Haruki Murakami: making the surreal real
The works of Haruki Murakami have achieved marked success and recognition not only in his native Japan, but internationally, attaining bestseller status in over 50 languages and receiving no end of awards and critical acclaim. His universal appeal springs from his ability to speak to his readers, regardless of their culture or whereabouts, on a profound, almost knowing level. His characters are boundlessly real, alienated as well as engaging, and his plots keep us guessing until the very last page is turned. Perhaps it is also his melancholic focus on loneliness, love and human connection which speaks volumes to us all.
While Murakami’s plots often contain surreal, quasi-science fiction and supernatural elements, through his use of relatable characters and a narrative style which is anchored in normality, he manages to create stories which are both extraordinary and emotionally resonant. This is no easy feat, although Murakami makes it seem effortless. When reading his work I often feel myself identifying with the lives of the characters he has crafted almost to the point of déjà vu; he’s describing thoughts I myself have pondered, conversations I have had, and paths I have wandered down. It is stirring, unremittingly personal, and always invokes deep reflection long after the book has been put down.
His stories are populated by symbolic motifs and themes (cats, jazz and wells to name a few) which shepherd our protagonist on his journey, spiritual indications seeming to suggest that all is not what it seems. Along with this he presents us with oddball characters; modern shamans; mysterious voices on the other end of the telephone. Their significance and relevance to the narrative flow is left to us to ponder; Murakami grants us that respect. His work has affinities with the smooth jazz which vibrates through it: we are often listening to the notes which aren’t there, the words which aren’t explicitly spoken, in order to grasp the meaning of the overall piece.
Pausing, for a moment, to reflect on Murakami’s protagonists: lonely wanderers, deep thinkers, they feel alienated by suburbia, or lost in the bustling back streets and train stations of Tokyo. Love falls in and out of their lives, and their fates meander like a ‘small sandstorm that keeps changing directions’. They engage in ‘casual’ sex but it is never straightforward; like the other motifs, it comes with hidden implications; it is presented as a mysterious, dreamlike, dance. The act itself usually just brings them back to the loneliness and confusion which they run from. The ‘everymen’ we travel with on Murakami’s journeys balance out the bizarre and unexplained, contemplating its meaning along with us. They are the perfect objective guide to help us to readily transcend into a weird place; Kyle MacLachlan to his David Lynch.
A cardinal rule of storytelling in any medium, be it film, novel or play, is ‘show, don’t tell’. However the beauty in Murakami’s stories often comes in the form of dense, unapologetic exposition, layered on thickly and suddenly. He presents us with whole chapters of it; a lot of the time coming straight from a character’s mouth – in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Lieutenant Mamiya enters to provide us with a detailed and moving account of his experience during the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo. His tale spans two chapters, after which he exits just as quickly as he appeared and our protagonist’s chronicle continues. Murakami gleefully and elegantly builds his stories in strokes, using a paintbrush comprised of character’s memories, anecdotes, and excessive exposition.
To some, the lack of narrative convention in Murakami’s storytelling could be frustrating. It often seems as though his stories do not stand on a ‘plot’ foundation in the traditional sense, but could be defined more as a series of quiet musings delicately woven together to point us toward some deeper, unstated philosophy. This may not be everyone’s bag, and you must be ready to lose yourself in the worlds he creates with an open mind and penchant for abstraction. Everything or nothing could occur within each chapter, and happy endings are not a guarantee.
Murakami’s meditations on modern loneliness and suburban existence are presented with deft simplicity, basking in life’s mundane details, but he always leads us down into a much deeper, darker well than we anticipated. He speaks to individuality, with his later works tapping into ‘the darkness found in society and history’. His vantage point comes from a place of being ‘different’, indeed he has stated that ‘being different is difficult in Japan’. I think, in essence, that this is what draws a legion of outsiders to his work.