Postwar Japan has garnered a reputation for docility, especially after the largely forgotten student uprisings of the late 1960s and early 1970s—when many young Japanese first opposed the ongoing onus of the US-Japan Security Treaty, which amounts to a permanent occupation by US troops, and later the Vietnam War, for which Japan was used as a munitions factory and launching pad. The flames of activism and rebellion were effectively stamped out by the Japanese government, abetted by the US CIA. Haruki Murakami was a student protester back then (“I battled the police,” he once proudly conceded), and has remained a proverbial outsider in Japan long after his generation’s dissidence died. While his fellow protesters donned suits and joined Japan Inc, Murakami opened a jazz bar with his wife. “I felt betrayed,” he says, suggesting roots for his avocation as a novelist.
Since then, Murakami has published fifteen books in English (many more in his native Japanese). A film version of his best-selling fifth novel, Norwegian Wood, will be released later this year. The book is a classic coming-of-age story that is deeply romantic, at least partially biographical, and possibly vengeful. Like Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, it portrays the futility of youthful longing and lust, their inevitable disappointment verging on tragedy. Like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, it finds phoniness in everyone, especially those who claim commitment to abstract idealism.
The first time I mentioned the Nobel Prize to Murakami, he winced. “I don’t really care about prizes,” he said. “What matters to me are my readers. That’s all. Once you have your readers, you don’t need to worry about anything else.”
That was a decade ago. Murakami has been a perennial Nobel candidate for a long time, and in recent years has been awarded a clutch of literary honors seen as harbingers: the Kafka Prize in 2006, the Jerusalem Prize in 2009, and this past summer, Spain’s International Catalunya Prize.
Each time, the Japanese media wondered aloud whether the allegedly reclusive author would appear to accept his prizes in person. And each time, Murakami did, giving speeches in English and suffering the clucking flashes of paparazzi. In Israel, he braved political antipathy by speaking on behalf of the Palestinians. In Spain, he criticized his nation’s naive faith in nuclear power. In Murakami, at least, the youthful dissident is very much alive.
Murakami’s latest novel, 1Q84 (partly a nod to Orwell, with the Q being both a homonym for the Japanese word for nine and also denoting a question) is out in the U.S. on October 25. In keeping with his more recent work, it’s a sprawling canvas focused on close-ups: a lonely middle-aged male writer whose professional fecklessness and dying father force him to confront his perilous state, and a lonely female assassin, whose steely professionalism and success threaten to destroy her soul. Both inhabit a world riddled with trapdoors of corruption, violence, and everyday uncertainty.
Murakami is a seasoned pro, but part of his allure is that he rarely feels like one. Brilliant narrative exposition and set pieces are wedged between amateurish snatches of dialogue that seem to go nowhere. Characters digress carelessly, and their author seems to indulge them.
This is clearly essential to Murakami’s appeal. He is a genius who seems just like the rest of us. The most common reaction to his work I have heard from readers on both sides of the world is: He knows my dreams.
We’ll know soon if the Nobel committee feels the same way.
You can find an interview with Haruki Murakami in Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan available here.