I'm a Murakami fan. And it's clear that I'm not the only one. More than 10 million copies of his bestseller Norwegian Wood have been sold in Japan alone since its publication in 1987. The English translation of his latest novel 1Q84 was so hotly anticipated that some bookshops stayed open until midnight to allow readers to buy their copies. The question is: what is it about Murakami that has led to his cult status?
One of my friends, a keen runner himself, recently recommended Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On reading this, it became even clearer to me that a love of Murakami has a lot to do with lifestyle; in the same way that his memoir offers a picture of his own life, his novels present a particular way of living, with the books, the music, the cats, the food. I should, at this point, declare that I'm easily influenced by food. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, not only is there the oft referenced image of boiling spaghetti at the start of the novel, but also a saliva-inducing description of meal preparation:
"I would be stir-frying thin slices of beef, onions, green peppers and bean sprouts with a little salt, pepper, soy sauce and a splash of beer [...] The rice was done, the miso soup was warm, and the vegetables were all sliced and arranged in separate piles in a large dish, ready for the wok."
The detail in Murakami's writing has a soothing effect upon me, details such as making coffee, shopping for food, listening to jazz, beer at the kitchen table. Yet, this detailing of everyday routine brings me on to another quality that draws me to his work: the sense of ennui and yearning that fills the pages.
The feeling of emptiness illustrates the relationship between internal and external that is central to so much of his prose. The crafting of Murakami's novels is intricate - worlds intertwine, and in many cases the boundary between dreams and reality are blurred. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Dance, Dance, Dance deal with the surreal, as well as the real. As is suggested by the title Dance, Dance, Dance, his characters dance around the pages, and each other, moving in and out of constructed landscapes that are both mental and physical.
The sense of longing that is apparent within the interior monologue of his protagonists clearly manifests itself as sexual desire. In fact, yes, let's talk about the sex. At the end of last month, it was announced that, among others, an extract from 1Q84 had been nominated for Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction award. The extract includes the line, "A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought." Indeed, it is pretty bad. Sadly I'm unfamiliar with the Japanese language, but I like to think that the clumsiness is down to the fact that the Japanese just doesn't translate well here.
Anyway, my point is that the frank exploration of the complexities surrounding sex and desire is another reason people turn to Murakami. In Norwegian Wood, desire is presented alongside deep grief and depression. In Sputnik Sweetheart, female sexuality is a central theme, looked at through the character of Sumire, who vanishes while on a Greek island. We come to expect that his women will be enigmatic, alluring and often out of reach, as is the case in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.
His writing is evocative of place and of feeling; it's full of yearning. Murakami captures the concerns of modern life, somewhat effortlessly in the easiness of his prose, combining this with an overriding sense of cool through the extraordinary detail in his writing. To a certain extent, we know what to expect. That's why we'll come back to him time and time again.
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