What We Talk About When We Talk About Murakami Talking About Talking About Writing
Two non-reviews of books about Haruki Murakami, and a balanced breakfast recipe
It was a cold, bright Sunday morning in February. While my wife was out running errands, I was tidying the apartment and preparing my usual breakfast. Two scrambled eggs, cracked over a small frying pan with preheated olive oil, diced onion, and garlic minced to fine, translucent slivers, over a medium heat, with sliced peppers added about halfway through, served over buttered toast with sea salt. Nothing fancy, but good for a chilly morning. I had the place to myself, so I'd put on a recording of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin. The prélude was just gaining momentum when the phone rang. I didn't recognize the caller's number.
"Moshi moshi," I said, turning down the Ravel. "Kurei-ton Deibisu desu."
"Wait!" said a man's voice at the other end of the line. "That music you just turned down—that was Ravel's Tombeau, right?"
"It was," I said. "The first movement was just starting."
"The Cleveland Orchestra recording, conducted by Pierre Boulez," he said. "From 2002, if I'm not mistaken."
"Correct. You have an excellent ear," I said.
"It's sheer luck," said the man on the phone. He spoke in a gentle, steady way, as though every word had been carefully considered, weighed, and chosen to express his meaning in the clearest, simplest way. "You just happened to be playing a record that I've known for a long time. If you had picked something else, like The Greatest Hits of Dolly Parton, I am sure I wouldn't have been able to identify it."
"I guess it’s a good thing I don’t have that record, then," I said. "Am I right to assume that I'm speaking with Haruki Murakami?"
"You assume correctly," said Murakami. "I heard you were trying to get in touch with me. I make a point to reach out to my fans every so often." I turned off the stove and set my eggs aside. Breakfast would have to wait.
It was true that I'd called a number associated with Murakami's office the day before. As the proprietor of a highly successful literary blog with dozens of regular readers, I wanted to talk with Murakami about the secrets of his sucess, and how his novels have managed to gain a global following and sell millions of copies at a time when literary fiction was in retreat as a cultural and economic force. How is that the same writer can manage to develop such dedicated fans in Russia, South Korea, China, the United States, and the dozens of other languages in which his books are published?
We talked for most of the morning, Murakami telling me all about his thoughts on being a novelist. He patiently considered my questions, and answered them in the same kind of disarmingly straightforward way that he wrote his fiction in. "It's not difficult to write a single novel," he said. What's really hard is to keep on writing novels year after year. That's not something just anyone can do. As I have pointed out, it requires a special set of qualifications. Qualifications that may be based on something quite different than talent."
"Are you saying that you dont' consider yourself talented?" I asked. “Stamina,” he said. Novelists, he felt strongly, write with the whole of their bodies and minds. Too many writers neglect the first part.
I asked him if that dedication to flow and feeling was why his novels felt so improvisational. "That's true," he said. "Basically, I think, novels should emerge in a spontaneous flow." He never plans his novels, writing his first drafts quickly but without rushing."I punch in, write my ten pages, and then punch out, as if I'm working on a time card." He is careful to stress how regular and boring the work is, free of any romantic notions about inspiration or frenetic bursts of creativity.
Murakami is even careful to stress the importance of not writing, or at least putting aside his novels for weeks and even months. "I stick the manuscript in my desk drawer and forget it. At least I try to," he tells me. That way, when he takes the draft out and shares it with his wife (always his first reader), he can be more detached and objective about her comments.
He doesn’t think about winning prizes, worries about how schools, from kindergarten to MFAs, might be damaging the creativity of young writers, and thinks that any writer who struggles to write is either in the wrong field or working in the wrong direction. He stresses, again and again, that he never struggles to start his work, or find ideas, or overcome writer's block. "To tell the truth," he said, "I have never found writing painful. Neither (thankfully) have I ever found myself unable to write. What's the point of writing, anyway, if you're not enjoying it?"
That seemed like a good place to end our time together. Besides, my breakfast was getting cold. I thanked Murakami for his time and generosity in sharing his ideas with me. To tell the truth, as a long-time Murakami reader there wasn’t really anything new or strange in his ideas. Many of them overlap directly with things he was saying in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. But I just like Murakami’s voice, and enjoyed hearing him discuss a craft that we both care deeply about.
I ate my cold breakfast, and listened to the rest of Ravel's Tombeau.
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It was evening, around eight o’clock. I was at my desk, typing about Haruki Murakami's thoughts on being a novelist and drinking a cold beer. Contrary to most people, who associate chilled beer with warm, summery months, I really like a beer on a cold winter night, and the colder the better. If possible, as close to freezing as you can get with a beer. I'm not trying to be contrary. That's just how I am.
I worked, as I often do, with my email inbox open in a separate tab. Normally, I don't think much about how many emails I have. I've never been an "inbox-zero" kind of guy, so it doesn't bother me if the little unread number in parentheses creeps up a few notches while I work.
But around 8:06, that number didn't just inch upwards a little bit. It shot forward, like an egg fired out of a cannon. I wondered if there was some kind of glitch. But when I switched tabs, there it was, plain as day: thirty-seven emails, all sent at once, all to me, and all from the same person. They sender was—or claimed to be—David Karashima, the novelist and translator. Every subject line was the same: WHO WE'RE READING WHEN WE'RE READING MURAKAMI
I read the first message:
A writer friend once said to me that if non-Japanese readers know anything about Japan, they usually know just two things: manga and Murakami. But what—or who—is it that these non-Japanese readers of Murakami know? While Murakami's books have now been published in more than fifty languages and have sold millions of copies globally, it is easy to forget that the works that a great many of his readers—devotees, fans, critics, and detractors alike—have come to know are also creations of his translators, editors, and publishers around the world.
This was true enough, I supposed. I've read just about every Murakami book, but I haven't really read any of his words, because I can't read a single kana of Japanese. What most readers think of as Murakami's inimitable style, imitated and parodied by so many hack writers, is really a bunch of translations. In English, that means you're reading Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel, or Ted Goosen's versions of Murakami. (It gets even deeper, too: many smaller language markets actually translate from the English versions. If you're reading Murakami in Slovenian or Tamil, you're probably reading translations of translations.)
It goes a bit farther, though. Among the other messages that this "Karashima" sent me concerned edits and changes made to Murakami's translations that weren't present in the Japanese. Some of these changes were very small: cutting out dates from section titles in A Wild Sheep Chase. Others, like a series of sexually suggestive songs sung by the preteen Pink Girl in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, were cut entirely for fear of grossing out English readers. And, most famously, there are entire chapters of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that Jay Rubin cut for his translation.
That doesn't mean Murakami was being censored or anything. In fact, Murakami is himself a translator from English, and is usually in close collaboration with his English translators. Karashima compares him to Borges, who sat next to Norman Thomas di Giovanni and co-translated his own ficciones into English. Murakami knows that he's been changed and cut, and it doesn't seem to bother him too much, though he wonders if undoctored translations might every come out.
It doesn't happen anymore with Murakami's newer work, but this might just be Murakami's own evolving notion of himself as an international writer. Or at least, that's Alfred Birnbaum's theory: an early book like Hard Boiled Wonderland, he writes to Karashima,
"was not originally written for an international readership—unlike the later novels (self-consciously so)—hence the typical lack of editing glares in an embarrassing amount of unfocused extraneous materials...It hardly matters in the Japanese, but falls apart when translated. I don't believe anything 'they all want' from their camp anymore; it's not about good writing or translating at this late date, it's about marketing a 'director's cut.'"
Then again, as Birnbaum himself admits, he might just be bitter. Those same later works, which he doesn't enjoy, have come out since he ceased being Murakami's English translator.
This is getting complicated, I thought to myself. One of the oldest knocks against Murakami back in Japan is that his writing is "too Western." Murakami has repeated, many times, that he simply plays how he feels, which simply involves a lot of European classical music and American pop culture. But at least one of Murakami's own translators thinks that the man's work has shifted, consciously or not, to better fit his growing reputation as an international writer in the Goethean mold.
There was more in Karashima's texts, especially focusing on the extensive work of agents, marketers, and editors in Murakami's international career: the early beachhead to New York publishers and The New Yorker in the late 1980s, the cozy relationships Murakami has maintained with prominent American universities that teach his novels, or invite him to lecture on Japanese literature. None of it is untoward or accusatory; Murakami didn't sell out. But it took a small village of publishing workers on both sides of the Pacific to get Murakami to bestseller status. Readers can judge the rest for themselves. I archived the email tabs, and took a long sip of beer.
I was in bed, sleepless. A pair of crescent moons gleamed through the window.
Isn’t it just enough to like the English translations of Murakami? I tried reading the “lost” chapters of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in my Russian edition, and they didn’t seem terribly interesting. (As I recall, it was mostly more rambling chats with the Kano sisters, nothing essential.) Karashima makes a solid point that we never truly know a writer in translation, and I don’t disagree.
We can never really know everything about the artists we admire, even if they write a whole book explaining how they feel about it. We can never fully understand the writers and books we love. Maybe we can’t really know anything, and we’re all adrift in a big, baffling world where nothing fully makes sense and however much we search and ponder, a big knot of mysteries and oddnesses will sit, somewhere above and behind the stomach, slightly below the heart, for the rest of our lives. Our loved ones might disappear. Beguiling holes might open up in the yard. Emergency exits might lead to alternate dimensions. Cling to your loved ones before they go. Pet your cat. Drink a beer, listen to some jazz, or whatever music prepares you best for metaphysical chaos. Maybe learning to cope with it all is a form of wisdom worth communicating, in whatever language we have available to us, in whatever scraps we can string together to tell it, to whoever will listen.
It’s late. I roll over in bed, and drift off to sleep.