Haruki Murakami is not only arguably the most experimental Japanese novelist to have been translated into English, he is also the most popular, with sales in the millions worldwide. His greatest novels inhabit the liminal zone between realism and fable, whodunit and science fiction: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for example, features a protagonist who is literally of two minds, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, perhaps his best-known work outside of Japan, begins prosaically—as a man’s search for his missing wife—then quietly mutates into the strangest hybrid narrative since Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Murakami’s world is an allegorical one, constructed of familiar symbols—an empty well, an underground city—but the meaning of those symbols remains hermetic to the last. His debt to popular culture (and American pop culture, in particular) notwithstanding, it could be argued that no author’s body of work has ever been more private.
Murakami was born in 1949 in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, to a middle-class family with a vested interest in the national culture: his father was a teacher of Japanese literature, his grandfather a Buddhist monk. When he was two, his family moved to Kobe, and it was this bustling port city, with its steady stream of foreigners (especially American sailors), that most clearly shaped his sensibility. Rejecting Japanese literature, art, and music at an early age, Murakami came to identify more and more closely with the world outside Japan, a world he knew only through jazz records, Hollywood movies, and dime-store paperbacks.
As a student in Tokyo in the late sixties, Murakami developed a taste for postmodern fiction while looking on, quietly but sympathetically, as the protest movement reached its high-water mark. He married at twenty-three and spent the next several years of his life running a jazz club in Tokyo, Peter Cat, before the publication of his first novel made it possible for him to pay his way by writing. The novel, Hear the Wind Sing, translated into English but not available outside Japan at the author’s request, won him the coveted Gunzo Literature Prize and the beginnings of a readership. With each book that followed, his acclaim and popularity grew, until the publication in 1987 of his first realistic novel, Norwegian Wood, transformed him into a literary megastar and the de facto “voice of his generation”—eighties’ Japan’s version of J. D. Salinger. The book has sold more than two million copies in Japan alone, the equivalent of one for every household in Tokyo.
Since then Murakami has been an unwilling celebrity in his native country, living abroad for years at a time to secure a measure of distance from his public image. He has lived both in Europe and the U.S.; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for example, was written while teaching at Princeton and Tufts. Though he has never returned to the straightforward lyricism of Norwegian Wood, his novels continue to find an ever wider audience—his new novel Kafka on the Shore has already sold three thousand copies in Japan and is due out in English later this year. Internationally, Murakami is now the most widely-read Japanese novelist of his generation; he has won virtually every prize Japan has to offer, including its greatest, the Yomiuri Literary Prize. He is also an extremely active translator, having brought writers as diverse as Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Japanese readers, many of them for the first time.
Murakami’s office sits just off the main drag in boutique-choked Aoyama, Tokyo’s equivalent of New York City’s SoHo. The building itself is squat and dated-looking, as though the change in the neighborhood had happened without its permission. Murakami rents a moderate-sized suite on the building’s sixth floor, and his rooms give much the same impression: plain wooden cabinets, swivel chairs, Mylar-covered desks—office furniture, in short. The decor seems both deeply incongruous with the notion of a writer’s studio and at the same time somehow fitting: his characters are often in just such an everyday environment when the dream world first beckons to them. As it turns out, although he writes there on occasion, the office’s main function is as the nerve center for the business end of Murakami’s career. The air hums with polite industry. No fewer than two assistants glide capably about in dainty stockinged feet.
Throughout the following interview, which took place over two consecutive afternoons, he showed a readiness to laugh that was pleasantly out of keeping with the quiet of the office. He’s clearly a busy man and by his own admission a reluctant talker, but once serious conversation began I found him focused and forthcoming. He spoke fluently, but with extended pauses between statements, taking great care to give the most accurate answer possible. When the talk turned to jazz or to running marathons, two of his great passions, he could easily have been mistaken for a man twenty years younger, or even for a fifteen-year-old boy.