkami was a key part of the growth to that number of works in translation.
I haven’t done an episode before that focuses more-or-less on one author. I thought Murakami would be a great place to start—he’s a rare Japanese author whose entire (and extensive!) catalog of novels is available in English.
[2:49] We’re going to begin with Murakami’s biography—his life and work in Japan, and a few other countries.
We’ll move on to some big questions about Murakami:
- Why do so many people vocally dislike his work?
- Why hasn’t he won a Nobel Prize—why (do I think) he isn’t likely to.
- Why does he get so much flack for the way he represents women?
And we’ll end with a very brief discussion of one of his most famous short stories, “TV People”.
As we conclude, I’ll even share what I most value about Murakami, for whatever it’s worth, and why I think Murakami is still worth reading, even among people who have some objections.
His birth also fell in the middle of the American Occupation of Japan. The American Occupation ended in 1952.
Murakami was born in Kyoto. His father was a part-time Buddhist priest. And both his father and his mother lectured on Japanese literature. The Murakami family moved to Kobe when Haruki was two years old, and that’s where the author spent his childhood and his adolescence.
There are a couple things I want to note about that adolescence.
One, Murakami read a lot of European and American fiction. Again, his parents were Japanese literature teachers—according to Murakami they were “always talking about Japanese literature and [he] hated it”.
The second thing I want to note about Murakami’s adolescence, Murakami developed a real love of American and British music. He describes getting a transistor radio and listening to Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles. He also talks about a life changing jazz concert in 1963—he was 14 years old when he first saw Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
The third thing I want to note about Murakami’s adolescence has more to do with Japan as a whole—the 1960s, the period of Murakami’s adolescence, was a tumultuous decade. We talked about this period of Japanese history in more depth in a season one episode called “The Literature of Change”, but I’ll sum up here.
In 1946, American Occupation Forces pushed one the most progressive constitutions in the world through the Japanese Diet. It granted a variety of “fundamental human rights,” including all the civil rights and civil liberties of the American Bill of Rights. But it went way beyond what Americans, or people almost anywhere else, are guaranteed under their constitutions.
Even though this new constitution was forced on the new government by the US, it was initially greeted by widespread popular support. The Japanese were pretty optimistic going into the 1950s. But the 50s didn’t pan out the way a lot of Japanese people had hoped.
People also grew disillusioned when they saw that the promise of the constitution didn’t lead to the kinds of equality they had hoped. And Japan faced the same kinds of rapid cultural change modernizing countries everywhere faced.
Disappointments led up to what has become known as “Summer of Rage” in 1960. Tens of 1000s of people took to the streets over the course of several months—and protests grew so violent that President Dwight Eisenhower had to cancel a planned visit.
Some of the biggest players in the protests were Japan’s student unions.
Student protests continued throughout the 1960s, but things were mostly quiet until 1967. That’s when a protest against the prime minister’s visit to South Vietnam left a Kyoto University student dead. And this event reignited the student protest movement in a big way. In 1968, students at Nihon University erected barricades to protest financial misdealings at their institution. Barricades at the University of Tokyo followed. Later, they raided professor’s offices and refused access to campus buildings. They even kidnapped certain professors.
By January 1969, the government was fed up. It sent 8000 armed riot police for an 11-hour siege to dislodge the students at Tokyo University. A month later, police broke down the barricades at Nihon University.
And that was… pretty much it.
The student protest movement faded from view. Students went on to join the corporate grind. One professor who had been kidnapped later recalled one of his kidnappers asking him for a letter of recommendation.
And why have I covered all of this context? Writer and translator Daniel Morales explains how the end of the student movement affected Murakami:
[9:10] [Murakami] really made a name for himself writing about the aftermath of the student movement in Japan. When it ended in 1970, everyone kind of went back to college, graduated, and then entered the workforce… [Murakami’s] first few novels are really focused on a strong sense of loss, both personal and cultural, and that kind of sense of disillusionment with rapid growth that was changing Japan.
Murakami entered university in 1968. He moved to Tokyo to attend Waseda University—one of the most prestigious universities in the world. He quietly watched (and rooted for) the student protestors from the sidelines. Waseda wasn’t nearly as involved as some of Japan’s other universities. And Murakami has never been much of a “joiner”.
While at Waseda, he studied script writing and Greek drama. He also met his now-wife, Yoko. He married her while still at university, in 1971. He ‘s had a strong working relationship with her ever since. Murakami brings up how Yoko “knows more about him than he knows about himself”. He considers Yoko the most important critic of his writing:
She always criticizes my work very seriously. She’s my first reader, so when I finish writing I pass the manuscript to my wife, and she reads it, and she returns the draft with two hundred Post-its. I hate Post-its very much. She says, ‘You should rewrite these parts.
For example, she successfully talked him into rewriting the entire second half of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Murakami and Yoko opened a coffee house and jazz bar called Peter Cat shortly before he graduated and he and Yoko ran the coffeehouse together from 1974-1981.
Haruki Murakami didn’t write anything at all until he was 29 years old. Today, the story of how he became a writer is somewhat legendary. This is how he told the story in a 2008 interview:
In April 1978, I was watching a baseball game in the Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, the sun was shining, I was drinking a beer. And when Dave Hilton of the Yakult Swallows made a perfect hit, at that instant I knew I was going to write a novel. It was a warm sensation. I can still feel it in my heart.
He went home and began writing that night. The next steps are really interesting.
In an article for LitHub (translated by Ted Goossen) he wrote, “I had never taken a serious look at contemporary Japanese fiction, thus I had no idea… how I should write fiction in the Japanese language.”
Several months later, he was deeply unhappy with the first draft of his novel. So he broke out a typewriter and started re-writing the opening chapter of his novel in English
“My ability in English composition didn’t amount to much,” he said. “My vocabulary was severely limited, as was my command of English syntax. I could only write in simple, short sentences.”
Thus Murakami’s signature style was born—he discovered that he could “express [his] thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, as long as [he] combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner”.
And he got back out his fountain pen and paper to “translate” what he’d written into Japanese. Ten months after that baseball game, he submitted Hear the Wind Sing to the Gunzo Prize for New Writers, and his story won.
Murakami went on to write three follow-up stories with the same unnamed narrator and his friend “the Rat”. Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973 and A Wild Sheep Chase make up the Trilogy of the Rat. And Dance, Dance, Dance is a kind of sequel.
Murakami now considers his first two novels—Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 “immature” and “flimsy”. He describes A Wild Sheep Chase “the first book where [he] could feel a kind of sensation, the joy of telling a story”.
I’m going to come back to this idea in the second section of the episode, but now is as good a time as any to introduce the ongoing tension between Haruki Murakami and the literary establishment. It began early in his career. Hear the Wind Sing was nominated for the Akutagawa Prize, probably Japan’s most coveted literary award, in 1979. Pinball, 1973 was nominated in 1980. Both novels failed to win the prize.
[14:05] The Murakamis sold his jazz cafe and Murakami started to write for a living in 1981.
In 1985, Murakami published Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—one of his most sci-fi titles
And in 1987, he published Norwegian Wood. And Norwegian Wood wasn’t like anything Murakami had published before—it isn’t like much he’s published since. Very few of Murakami’s signature motifs appear. There are no deep holes to crawl into. No talking cats. No tiny people. Just a realistically-told coming-of-age story with a love triangle at its center.
This realistic mode isn’t a style Murakami particularly enjoys writing in. He has said over and over again that he wanted to prove to himself that he “could write in a realistic style”.
Nevertheless, Norwegian Wood was a real breakthrough for Murakami. He went from being something of a cult artist to a national favorite. The novel sold more than 2 million copies. And he became a literary celebrity.
Murakami and his wife were baffled—and a little bit upset. They fled the country to escape newfound fame, first for Europe and then the US. In 1991, Murakami took up a position at first Princeton University in New Jersey and then at Tufts University in Massachusetts. And Murakami continued to write—first South of the Border, West of the Sun and then The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is another turning point in Murakami’s career. In one interview, he described that period of his life as a shift from “detachment” to “commitment”.
While living in the US, he began to see the connections between modern Japan and its Second World War history more clearly. And he began to think more seriously about his responsibility as a Japanese writer. And he began to think more seriously about his responsibility as a Japanese writer. We’ll talk about all of this a little bit more in a few minutes.
Murakami moved back to Japan in 1995, shortly after two major disasters that Murakami considered major turning points in modern Japanese history.
First, on January 17, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck Kobe, where Murakami came of age. That earthquake killed almost 6500 people.
Then, on March 20, the new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo carried out a gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, killing 27 people and injuring 1000s.
Murakami took up both events in his new “committed” vein.
After the Quake, published in 2000, is a collection of surreal short stories set in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake.
Underground, published in two parts in 1997 and 1998, is a non-fiction series of interviews, first of victims and then of Aum members. To my mind, Underground is some of Murakami’s best work. Years ago, I wrote a blog post about new religious movements in Japanese literature. I’d love to turn that into a podcast [episode] someday.
In the last two decades, Murakami has published a large number of other books. I’d run out of time very quickly if I cataloged them all. You can find a list on the episode page.
[17:26] The most recent Murakami news comes from this spring, spring 2023. Shinchosha Publishing announced that Murakami would release his 15th full-length novel—and by “full-length,” I mean this one is 1200 pages. It had been six years since his last novel, translated as Killing Commendatore, was released for sale in Japan. An announcement of the title of this new novel came a month later: in English, the novel is The City and Its Uncertain Walls.
Even the title was exciting. Harukists—Murakami’s biggest fans—already knew Murakami had what he called a “failed story” with the same title, written in 1980. He developed some of the story in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
Scott Spencer of Nihongobookreview.com provides a spoiler-free review for those of us who can’t read the Japanese. What seems most fascinating to me is that Murakami has really leaned into the fact he started the story at 30 years old and returned to it at 70 years old. (Spencer says, “there’s a weight here, a gravity of time, a mourning, an underlying melancholy”.)
We’re likely to see an English translation of The City and Its Uncertain Walls in 2024 or 2025.
Before we move on, I want to briefly mention Murakami’s work as a translator. Murakami has translated a number of texts from English into Japanese. They aren’t really accessible to non-Japanese readers—we would, presumably, read those texts in English or translated into whatever language we’re most comfortable reading.
Murakami calls translation a hobby. He claims to only translate what he himself likes to read.
And his translations include everything written by Raymond Carver; a lot of writing by F. Scott Fitzgerald; and work by Truman Capote, John Irving, Ursula K. Leguin, Tim O’Brien, Grace Paley, J. D. Salinger, and Chris Van Allsburg, author of The Polar Express.
[19:50] In this next section, I want to look at criticisms of Haruki Murakami’s work. I want to look first at the literary establishment’s response to Murakami. And then I want to look at charges that Murakami’s writing is repetitive or sexist.
I think the most interesting way into the story about the relationship between Murakami and the literary establishment is through the relationship between Murakami and writer Kenzaburo Ōe. So that’s the story I’m going to focus on here.
Kenzaburo Õe was maybe Murakami’s most prominent critic in the literary establishment. Õe had won the Akutagawa in 1958; he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. And he served on the Akutagawa Akutagawa Selection Committee from 1976-1995. He was, presumably, a force behind the decision not to award Murakami the Akutagawa for Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball, 1973.
I’ve wondered how much that decision cuts two ways in the way we perceive Murakami today. How much is it “Murakami didn’t win the Akutagawa because his writing isn’t ‘literary’ enough?” Versus how much is it “Murakami’s writing isn’t ‘literary’ enough because he didn’t win the Akutagawa?”
Murakami’s popularity seems to be a major mark against him in Ōe’s eyes. I’ve read this 1990 Ōe quote before because it’s useful to demonstrate a lot of things. In 1990, Ōe said
Serious literature and a literary readership have gone into a chronic decline, while a new tendency has emerged over the last several years… a largely economic one… reflected in the fact that the novels of certain young writers like Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto each sell several hundred thousand copies.
Incidentally, Murakami’s popularity seems to be a dig against him in the eyes of some readers, as well. And he does continue to be hugely popular—at home and abroad. When 1Q84 was released in 2009, Kinokuniya bookstores in Japan sold more than one copy a minute. And when the English translation came out, there were midnight openings in the UK and the US. These kinds of events are normally reserved for children’s lit or YA— Harry Potter and Twilight sequels, not 1600-page novels for adults.
Personally, I think it’s snobbery to dismiss an author because he’s popular. Ōe was doing something a little more sophisticated—as I’ll explain in just a minute—but I think it’s a shame to refuse to acknowledge that an author who has sold 10s of millions of copies worldwide might possibly be any good. Anyway…
Ōe’s particular concern was that Japanese literature was “decaying”. He thought the height of modern Japanese literature was the post-war era, when “the major preoccupation” was “to examine, with the force of their imagination, what, in pursuit of modernization, Japan and the Japanese had done to Asia and to the vulnerable elements within the [nation], how the impasse foreboded defeat, and what means of resuscitation were possible for the nation after it died a national death”. Pretty harsh stuff.
According to Ōe, postwar writers also attempt to “‘relativize’ the value of the emperor” and “liberate the Japanese from the curse of the emperor system”.
It seems like Ōe’s arguments—and perhaps Ōe’s lived example as a writer—took greater hold as Murakami aged and matured.
Murakami greatly admired Ōe and his political action as a pacifist, opponent of the emperor system, and antinuclear activist.
It’s pretty clear that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a self-conscious exercise of his new sense of responsibility. In his own rambling, disjointed, magical, uniquely Murakami way, the novel is a consideration of Japan’s imperial legacy and what’s left after WWII.
And perhaps that’s why The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle won the Yomiuri Literary Prize in 1995. Kenzaburo Ōe himself was the chief spokesman for the prize committee. And in his comments about the novel, he praised it as “beautiful” and “important”.
[24:45] Let me turn now to the question of Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize. It’s not an unrelated question to what we’ve been discussing—existing outside of the literary establishment doesn’t help Murakami’s odds of winning.
People have been tracking Murakami’s Nobel odds for years.
As I mentioned before, Murakami’s biggest fans call themselves “Harukists”. In Tokyo, they’ve been gathering in bars on the evening (in Japan) that the Nobel Prize announcement is made every year in the hopes that their hero will win. Obviously they have continued to be disappointed.
And people still like Murakami’s odds every year. In 2013, UK bookies identified him as the most likely winner with 3-1 odds. In 2023, he was still one of their top picks. Again, he did not win. Personally, I’m not sure he’s likely to win.
Writer and editor Ian Buruma pointed out that Japan’s only two literature laureates, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Ōe, were much more “Japanese” in their style and content. The implication is that Murakami’s just not “Japanese enough” to win the award. Yes, Buruma was critical of this viewpoint—it’s problematically orientalist. But that doesn’t mean Buruma is wrong. Kobo Abe was floated as a potential winner for years, but he, like Murakami, was widely perceived as “not Japanese enough”.
We already talked about how Murakami’s popularity itself is an obstacle to wide regard with the literary establishment.
But to me, the biggest problem is that if Murakami was going to win, it should have won before his star started to fade. Other Japanese writers have gained a foothold in the market. I think accusations of sexism, which we’ll talk about in a minute, might be a real problem. And books that look like purely commercial products—2020’s The T-Shirts I Love—aren’t helping his Nobel prospects.
For his part, Murakami won’t talk about winning the Nobel Prize. It goes against what he calls “the definition of a gentleman novelist”.
[27:15] Moving on from critical disapproval, I want to look at two objects “the average reader[s]” have expressed about Murakami’s writing.
One, it can be repetitive.
And, two, it can be sexist.
[27:30] In 2014, Grant Snider published a comic in The New York Times called “Murakami Bingo”. It is, quite frankly, hilarious—and also on point. The card lists “old jazz record”… “weird sex”… The card lists “dried up well”. Murakami has said, “I like wells very much. I like refrigerators. I like elephants. There are many things that I like. When I write about the things I like, I’m happy”.
Someone on social media suggested that Murakami copied Ōe’s underground trip in 1967’s The Silent Cry. I suppose it’s possible, but Murkami is also a man thoroughly preoccupied with the metaphor. He’s described looking down into a well as a child… harboring a desire to sit at the bottom of a well.
The metaphor even comes up in his interviews. When he talks about writing A Wild Sheep Chase, for example, he mentions the three to four years it took to write it—how it “really had to dig a hole to get to the spring”.
The card lists both “cats” and “vanishing cats”—two separate items. Murakami mentions cats so often we spent several minutes talking about Murakami in our episode on “Cats in Japanese Literature”.
Fifty years into Murkami’s career, some readers think his writing has become repetitive. Some people think it has always been repetitive.
He does tend to revisit the same themes and motifs—he revisits entire stories.We already talked about The City and Its Uncertain Walls is a title for what Murakami has called “a failed work” in the drafting phase of writing Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”.
But to be fair to Murakami: he isn’t remotely the only author to “strip” stories. American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (beloved and translated by Murakami) was known to do it, too.
And I should note that, at least as writer and editor Ian Buruma presents the industry, “Literary success, especially in Japan, has its peculiar dangers… The main danger is overproduction”.
[29:50] The other big criticism of Murakami I want to take up today, and the one I take more seriously, is that his writing is sexist.
Mieko Kawakami is, among other things, a strong feminist voice in contemporary Japanese fiction. (You can learn a lot more about her in an episode from last season.) She also has a fascinating and public friendship with Haruki Murakami. And Murakami has been a strong supporter of her career; for example wrote a rave review of Breasts and Eggs after Kawakami won the Akutagawa Prize. [The version of Breasts and Eggs published in English is dramatically expanded from the version that won the Akutagawa.]
From 2015-2017 the pair had four different conversations totaling 16 hours. These conversations were later published in book form as The Owl Spreads Its Wings with the Falling of the Dusk. Unfortunately, that book hasn’t been translated into English.
There is a short excerpt published on LitHub, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. You can find it linked on the episode page.
Less well known is a translated excerpt published in the journal Monkey in 2020, translated by Ted Goossen. It’s less relevant, but you probably want to know about it.
I want to read a few important excerpts from that [LitHub] interview:
Kawakami says to Murakami:
It’s common for my female friends to say to me, ‘If you love Haruki Murakami’s work so much, how do you justify his portrayal of women?’ The notion being that there’s something disconcerting about the depiction of women in your stories. It irks some people, men and women alike.
A common reading is that your male characters are fighting their battles unconsciously on the inside, leaving the women to do the fighting in the real world.”
She goes on to explain to him, “the woman functions as a kind oracle, in that she’s made to act as a medium of fate” and “she triggers a metamorphosis in the protagonist. There are many cases where women are presented as gateways, or opportunities for transformation”.
I’m not sure Murakami’s responses are very satisfactory. He says his characters aren’t as complicated as Kawakami implies. He falls back on complementarianism—that’s the idea that “women have rather different functions than men”. He does at least consider that “sometimes that means swapping gender roles and functions”. And that men and women must work together as a team. He does at least consider that sometimes that means swapping gender roles and functions and that, maybe, he suggests, the women fighting battles in the real world is actually a kind of gender role reversal. That’s an interesting line of thought I’m still dwelling on.
Ultimately, complaints about the women in Murakami’s work are absolutely fair. But I also think we also tend to hone in on Murakami’s casual sexism because there’s such a body of his work in translation. There’s a lot of casual sexism in contemporary Japanese literature.
For example, a lot of English-language readers love Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold. I find it infuriatingly anti-feminist. A wrote a whole blog post about this it made me so angry.
[33:10] Let me mention just one more thing before we move on to “TV People”.
A few episodes ago, I mentioned translator David Karashima’s fascinating book, Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami. There is so much to cover on Murakami that I’m going to cover translation in more depth just in the bonus content for Patreon supporters—and it’s not too late to sign up to get access.
I do want to clarify one point. I think I may have left listeners with the impression Murakami resents his English-language translators. He doesn’t—though he has said he’d like to see unabridged translations. I should note that Jay Rubin is working on a new translation of Hard Boiled Wonderland.
I think we can gather from his public comments that he does like the way the translations read. He’s said that, when he reads his books in English, he feels, “Oh, that is me. The rhythms, the prose style, are the same—almost the same.”
He has also said, “Usually I don’t read my own books. I read the translations. Because when I read the translation I can enjoy my books very much. But I don’t read my books in Japanese. It’s very embarrassing to me.”
About Dance Dance Dance he said, “I read it in English and enjoyed it immensely. I knew there was some difference between the original and the translation but I could not tell.”
[34:45] Murakami wrote “TV People” during his self-imposed, post-Norwegian Wood exile in Rome. It was published in Japanese in 1989. And it was translated into English and published in the New Yorker in September 1990. It’s another example of an eminently translatable work—the Japanese title is “TV Pi-puru”.
A lot of the motifs here are signature Murakami—but some of them aren’t.
There’s a male narrator adrift in the modern world. This narrator, though, has taken a corporate job. (A lot of Murakami’s narrator’s are unemployed.)
The story opens this way: “It was Sunday evening when the TV People showed up”. These are people who are completely humanoid, but 20-30% smaller than the average human being. Again, little people are a Murakami favorite—even though we haven’t talked much about that particular motif.
These little people just show up and install a television that doesn’t show anything but static. They ignore the narrator completely. And, typical of a Murakami narrator, he doesn’t say anything to the TV People—he’s completely passive.
The narrator’s wife is present in the story through her absence—we don’t even get her name. That Sunday afternoon, she has “gone out with the girls”.
The narrator doesn’t think much about her except that she’s “going to raise hell” about how the TV People are “randomly shift[ing]” her thing about to install the TV. (The narrator clearly thinks his wife is a bit of a neurotic neat freak.)
When she comes home, she doesn’t mention the TV or any kind of mess. She seems vaguely annoyed with the narrator. He tunes her out. He promised her he could get his own dinner—he hasn’t. She makes him a meal now that he’s home. “Something is wrong here,” he thinks, “But what to do about it?”
He goes to work the next day. So does his wife. There are too many meetings with too many people smoking. And, surprisingly, the TV People are there, too. He goes home. Unexpectedly, his wife isn’t there.
“Story of my life,” he tells us, “I go to endless meetings, get smoked to death, then the wife gets on my case about it.” And he goes off to take a shower. He reads the paper, tries the TV, which no longer even turns on… waits… waits… but his wife never comes home. She doesn’t even call.
Suddenly, one of the TV People shows up on the TV screen, and steps out of it, and says to the narrator, “Shame about your wife”.
The narrator doesn’t take this in right away. Then he gets defensive: “He’s saying she’s gone. That she isn’t coming home. I can’t bring myself to believe it’s over. Sure, we’re not the perfect couple…”
He thinks some more and concludes, “Maybe our relationship has suffered irreversible damage. Maybe it’s a total loss. Only I haven’t noticed”.
I suppose you could see another example of a woman taking action in the real world, while the narrator sits by and has something of an existential crisis. But you could also see an empowered woman taking the initiative to walk away from a stale and maybe even loveless marriage. As in most Murakami, there’s a lot left up to interpretation.
And the reader is left with a lot of questions:
- Who are these TV People?
- Are they some kind of omen?
- What do they represent?
- What does the TV represent?
- Where has the wife gone? Did she really leave him? Is she safe?
- And has the narrator learned anything at all? Has he changed?
One of my favorite things about Murakami is that he never gives his readers easy answers.
[39:05] So… I promised to share my opinion of Haruki Murakami.
Yes, he repeats the same motifs and narrative techniques. After a while, very little by Murakami feels new or innovative anymore.
Yes, Mieko Kawakami and others have been right to call him out for some problematic depictions of women.
But I love the way Murakami talks about stories. The way he says “[his] novels may be made up, but [he doesn’t] want them ever to be lies”.
In a 2009 speech, Murakami explained that a novelist
by telling skillful lies—which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true—the novelist can bring a truth out to a new place and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form.
That, to me, is the essence of the best fiction—using fiction to tell something true.
The other reason that I like Murakami—even though there can be problems with his women, even though he can be repetitive—is that he is always conscious of the ways stories shape and help us make sense of our lives. It’s an idea called metafiction. And metafiction is something that authors often explore through the kind of magical realism that he uses in his stories.
His 2017 novel Killing Commendatore is a great example. [Read more from RJL.] The entire narrative ripples out from the story of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. For one character, Don Giovanni. gives a frame a meaning for the Nazi occupation of much of Europe and inspires a painting.
For another character, that painting gives physical form to an “idea” who takes the form of a two-foot-tall man inspired by the painting. (So here we have another one of Murakami’s tiny people.)
And then we, the readers, have to make our own meaning from the opera and the painting and the “idea” and the novel itself.
And I think that’s pretty spectacular.
[41:36] Our focus text today was “TV People” translated by Alfred Birnbaum in The Elephant Vanishes. Buy your books from our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast.
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[42:11] We’d love to hear from you about the podcast. There are so many ways to stay in touch:
- Through the website
- We’re on YouTube/@readjapaneseliterature
- Bluesky @readjapaneselit.bsky.social
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Thank you to the Japanese Literature groups on Goodreads and Facebook and to the Japanese literature communities on BlueSky and Twitter.
Especially to Dr. Samantha Landau for her help answering questions about Murkami, Oe, and the Yomiuri Prize.
A special thank you to Professor Alisa Freedman at the University of Oregon. I took her course on “Japanese Literature and the City” online via Sofia University in summer 2021—that discussion informed my reading of “TV People”.
Thank you to the Japanese And thank you as always to Producer Khaim for today’s music, @khaimmusic and khaimmusic.com.