On Murakami Haruki

A short essay about the time I spent with Murakami Haruki back in the summer of 1993.

 

On Murakami Haruki

 

 

The summer of 1993 followed the very intense period of study that made up my first year at Harvard-a period of readjusting to American society and also American academics. I was selected for a small research grant that allowed me to concentrate on reading in depth the Tale of Genji, the grade medieval Japanese novel, with my advisor for Japanese literature Edwin Cranston. Oki Yasushi, a professor of Chinese literature from University of Tokyo whose classes I had taken previously, was also visiting Harvard. It was a remarkable summer indeed as I remember an unending series of intense discussions about literature and history contemporary society and politics with fellow students and faculty. Harvard over the summer was different than during the year. Graduate ` major institutions around the world poured in.

It was during that summer that I heard about the visit of Murakami Haruki to Cambridge. One of the faculty at Harvard, Jay Rubin, had been long engaged in translating the novels of Murakami Haruki and invited him and his wife Yoko to stay for a year. As the iconic figure for post-modern literature, Murakami Haruki was somewhat far away from my field of classical literature. In fact I had to confess I had not read much of his writing and had only the vaguest idea at that time of exactly what sort of a writer he was. What I knew was that Murakami was best known for postmodern writings literary critics have remarked that his writings are almost without references to Japanese society.     For my part, I was reading the Tale of Genji and preparing to dive into classical writing of the 18th century. I had actually drifted away from Japanese literature as it is practiced today and deep into the distant past. I was quite far away from the contemporary post-modern Japanese literary scene.

Suddenly one evening, I received a phone call from Professor Rubin. Murakami had rented an enormous off-road vehicle and the monster car would not fit into the underground parking lot beneath the apartment house where he had rented a small suite for the year in Cambridge. It was an emergency. Professor Rubin begged me to get out and help solve this crisis. I rode over to the apartment where Murakami was staying immediately on my bicycle and there on the street was a rather slim, smallish Japanese man in an enormous off-road vehicle.

Murakami struck me as a rather reserved and even shy person. As I would learn later, he was not at all shy once he started speaking in front of an audience. He was wearing a yellow lacrosse T-shirt and sun glasses.

It so turned out that Professor Oki Yasushi was staying in an apartment that I had found for him not far from campus that had a parking place in the basement. I called Oki up and we arranged to drive the monster over there immediately. We arrived at about 11 PM and managed to park the car successfully. We then sat down for an hour with Oki and Murakami on the floor of the unfurnished apartment of Professor Oki to just talk about this and that: living in Cambridge, the experience of Japanese overseas, recent events in the world. Murakami wanted to know how to hook up his new phone line and where to find Japanese food. Professor Oki and he hit it off and we were off for a beer at a local bar on Massachusetts Avenue. Murakami seemed most comfortable in these social engagements, speaking with candor about the state of the world over a glass of beer. He was less comfortable talking about his own personal experiences and often it was his wife Yoko who was the source for background on what Murakami was thinking and doing. Most of all, he did not enjoy discussing the significance of his works. He wanted them to stand on their own. Better to talk to him about microbreweries than the meaning of the novel.

In his behavior, Murakami was remarkably independent. Although he had asked me to try to find the parking place, in fact Murakami tried to take care of just about everything by himself. He was an excellent reader of English, but not always a confident speaker. He gave his talks and interviews in Japanese, although I think he could have given them in English. He had no desire to show off to anyone, I could tell, and he never tried to draw attention to himself.

I then walked back with Murakami to his apartment after going out for a drink. We should hands tentatively on the street and parted ways. He looked around the new neighborhood with fascination and I wondered whether he was already thinking of a new novel. Murakami’s writing is something he did: he would say, “I was working today.” But he did not ever specify what he was writing or what its significance was.

Professor Rubin invited me over to his house for a cup of coffee with Murakami and his wife Yoko then next day. They wanted to thank me, I was told, for helping to find a place to park their car. Murakami was quiet and his wife Yoko spoke far more than he did. But at the same time I could see that Murakami was not attracted to Harvard and its prestige. Professors were not important to him.  He would have been 44 years old that summer, but I would guess he spent almost all his time with people under 35. Of course he spent most of his time alone. But when he was out with Americans, he wanted the vitality of young people. He wanted very much to talk with graduate students and others in the more general community and get out of the university.

The conversation with Professor Rubin not particularly inspired, but Murakami indicated a desire to me to meet up again and gave me his phone number on a small scrap of neatly folded paper. I was quite busy with my own studies, and did not think too much when we would follow up with another meeting, but within a few days I received a call from Yoko asking for some practical advice about shopping in Cambridge.

In an odd way, the fact that I was interested in literature was not so familiar with his writings made our relationship less of a burden for him, and I think increased our intimacy. He did not have to worry about my asking him questions about his latest novel.

I have one photograph from that time of Murakami at my house. I had a small apartment on the first floor of an old house on Prentiss Street in Cambridge which I would invite friends to on occasion for small, intimate meetings every few months. My one room had an old Persian carpet on the floor and was full of old furniture I had collected from all over the city at used furniture stores. We would discuss Asian studies related matters, but more often than not, we would talk about contemporary society and even just our own personal experiences. For the most part it was just students, and Murakami joined us one Saturday afternoon. For the most part he was observing us, perhaps in some sense taking notes in his mind for a future novel about conversations and gestures, the interesting manner in which people interact with each other. I feel that part of his quietness is not so much that he is shy, as he is an anthropologist observing us extremely carefully. His novels are the results of those studies.

There was one moment at which he spoke in rather halting English. One of the students had just described the difficulties of finding an academic position in the United States. Murakami suddenly remarked, “Academics is a funny field. Whereas writers observe and then create their own parallel worlds in literature which are just as real, but with all the names changed, and the contexts hidden, in academics you are expected to document everything with footnotes—as if those little distractions made things more real. But when you start documenting everything with footnotes, you kill the cultural flow. Suddenly what was a constant flow of energy and words, culture and economic currents is reduced to a museum that never changes. A novel is like a zoo with the living specimens taken from daily life in it. An academic article is like a museum with stuffed dead animals.” We were a bit surprised that he spoke with such passion, but it was a compelling vision he put forth and we talked for another hour, although Murakami did not say another word.

Murakami hit it off best with best friend Eric Marler, the writer, performer and graduate student at Harvard’s department of English. Eric is one of those rare figures in graduate school who sees his study as a means to support his broader efforts and is not caught up in any concern with getting a job quickly. Eric and I spent several evenings talking with Murakami late at night about literature art and modernity. We would meet at the S&S Diner in Inman Square, Cambridge. The S&S Restaurant has been a Cambridge tradition since 1919 offering very representative New England meals. I remember one autumn evening the three of us talked until late at night at the S&S Diner about the role of the writer in a rapidly changing world. Eric spoke of the challenges faced in introducing Japanese literature in the United States.

Eric: “Let us take Harvard. Obviously there are professors who study Japanese literature, like your translator Jay Rubin. But at the Department of English, and in the larger community, there is a lot of resistance to taking Japanese literature seriously.”

Emanuel: “And yet we find that the families of those professors of English literature, maybe even those professors themselves, are reading your books. Perhaps they are attracted to the fact that is slightly different than the literature they are used to, but not too alien. But you are getting exposure”

Haruki:  “I suspect that it will take some time for writers like myself to go from what is read as popular literature on weekends to what is read as serious literature. But it will happen.”

Eric: “Well if we think about the world of art, Vincent Van Gogh was clearly popular art not worth discussing in the nineteenth century. But now he has found a place at the top of the pile. Perhaps we can expect a similar reordering. The question is, how long it will take?”

Emanuel: “Rethinking literature and the tradition will take years, but it is inseparable from a larger geopolitical shift. We are now seeing a shift to Asia in economics and in technology. That shift is combined with a new vitality in literature and art. At the same time, although I am aware of that shift, I do not know the names of any specific authors—except one!”

Murakami: “Except the one here drinking a beer with you! So the proximity is also a big part of the game. The writer as part of the larger community. One needs to actually sit down and have a beer with someone to enter the community.”

Emanuel: “Certainly we see that in the case of Nobel Prizes. In physics they go to the students of famous professors in the US who have won prizes already. The same is true in literature. It is hard to break in because unless you are part of the network, you are not considered a serious writer. This is one reason it has been so hard in literature for Asian’s to win Nobel Prizes. It is starting, but the progress in recent years is not because suddenly Asians are better writers.”

Haruki: “In some respects, the quality of the translator is critical. Jay Rubin has made all the difference for me. I have seen many great Japanese writers butchered by bad translators.”

Eric, “Performance is also a big part of literature. Although I write narratives, my monologues are a critical part of my literary career. I have a one-man show ‘Time Pieces’ that opens next week.”

Haruki:  “Really, tell me about it.”

Eric: “Well you have to come and find out, but basically I create a character then play him for a live audience. Very much part of the literary process for me. The monologue is called ‘Time Pieces.’”

Well, there Murakami Haruki was, sitting on a wooden chair with me in the basement of Leverett House at Harvard for the opening of Timepieces the following week. Murakami seemed visibly excited. Eric put on a masterly performance, including powerful readings from her own works.

Murakami was very much engaged and seemed to show real affection for Eric when the monologue was complete. We came up to him like his support team. Then we went out for a cup of coffee again afterwards, but oddly, Murakami did not want to discuss the monologue. He seemed to get more pleasure out of observing Eric and me talking.

We also took Murakami along to meet Spaulding Gray, one of America’s most important authors and performers when he performed his book “Gray’s Anatomy” at Hasty Pudding Theatre in Harvard Square. We stood talking with Spaulding Gray about his play, concerning his efforts to find alternative medical treatment for an eye ailment, for a good half hour. I felt from that moment that these social interactions are what is needed. American literary critics and writers have to meet and talk to Japanese and Korean writers.

When I arrived in Japan in 1999 for a semester of study at the University of Tokyo, Murakami called me up and arranged for us to meet at his office, a very attractive little apartment in the Aoyama district of Tokyo, for a cup of coffee. His assistant was a Korean woman, it so happens. My wife and I went to meet him and we talked for an hour of so about current trends in Japan, my teaching and research at the University of Illinois, and above all about my wife’s efforts to learn Japanese. Murakami made a special effort to speak with my wife at great length. He seemed to take greater interest in her progress in language than anything else. His wife Yoko was along as well and gave much valuable advice on methods for learning Japanese.

When my son Benjamin was born in Champaign, we sent a card to Murakami. He sent us a letter and a small gift almost immediately. The gift was a mobile with small animals dangling from it. We used that mobile for several years and it formed an essential part of our nursery.

Although we continue to correspond, meeting up recently has not been so easy. We continue to correspond however, and imagine some future date at which we may manage to get together again.

One response to “On Murakami Haruki

  1. Pingback: Translation of Murakami Haruki’s Speech at Barcelona in Japan Focus « Korea: Circles and Squares

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