Over the last few months, I’ve embarked on a self-imposed Haruki Murakami reading challenge (or binge, sparked by finding so many copies of his novels in my usually sparse library). So far, I’ve read four of the Japanese writer’s novels, from one of his first novels to the more recent: South of the Border, West of the Sun, A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicleand Kafka on theShore. Murakami tends to provoke strong reactions in his readers. In a review for The Guardian, novelist David Mitchell described Murakami’s impact:
“When the English translation of [his] bestselling The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle transformed one of Japan’s best-kept literary secrets into the world’s best-known living Japanese novelist, this reviewer’s acquaintances neatly subdivided themselves into three groups: besotted devotees (one British friend went so far as to name his newborn son “Haruki”); critical admirers; and people who came out in a nasty rash.”
Four novels later, I find myself firmly in the critical admirers’ camp. Reading several works by the same author in fairly quick succession is always an interesting exercise. Most writers essentially tell the same story over and over or, at least, continue to explore the same themes and elements. Whether those similarities build and deepen or begin to wear thin depends largely on the talent of the writer and whether they are able to mine the same territory to make fresh discoveries. Indeed, lack of freshness is the biggest complaint of Murakami’s critics. Bold, over-the-top, inventive writing is the hallmark of his style and it is both a blessing and a curse. Encountering Murakami’s surrealistic world for the first time is thrilling, but it is inevitable that the thrill fades upon subsequent encounters.
Yet, Murakami is wildly inventive and ambitious, the worlds he creates are filled with talking animals (an egomaniacal sheep bent on world domination in Wild Sheep Chase and cats in Kafka on the Shore), mysterious quests, the ennui of modern urban life, UFOs, graphic sex, mistaken identities, people with special powers, physical and psychological netherworlds, humor, forays into philosophy, music and the joys of reading and seductive, intelligent and elusive women. The surrealistic or metaphysical elements of his prose are grounded by realism and the steady reporting of comforting quotidian details (you will never wonder what Murakami’s characters are eating and drinking) interlaced with bits of poetry. For example, in Kafka on the Shore, one of Murakami’s characters – a transgendered woman — describes Aristophanes’ ideas about each person being divided and looking for their other half, followed by a detailed description of a private library where much of the novel’s action takes place and this description of the head librarian, Miss Saeki:
“She’s a little on the tall side for someone of her generation. She’s wearing a blue half-sleeve dress and a cream-colored cardigan, and has excellent posture. Her long hair is loosely tied back, her face very refined and intelligent-looking, with beautiful eyes and a shadowy smile playing over her lips, a smile whose sense of completeness is indescribable. It reminds me of a small, sunny spot, the special patch of sunlight you find only in some remote, secluded place.”
For me, Murakami’s storytelling is so enjoyable that it is easy to overlook his flaws – the lack of freshness, sometimes shadowy underdeveloped characters and loose ends that rarely find themselves completely tied up in the end. His novels are suffused with loss and longing, the build-up is always more satisfying than the resolution, for both the characters and the reader, but it doesn’t take away their impact.
A few words about the books themselves. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the most serious and literary in its ambitions. I thought it had moments of absolute brilliance, but I actually preferred the less well-reviewed Kafka on the Shore, which I would highly recommend as an introduction to Murakami and his style. A Wild Sheep Chase is one of his earlier novels; it’s enjoyable, but half-baked. South of the Border holds a special place for me. It is a quieter, smaller novel — a mood piece about longing, impossible love and middle-aged angst. Not as surreal or exuberant as the others, but hauntingly beautiful. His most recent, IQ84, was published in Japan in 2009 and will be released later this year in America and the United Kingdom. I’ll definitely be reading.