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People : Haruki Murakami

Friday, March 24, 2006 Posted: 01:11 AM JST

Haruki Murakami (村上春樹, born January 12, 1949) is a popular contemporary Japanese writer and translator. His work has been described by the Virginia Quarterly Review as "easily accessible, yet profoundly complex".

Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 but spent most of his youth in Kobe. His father was a Buddhist priest. His mother was the daughter of a merchant from Osaka. They both taught Japanese literature. Notably, Murakami's grandfather is Kunikida Doppo. Doppo was a writer in Meiji era.

Since his early years, Murakami has been heavily influenced by Western culture, particularly in terms of Western music and literature. He grew up reading everything from the works of American writers such as Vonnegut and Brautigan, to Dostoyevsky and Balzac. Although he may have been influenced by these Western writers, Murakami is still a Japanese writer in that he is Japanese and he writes about issues that occur in Japan (but that is not to say that these issues cannot be identified in other countries).

Murakami is often distinguished from other Japanese writers because of the influence that Western literature has had on him. His writing is very different from other Japanese writers, in that Japanese literature often puts more of an emphasis on beautiful language, which can result in the writing being rather stiff and restricting. Murakami prefers his writing to be more free and fluid.

He studied drama at Waseda University in Tokyo where he met his wife, Yoko. His first job was in a record store, and after finishing his studies he opened the jazz bar "Peter Cat" in Tokyo, which he ran from 1974-1982. Many of his novels have musical themes and titles referring to a particular song, including Dance, Dance, Dance (from The Dells), Norwegian Wood (after the Beatles song) and South of the Border, West of the Sun (the first part being the title of a song by Nat King Cole).

Murakami did not write any fiction until his early thirties. According to Murakami, he was suddenly and inexplicably inspired to write his first novel (Hear the Wind Sing, 1979) while watching a baseball game. Murakami worked on it for several months in very brief stretches after working days at the bar (resulting in a fragmented, jumpy text in short chapters). After finishing, he sent his novel to the only literary contest that would accept a work of that length, and won first prize. Even in this first work many of the basic elements of Murakami's mature writing are in place: Westernized style, idiosyncratic humor, and poignant nostalgia.

His initial success encouraged him to keep writing. A year later he published Pinball, 1973, a sequel. However, his first two novels are out of print in English translation outside of Japan. According to Murakami (Publishers Weekly, 1991,) he considers his first two novels "weak," and was not eager to have them translated into English. His third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase was "the first book where I could feel a kind of sensation, the joy of telling a story. When you read a good story, you just keep reading. When I write a good story, I just keep writing."

In 1982 he published A Wild Sheep Chase, a critical success, which makes original use of fantastic elements and has a uniquely disconnected plot. These novels form the "Trilogy of the Rat" (a sequel, "Dance, Dance, Dance" was later written but is not considered part of the series), centered on the same unnamed narrator and his friend called "the Rat". In 1985 he published Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a dreamlike fantasy which takes the magical elements in his work to a new extreme. Murakami's dreamlike stories have lead people to label his writing as postmodern. When reading one of his novels, one does not usually have a clear idea of the direction in which the story is going. Everything is ambiguous and the reader has no idea what secret message the author is trying to convey. His writing can be considered to be postmodern in the sense that (in his books) things are not what they seem or appear to be.

Murakami achieved a major breakthrough and national recognition in 1987 with the publication of Norwegian Wood, a nostalgic story of loss and sexualilty. Norwegian Wood sold millions of copies among Japanese youth, making Murakami something of a superstar in his native country (to his dismay). The book was printed in two separate parts, sold together. One book had a green cover, the other a red one. Some hardcore fans of the book wore clothing of one colour to show their preference for that part. In 1986, Murakami left Japan, travelled throughout Europe, and settled in the United States. Murakami taught at Princeton University in Princeton, NJ and at Tufts University in Medford, MA. During this time he wrote Dance, Dance, Dance and South of the Border, West of the Sun.

In 1994/1995 he published The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This novel seamlessly fuses both his realistic and fantastic tendencies, and contains elements of physical violence. It is also more socially conscious than his previous work, dealing in part with the difficult topic of the war crimes in Manchuria (Manchukuo). The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the novel most frequently cited by critics as Murakami's greatest. For this novel he won the Yomiuri Literary Award, which was awarded to him by one of his harshest former critics, Kenzaburo Oe.

The processing of collective trauma took a central position in Murakami's writing, which had until then been more light-hearted in nature. While he was finishing Chronicle, Japan was shaken by the Kobe earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack, in the aftermath of which he returned to Japan. He came to terms with these events with his first work of non-fiction, Underground, and the short story collection After the Quake. These books relate to Murakami's previous works through the recurring themes of individuals who are removed from their daily lives through single, sudden acts, as well as subterranean worlds, as seen most prominently in Hard Boiled Wonderland. Underground consists largely of interviews of victims of the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway system, and it shows a society mysteriously different from modern America. While perpetrators and events behind the attack aren't mentioned in the book, the picture of the society Murakami paints is shocking.

Short stories are an important part of Murakami's oeuvre. Apart from Quake, many of his stories written between 1983 and 1990 have been published in English under the title The Elephant Vanishes. He has also translated many of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, John Irving and Paul Theroux, among others.

His latest novels are the succinct Sputnik Sweetheart, first published in 1999, and Kafka on the Shore, from 2002, the English translation of which was published in 2005. The English version of his latest novel, After Dark, is to be released in 2007. In late 2005, Murakami published a collection of short stories titled Tōkyō Kitanshū (東京奇譚集, translates loosely as "Mysteries of Tokyo". A collection of the English versions of 25 short stories, titled "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman", is due to be published in the summer of 2006.

Murakami's fiction, which is often criticized for being "pop" literature by Japan's literary establishment, is humorous and surreal, and at the same time reflects an essential alienation, loneliness and longing for love in a way that has touched readers in the US and Europe, as well as in East Asia. In addition, Murakami's writing has also been criticized because of his portrayal of Japan's obession with capitalism. Through his work, he was able to capture the spiritual emptiness of his generation and explore the negative effects of Japan's all work mentality. His writing allows for him to criticize how the capitalist society in Japan has led to the decrease in human values and a loss of connection between people.

Recently, director Jun Ichikawa adapted Murakami's short story Tony Takitani into a 75 minute feature. The film has played at various film festivals and was released in New York and Los Angeles July 29, 2005. The original short story (as translated by Jay Rubin) is available in the April 15, 2002 issue of the New Yorker.

Source: Wikipedia

Keywords: arts_entertainment people_focus

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1 comments so far post your own

1 | At 11:26pm on Mar 24 2006, Zeno wrote:
Reading about Murakami's upbringing is a uncompromising reminder to me that Osaka and Kobe are the corner stones of something Japan has in abundance and the western world craving for. I love Japan even more now.
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