Unravelling Murakami: Three of his pals attempt to explain the elusive author

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. — file pic
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. — file pic

SINGAPORE, Oct 24 — For someone who is his country’s national icon and a powerhouse in bestselling lists — with an almost feverish cult following worldwide — critically acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is strangely elusive. A recluse of sorts, he keeps himself under the radar as much as possible.

But when TODAY spoke to three of his good pals and co-workers Ted Goossen, Motoyuki Shibata and Roland Kelts to get them to spill the beans on the mysterious 66-year-old Japanese jazz bar owner-turned-writer, the revelations were, surprisingly, normal. (The trio will be speaking at Unravelling Haruki Murakami, a programme in this year’s Singapore Writers Festival.)

Goossen, who is one of Murakami’s English translators, rattled off a laundry list when we asked for juicy titbits about the Japanese author that not many may know of: He loves baseball and cats, is a great cook and is a hardworking man, with his schedule packed mostly with work. Murakami’s wife Yoko, whom he met in university, is also a very important figure in his life, Goossen said.

“It’s hard to think of Yoko and Haruki separately. They’re like a team. She runs his office — she’s the businesswoman and he’s the very hardworking and productive writer,” he added with a laugh.

Goossen translated Murakami’s The Strange Library, as well as the author’s first two novels, Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. He also translated several of Murakami’s essays which have been published in the literary journal Monkey Business International, for which Goossen is a co-editor together with Shibata.

Japanese-American writer Kelts, who authored Japanamerica, as well as many articles and essays on Murakami, said the latter is “a very kind man”. And while Murakami is known to eschew publicity and invasion of privacy, Kelts said the running-enthusiast likes people — but only “on his own terms”.

“He’s protective of his writing space, but when he comes out of that space to meet people, he is very approachable, very friendly. He likes people,” he observed. “When he chooses to be social, he’s very friendly and very charming, he has a dry sense of humour.”

Shibata, Japan’s leading translator of contemporary American literature and editor of some of Murakami’s translation works, said the latter is also an excellent translator who is, contrary to what others might think, very accurate.

“Since he is a good writer, he also has more empathy and sympathy with the writer he translates,” noted Shibata. “When he comes across a difficult passage where the writer worked hard on it, he doesn’t think in terms of the grammar or sentence structure. He becomes one with the author ... his translation is really vivid, rather than mechanically transposing one element to the corresponding element in Japanese.”

Murakami’s name alone is capable of sending a book to the top of the bestseller list. He’s also a perennial favourite to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, although the medal continues to elude him. So what makes readers worldwide so fascinated with his work?

The beauty, it seems, is in his magical, fairytale-like tales that captures one’s heart and imagination. People love stories, and if a storyteller is able to grab the imaginations of his listeners, they will come back to hear more, said Goossen, adding that Murakami is such a good storyteller that people grow attached and attracted to the way he tells his stories, and the characters and images he evokes.

“A lot of post-modern literary fiction can feel quite cold, but I think Murakami has a great affection for his characters,” said Kelts. “Even though they are very often lonely ... and living in big impersonal cities, he writes with a great deal of warmth and sentiment for them. A lot of readers around the world find that very comforting.”

The common refrain from fans is that he understands their dreams, he added.

So successful is Murakami’s global cult following that he has several labels coined after him or his work. An example is “Harukists”, a label describing Murakami’s most ardent fans. Or in South Korea, where fans describe situations as “Murakami-esque”, said Kelts.

“In terms of global popular culture, he is the biggest ambassador of Japanese literature in the world,” he said.

In trying to understand what makes the complex writer tick, many may turn to his work to attempt to get a deeper sense of who he is. But how much of his work is a reflection of Murakami’s true self?

Not a lot, it seems. “Some writers are very engaged in exploring themselves through their literature, but Haruki is a storyteller, and as far as we can tell, he doesn’t really try to express his true self in his literature,” said Goossen.

Shibata said: “We try not to read too much (into things). We try not to read works autobiographically.”

As a professor of American literature and literary translation at the University of Tokyo, he often stresses to students that fiction is not an autobiography. Still, he added, one can sense from Murakami’s works that he sympathises with struggling individuals who lack support, or whom Shibata terms as “lone wolf individuals”.

Kelts agreed, saying the author is quite a solitary person, and that is reflected in his work as many of his characters are quite lonely. Furthermore, being very sensitive to language and visuals, he “sees metaphors in things”. An example would be a scene in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where Murakami describes an old rotary telephone with its coiled cord as looking like a strange deep sea creature, he pointed out.

Thanks to Murakami, people all over the world are more interested in Japanese literature and what’s going on in the scene, added Shibata. The fact that talented translators have translated so many of his works into various different languages also means his stories can reach a much wider audience globally.

Many Japanese writers face a challenge in getting their work recognised overseas, because many write in their native language, noted Kelts. “Translation is a very critical part of communicating Japanese literary talent and sharing it with the rest of the world.”

But Goossen demurs when posed with this suggestion. “Some of us may not be great, but still the stories are being read, so translators can’t take too much credit for Haruki’s success,” he guffaws. “The stories are so strong, and there’s something about the voice that he created that comes through even in translation ... which is a remarkable fact.”

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a perfect translation, said Shibata. At times, trying to keep the subtle nuances of the original word will mean rhythm or speed is lost; while if you try to maintain the rhythm of the text, you’d lose its subtle nuances, he said. “The important thing is to try to figure out which element is really important in translating a certain work.”?

Given that Murakami is such a prolific translator himself, why doesn’t he translate his own work or come up with original works in English?

Translation is about creating a style that works, said Goossen. “That stylistic talent is something that people may have in their own languages but it’s very rare to find anyone who has that in their second language,” he noted.

Besides, it’s not necessary for Murakami to write anything in English, he added. “He has good translators, so why would he slow down and deal with the problems of a foreign language?” — Today

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