I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I saw Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World while I was browsing in San Francisco bookstores for a paperback to take on a plane. The cover was good, the blurbs commendable, but what really caught my attention was the list of the book’s components: “a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan …” Bob Dylan? I bought the book.
Hard-Boiled turned out to be both a great read and a good book. It employs one of the most elegant literary devices I’ve read, without being at all self-conscious or pointless. The book was also very cool, like a Thomas Pynchon book is cool. But most of all, it was the book’s Westernness that surprised me. And not only me. Man, you should see the reviews I read while preparing for the interview: “Nippon number-crunches,” “A delectable little sushi of a book,” “East meets West in this narrative noodle,” “No kimonos in sight … ” I’ll spare you the rest.
I read more of his books—the two volume Norwegian Wood (1987: over four million passed the checkout in Japan alone), A Wild Sheep Chase (English translation published in 1989), Dance Dance Dance (this year’s follow-up) and The Elephant Vanishes (a short story collection)—and strange things happened. I’m stranded in the middle of a blizzard with only a Murakami for company. I’m on my hands and knees in Japantown looking for the English student editions only published in Japan. And then, finally, before playing a Boston concert I’d only arranged in order to do the interview, I find myself talking to Murakami over lunch in his apartment.
What we miss reading these books in translation is the shock of the Americanness in his language: and that’s something some of us will probably never know. However, Murakami claims he likes the translations better, so we shouldn’t feel bad. We should just read them.
John Wesley Harding I was caught in a snowstorm in Philadelphia on my wedding anniversary. All I had was your book, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and I was struck by its elegance: the way the map at the beginning of the book looks like a human brain, the way the two separate parts of the book fit together. Where did that come from?
Haruki Murakami I hadn’t noticed that the map looks like a brain. You are right, it does. Very interesting. When I was writing the book, I kept on forgetting everything, so I just drew a map and pinned it on the wall to remind myself.
JWH Norwegian Wood was published in two volumes. In a sense, Hard-Boiled is also two books. Where did the seed of that idea come from?
HM When I published my first book, Hear the Wind Song, I wrote a very small piece in the story about a world, a town, surrounded by a high wall. And there was a library in that town. I knew that it wasn’t well written so I just gave up. But I felt there was something very important embedded in that story. After five or six years I expanded it into Hard-Boiled Wonderland. But even then, I felt it was not enough. I felt that there should have been a kind of explosion, a kind of a booster rocket … which can blow the mind of a reader.
JWH I read in an interview you don’t think up the plots before you write them. But in Hard-Boiled, that’s very hard to believe because, although it’s highly complex, it fits together so seamlessly. There are no loose ends hanging around.
HM I wrote three or four chapters of The End of the World part before I decided that I needed something more, something totally different. So, I put it alongside a completely different story. I knew there would be some conclusion and that the two stories could come together, but I can’t say I knew why. But I thought that they would get on well with each other. You compose music and write lyrics. You know that the most important means for you to create is your subconscious. Everything important comes from your subconscious. If you plan everything you’d be kidding your subconscious. So I don’t plan anything. I cannot explain why, but I knew this was the right way to approach the story.
JWH In your novels so many magical things happen. But it’s not like the “magical realism” of South American writing. It’s a different kind of magic: characters walking through walls and characters who are but aren’t.
HM Many American novels and stories are very “realistic” and well organized. I started to write novels and stories when I was 30 years old. Before that I didn’t write anything. I was just one of those ordinary people. I was running a jazz club, and I didn’t create anything at all. But all of a sudden I started to write my own things and I think that is a kind of magic. I can do anything when I’m creating stories. I can make any miracle. That’s a great thing for me. I can say I deal in magic.
JWH The novels deal with a place where the supernatural and logical reality coexist happily, the most obvious example being Hard-Boiled Wonderland. The End of the World is a high-tech, 21st century Tokyo. Tokyo itself becomes much more magical and sci-fi. And it’s an easy relationship. In most people’s books, that supernatural, logical reality is apocalyptic. But in your books there’s no question or conflict. The girl in A Wild Sheep Chase just happens to have ears blessed with clairvoyant powers, even though in many respects she’s just a normal girlfriend for the protagonist. Nobody worries about these supernatural facts of life. Are they listening to their own subconscious speaking?
HM I see many people who disguise themselves. I know some people who say, “I’m an artist, I’m very creative, I’m different from ordinary people.” But I don’t believe those people. I like to see the strangeness or weirdness in ordinary people or ordinary scenery or ordinary, everyday life.
JWH Some people take up art because they want to be extraordinary. But the best people who do art, I think, realize that they’re just ordinary people. Then, there’s also the artistic impulse which is very annoying, which says, “I see poetry in the life of a grave digger.” Rock stars are always singing about how they wish they were fisherman. Rock stars can become fisherman, but fishermen can’t be rock stars because they don’t have that privilege.
HM I think of myself as a very normal person. At the same time, I’m a very abnormal person. But I can’t tell the difference. Sometimes, when I look at myself in a mirror, I can find a very abnormal person in the mirror but the next moment I can see a very normal person. It’s scary. Very scary.
JWH Do you think there’s something in your own character that is quite obsessive? Your characters are obsessed with small details. It’s almost fetishistic. Paper clips and dental floss become holy objects for them.
HM Only small details connect them with reality. They need those things. Without them, they would fly away.
JWH Your characters’ consciousness are flying away on some level. I mean the characters are almost the same person. In a sense, the guy from Norwegian Wood could be the guy in A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance.
HM That’d be right.
JWH And in a few years time, perhaps he could be the guy in Hard-Boiled Wonderland.
HM That is right.
JWH Is this a voice that you find really easy to write in or is it a conscious decision?
HM It’s easy, quite easy. It’s kind of a therapy for me. You could be anybody when you’re writing. That’s the reason that I’m writing: to be anybody. You can put your feet in various shoes and experience anything.
JWH But it’s more than a therapy though for you isn’t it? Therapy is a logical thing: you come, you give money, and you are helped. Isn’t there a more “mystical” dimension to what you’re describing?
HM Well, you have your body and you have your mind and they go together. But sometimes your mind feels, “That is very strange. Why am I trapped in this body?” You are trapped in your body, in your tendencies.
JWH In your habits.
HM Yes. Sometimes I want to walk away from that. When you write a story, you can walk away. When I write the stories, the stories are just happening as truth. It’s no longer a story, it’s a truth.
JWH In my songs, that’s the truth too even though they’re all lies. How can you be any nearer the truth than an attempt at communication? Do you consider your stories an attempt at communication with other people or do you write for mostly yourself?
HM When I’m writing I believe that somebody else can understand my feelings, somebody else can experience those things I’m experiencing. I call it empathy. When I ran the jazz club, customers came to the club. Maybe eight out of ten wouldn’t like my club. But if two people liked my club, they came back. And my club did well. But some people would want ten out of ten people to like their club. I just think two out of ten is enough. I can feel somebody will know what I’m feeling. It is a lonely life sometimes, like throwing a stone into the deep darkness. It might hit something, but you can’t see it. The only thing you can do is to guess, and to believe. You have to get accustomed to that—to being isolated.
JWH Do you think this is mirrored in your characters’ isolation and alienation?
HM Yeah, but I think they are looking for a connection. In A Wild Sheep Chase the protagonist is lonely and isolated. His wife walked away. She left him by himself. He doesn’t look for anything, he’s just lonely. But in Dance Dance Dance he’s looking for connections—connections with everybody. The characters are getting more positive.
JWH Why do you think that is?
HM I think that is what I felt at that time. I’m writing the books to change myself, you know. Writing books is just an experience to me. So when I’ve finished writing a book, I have changed. I don’t write books for bread and butter. I just write books because I want to be something new.
JWH We’re talking about connecting with an audience. Norwegian Wood connected with millions of people. Why do you think that happened?
HM I don’t know. It is written in a very conventional, realistic style, and nothing strange happens. It is a very simple, straightforward story. To be honest with you, I don’t care if the number of readers are millions or tens of hundreds. I don’t care. But after publication of Norwegian Wood, I had to leave Japan because I was disturbed.
JWH By what?
HM I wrote Norwegian Wood in Europe and it was published when my wife and I were in Europe. I didn’t know anything at all about the reaction it was creating. When I went back to Japan I found myself a celebrity. And I didn’t want to be a celebrity. I don’t want to be famous. Nobody believed that, but I was being honest. I just wanted to write my books. But all of a sudden I became famous and everybody knows my name, everybody knows my face. It was very disturbing. I couldn’t write anything for five or six months, I was so disturbed. I got famous and I got rich, but I wasn’t so happy. Before Norwegian Wood, my books sold nice, small figures. I lived a very quiet, happy life. But after Norwegian Wood I wasn’t so happy anymore.
JWH Are you happy here?
HM Oh yes. Very much. I am myself here.
JWH We haven’t seen a novel since this disturbance occurred in your life. Do you think it’s going to make a difference?
HM No, I don’t think so. I’m forgetting everything.
JWH Would you rather be on an island writing than in a place where you can be asked to come on television?
HM I don’t like television, I don’t like radio. I don’t like to be in front of the audience.
JWH Your characters don’t like television or radio, they listen to albums. It’s very rare. Characters today listen to television and they listen to radio. But your characters switch on tapes in the car and they have soundtracks in their heads. One of the things that I loved about your books was the relation of the characters to music.
HM Music is my longtime friend. And I could never betray it. I listen to music while I’m writing.
JWH I can’t listen to music with words when I write. Do you write in a rhythm to the music?
HM No, I don’t think so. I like to be surrounded by music. I feel there is a presence in music. Usually I listen to classical music, baroque stuff, Bach overtures, jazz … Talking Heads. (laughter)
JWH Dance Dance Dance is your most recent novel.
HM Yeah. I’m working on a very big book now.
JWH Is this the book about China?
HM Actually it’s not a book about China. There is an excerpt in this book about China in the 1930s. I was interested in the war between the Soviet Union and Manchuria. It was a bloody war. I’m very much interested in history.
JWH In A Wild Sheep Chase there’s a lot about history in the story of the Boss, this sinister, right-wing Godfather whose imminent death requires the hunt for the mystical sheep.
HM I expanded that part because my father went to China during the Second World War. He told me a lot of stories about the war in China, so I’m interested. It might even be a kind of obsession. Sometimes the stories he told me were a little too bloody for a kid. I don’t think my father intended to scare me. It was 1955 or ‘56, just after the war, and those memories were still vivid around then. To kill and to be killed. Anyway, I cannot eat Chinese food at all. I don’t know exactly why not, but I cannot.
JWH What do you think we’re missing by reading you in translation?
HM 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.
JWH It’s like me, listening to my own voice.
HM I can’t tell the translation from the original. I forget everything! For instance, I wrote Dance Dance Dance six years ago. In the six years since I’ve written that, I haven’t read that book once. But I read it in English and I enjoyed it immensely. I knew there was some difference between the original and the translation but I could not tell.
JWH I read in one review that the big thing an English reader will miss in the translation is how shocking the Americanness of your books is.
HM Americans are different. Americans are strange because they don’t believe that we have Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s or Levi’s or Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen in Japan.
JWH You have it all.
HM We have it all. We grew up with those things. They think Dunkin’ Donuts and Coca Cola and Budweiser and Bob Dylan are their own.
JWH I have the impression that people over there got annoyed because what you were doing was not “Japanese.”
HM Yes. There is a very strong tradition of Japanese literature. They claim that the beauty of Japanese language and Japanese literature is special and only Japanese can understand it. Japaneseness, you could say. They say it does not travel. I think they might be right, because our culture and language are so different from the western ones. Haiku cannot be translated, that is true. But that is not all, that is not everything. I am Japanese and am writing a novel in Japanese, and, in that sense, I am different from you. But talking with you like this face to face, I don’t think I am so different from you. We have many things in common. What I want to say is, there should be other ways to convey Japaneseness. True, I am not exotic, but that doesn’t mean that I am not a Japanese novelist. When I’m describing the city of Tokyo, it is not the real Tokyo. It’s just a colorful city. I need very artificial, very strange, weird streets. That’s what I want, and yet they say it’s not realistic. About six years ago I wrote “Dunkin’ Donuts” kind of things; that helped me a lot to create kind of a Blade Runner place.
JWH Hard-Boiled Wonderland is very Blade Runner in a way, isn’t it?
HM It’s a nowhere city. And I needed that. But these days, I don’t need those kinds of things anymore. Because I can create my own world. Ten years ago I needed to get away from Japanese society, I wanted to get away from that tradition.
JWH But the themes of your books seem, to me, Japanese.
HM In The Elephant Vanishes, there is a story, “The Second Bakery Attack,” about a young couple. They are attacking a McDonald’s hamburger restaurant to feed their hunger. And they’re carrying a shotgun. But some American reader told me that is not an extraordinary thing in this country.
JWH Not at all. (laughter) It’s very normal.
HM But in Japan it’s very extraordinary. Nobody carries a shotgun. And nobody attacks McDonald’s. It’s a very strange story in Japan, but it’s not a strange story in this country.
JWH It seems that your work gives the critics a chance to bash Japan. I read these very racist reviews in which the reviewers were pleased to finally find a Japanese writer who doesn’t like Japan. I just wondered if you were aware of that at all.
HM I don’t read critics so much. But some people like me because I’m an expatriate and I escaped from Japan. But after I came to this country, I’ve been thinking about my country more and more. Japan is a very special country to me. I’m interested in exploring what that means: “What is Japan? What is Japanese?”
JWH Does being away help you? Being away from England certainly made me see England more clearly.
HM I just wanted the perfect place to write. I lived in Rome and I lived in Greece but I was not so comfortable there. I love Italy and I love Greece but Greece is for Greeks and Italy is for Italians. I was just a stranger. But in this country there are few strangers. I feel very comfortable, which is why I am staying in the States. It’s very comfortable for me but I’m thinking about Japan while I’m staying here. Everybody asks me when I’m to write my books in English. That’s impossible.
JWH I don’t know what your day is like as a writer—maybe it’s the same as mine, maybe it’s different—but when you go out of your front door, obviously you are being bombarded …
JWH Bombarded with messages—American messages and American signs and American cars. You go outdoors here and you’ve got to speak English. Doesn’t that experience find its way into your work?
HM No, I don’t think so. This is a nowhere city.
JWH That reminds me of Van Morrison. He always calls places nowhere. My friend asked, “Where are you playing tomorrow?” He said, ’We’re playing nowhere.” So he asked, “Where are you playing the next day?” ’We’re playing nowhere.” And then he said, “When are you next playing somewhere?” “In three weeks’ time we’re playing in London, that’s somewhere.”
HM I love the song of the Beatles, “Nowhere Man.” When I wrote the final part of Norwegian Wood, originally, I listened to “Nowhere Man.” So I think there is some part of “Nowhere” in the last of the book. To me this is a nowhere place, nowhere city, nowhere street.
JWH That’s a good name for a song, “Nowhere Street.” Let’s talk about movies for a second. Do you like David Lynch?
HM Oh yes, very much. I’m a very great admirer of his.
JWH Your story “The Dancing Dwarf,” is so like the backwards dream sequence in Twin Peaks.
HM Oh yeah, I was so surprised when I saw that! It’s a complete coincidence.
JWH When did you write that story?
HM Before the movie!
JWH Your books deal with situations a lot like those in Blue Velvet. The average guy finding extraordinary things in a very normal place.
HM We are crazy about Twin Peaks in Japan. Do you remember the room with red curtains and the dancing dwarf? That’s the room I mean when I think about subconsciousness. There is something strange and special in yourself. David Lynch knows that too and so we can both create those images, the same images.
JWH Your books are heavily symbolic, by mistake almost.
HM I don’t like to analyze my subconscious. It is an asset I don’t want any explanations. You may find this very strange, but I don’t dream much. At least, I cannot remember my dreams. But I can create them.
JWH A place where dreams are made is the Dolphin Hotel in A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance. It’s a location that holds the key to the whole mystery. It seems that in the return to the Dolphin Hotel in Dance, Dance Dance, which was a beautiful, quaint, run-down place in A Wild Sheep Chase, it’s become very Americanized. Are you critical of that?
HM Yeah, I am. When I was a kid in the 1950s and early ‘60s, Japan was so poor. But we had some idealists and we believed in something. Something good. Something beautiful. After these years we got rich so we could buy anything. But I’m feeling we’ve lost very important things. And I’m missing those things. What we’re now missing was something comfortable. Someplace you could stay as long as you like. But the new Dolphin Hotel is not the kind of place you can be comfortable. It’s a very fashionable, glorious place to stay, but it is not your place. You cannot find your own place. It’s a big hotel. I think I’m just missing the old hotel.
JWH Your books are very elegiac and sad in some ways. But I felt that Dance Dance Danceand Norwegian Wood had such hopeful endings to them.
HM In both of those books you don’t know for sure what is going to happen. I didn’t know what was going to happen, if the endings were going to be positive or negative. You are the first person to tell me that the end of Norwegian Wood is positive.
HM Most people think it’s a very sad story.
JWH Well it is a sad story, but it leaves him on the telephone, looking for a connection. And to me, that’s the thing he hasn’t been able to do for the entire book.
HM He’s looking for a clue, you know, to be socialized, or to be organized. And he’s just found a clue in the air, so he’s going to put out his hand to catch it. I think that’s the end of the story.
JWH How could that not be positive? In A Wild Sheep Chase the man is also lonely, without a purpose, and he is forced into a situation but accepts his role as a kind of mythical hero. He has to go down mountain passes to search for a fleece. Was that a conscious thing, the Jason parallel?
HM Oh, I’m not sure about the Jason thing. I was thinking of Orpheus when I was writing Hard-Boiled Wonderland. That character went into the sewers, into an underground world. And he’s always listening to music. Orpheus was a musician. European people have the Orpheus myth and we have a very similar myth in Japan called Izanagi, Izanami. Izanagi is the husband and Izanami is his wife.
JWH Orpheus and Eurydice.
HM That’s right. The wife’s dead, and he loved her very much. So he went underground to get her back. But it’s an underground world, a world of death. He found her, but she wasn’t the person she used to be. Her face had changed. It resembled the face of the dead. She cursed him. She said she would kill a thousand people a day because he looked at her face. It’s a sad story.
JWH Actually, when you took your character underground, it reminded me of Thomas Pynchon.
HM What book by Pynchon?
HM Yeah, yeah, I remember that one.
JWH Benny Profane works down in the sewers.
HM Oh yes, with crocodiles.
JWH It reminded me, also, of Don DeLillo. Both those writers are trying to get into the cracks of the world, the places between one and nothing. When I started Hard-Boiled Wonderlandand we went underground, I felt, “This is a writer who’s going to try and explore that gray area.” Is that a fair expectation?
HM Maybe. I’m interested in sewers. I don’t know why, but I am attracted by those underground worlds. The book I’m writing now is about an underground world. The character goes down a well to get a wife. In A Wild Sheep Chase the wife just left town. But in this story he’s going to get her back. He’s going to fight.
JWH There’s one other thing that I have to ask. In A Wild Sheep Chase the main guy is working at his job, and he says, “Sure we’re tossing out fluff. But tell me, where does anyone deal with words of substance?”
HM I cannot remember that line.
JWH Well maybe you never wrote it, maybe he put it in the translation.
HM I might have written it. (laughter)
John Wesley Harding is a singer/songwriter on the Sire recording label. His latest album is called Why We Fight and he always has a new album coming out soon.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee