Literature for the Video Age: Haruki Murakami is a popular author, but what is his literary legacy?

Haruki Murakami has gradually made himself not only the most widely read literary figure in the world but his popularity is also matched by critical acclaim, a feat accomplished by few in the past - when popularity and literary acclaim did not go together. If this makes it necessary for those immersed in serious literature to contend with his writing, it is reinforced by Murakami invoking the high culture of the world through his narratives and many of his titles also foregrounding literature – eg: Kafka on the Shore, the short story Barn Burning is a title by Faulkner and his collection Men Without Women is the title of a collection by Hemingway. His characters (sometimes in their teens) invoke high culture and his stories ostensibly gain value from it. This might not have happened if it had been Jeffrey Archer instead of Joseph Conrad or ABBA instead of Bach. Today’s young readers who have not read much but devour Murakami will be grateful for getting so much high culture within the covers of a single book and Murakami demonstrates that he is not unfamiliar with issues – often through some basic philosophical reflections by his characters. This showcasing of high culture could be a draw but the more immediate one is perhaps that we race through his stories as major literature has not allowed; even 600 pages of Murakami can be devoured at one go. It is perhaps this aspect of Murakami that needs investigating - since it points to a transformation of literature by the writers who came of age in the 1990s, those like Murakami, who are not ‘literary’ as we once understood the term.

File image of Haruki Murakami. Reuters/Petr Josek

File image of Haruki Murakami. Reuters/Petr Josek

Murakami’s first big popular success, multiplying his readership thousandfold, was Norwegian Wood (1987), published in English in 2000. It deals with the nostalgic reflections of Toru Watanabe who looks on his youth as a student, mainly with his friends Kizuki and Nagasawa and three different women, two unhappily attached to the men. It strives for melancholy and contains distributions of explicit sex, recounted in virtually the same idealised way. Since the sex in his other novels (also in the first person) is comparable to descriptions here, with the same evoking of male arousal and its quenching, we may suppose that the sex is partly Murakami playing out his own fantasies. The sex is romanticised and the participating women inevitably have lovely bodies. Here is a less erotic passage that illustrates the level of idealisation by Murakami in his lyrical description of heterosexual relationships:

It was a soft and gentle kiss, one not meant to lead beyond itself. I would probably not have kissed Midori that day if we hadn't spent the afternoon on the laundry deck in the sun, drinking beer and watching a fire, and she no doubt felt the same. After a long time of watching the glittering rooftops and the smoke and the red dragonflies and other things, we had felt something warm and close, and we both probably wanted, half-consciously, to preserve that mood in some form. It was that kind of kiss. But as with all kisses, it was not without a certain element of danger.

The passage also gives us some sense of why one races through his novels because there is nothing in it that makes us pause to reflect, that makes us want to reread it. Here is another segment, this time dealing with character:

There were sides to Nagasawa's personality that conflicted in the extreme. Even I would be moved by his kindness at times, but he could just as well be malicious and cruel. He was both a spirit of amazing loftiness and an irredeemable man of the gutter. He could charge forward, the optimistic leader, even as his heart writhed in a swamp of loneliness. I saw these paradoxical qualities of his from the start, and I could never understand why they weren't just as obvious to everyone else…His greatest virtue was his honesty. Not only would he never lie, he would always acknowledge his shortcomings. He never tried to hide things that might embarrass him.

What needs pointing out is the summary quality of the description. Rather than through events conveying a character’s traits, Murakami is giving us a considered judgment of someone’s behavioural tendencies, not making us wonder at the character, as mediated observation might have but delivering someone fully assessed. It is more like a character outline on the basis of which one might decide how to deal with such a person, as a friend or even employee. Here again, the writing offers no ‘obstacles’ to the reader in the way of things to reflect upon or savour; one simply rushes through.

Murakami often goes overboard in the novel in citing cultural giants and in one page I counted Claudel, Racine, Eisenstein, Capote, Updike, Fitzgerald, Chandler, Takahashi, Kenzaburo Oe and Mishima. His preference for Western literature over Japanese has not gone down well with the literary establishment in Japan but rarely does it add up to more than names. Scott Fitzgerald is mentioned several times since The Great Gatsby is a favourite with both the narrator and his friend Nagasawa and it would be useful to examine a passage from Gatsby to understand why one cannot ‘rush through’ Fitzgerald as one does with Murakami. Here is a description of Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby:

Her husband, among various physical accomplishments, had been one of the one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven – a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savors of anti-climax. His family were enormously wealthy – even in college his freedom with money was a matter of reproach – but now he’d left Chicago come East in a fashion that rather took your breath away; for instance, he’d brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.

The reason one did not once race through serious literature was, I propose, that a novel did not simply relate a story (which is what Murakami does). Rather than offer a fluent summary enabling us to take in a paragraph at a glance, we stopped at the use of phrases and reflected upon their implications. Rereading passages is almost an essential requirement in encounters with literature and the more we reread, the more vividly a description is imprinted in our memory, to be later savoured/fully understood. A characteristic of Norwegian Wood is that it has dissipated in our minds almost immediately after it is read.

Norwegian Wood is, broadly speaking, realistic in its approach but Murakami is better known as a writer of fantasy fiction, sometimes called a ‘magical realist’. This becomes more evident in his stories of which one of the more celebrated collections is called The Elephant Vanishes, English translation published in 1993. Most of the stories in this connection are also related in the first person but, most often, Murakami finds a comic voice for himself. Instead of the arbitrary descriptions/actions that could be equally replaced by others without altering the thrust of the narrative, these stories rely on stretched out conversations in which communication is still basic, the simplicity reminiscent of some of Kafka’s fables that seem to mean something without our quite knowing what.

In The Dancing Dwarf, the narrator works at ‘manufacturing elephants’. An elephant is cut up and each part is reassembled with synthetic elephant body parts to make several elephants out of one. There are specialists who make ears, others who make trunks, and so on. A dancing dwarf appears to the narrator in a dream and he discovers that there was an actual dancing dwarf before the ‘revolution’ after which the country became totalitarian. The dancing dwarf is now in the position of a fugitive counter-revolutionary. Not much is made explicit and it reads a bit like Kafka’s stories, where many things are only mentioned as ‘rumours’. The story has the same sense of a mythical, indefinite milieu as in Kafka’s A Hunger Artist, about a showman who entertains people by squatting in a cage and fasting. Like Kafka’s story, Murakami’s is impossible to interpret but Kafka writes in such a way that makes us want to interpret it. Here, for instance, is a typical sentence from A Hunger Artist:

While for grown-ups the hunger artist was often merely a joke, something they participated in because it was fashionable, the children looked on amazed, their mouths open, holding each other’s hands for safety, as he sat there on scattered straw—spurning a chair—in black tights, looking pale, with his ribs sticking out prominently, sometimes nodding politely, answering questions with a forced smile, even sticking his arm out through the bars to let people feel how emaciated he was, but then completely sinking back into himself, so that he paid no attention to anything, not even to what was so important to him, the striking of the clock, which was the single furnishing in the cage, but merely looking out in front of him with his eyes almost shut and now and then sipping from a tiny glass of water to moisten his lips.

This is vivid but it is much more than the visual or the sensual being offered here and we need to look at it again. It is because we want to reread that we are led to interpret it. Murakami’s writing – whether the fantasy or the realistic parts — never makes one stop, reflect and reread, which leaves it both highly readable and essentially unmemorable. My sense is that it is because of when Murakami developed as a writer – in the 1980s. The 1980s were the period when communication turned from being mainly verbal to predominantly visual and the generations born since then have been habituated to the visual medium.

The visual medium (cinema, TV, video), because it unfolds in time, makes it difficult to go back to earlier segments or images and this sense of things moving inexorably onwards translates into the cinematic image being less prone to retention than the printed sentence. The earlier cinema understood this and tried to make some images memorable; they tried to match literature by stimulating our retention of the cinematic image, which is why we still retain segments of The Godfather but not of The Shape of Water. If the earlier cinema tried to become ‘literary’ in this sense, the literature of the 1990s and after has tried to become ‘cinematic’: it makes us picture images that cinema provides naturally without making them memorable. Here is a passage from Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore that illustrates it:

I take a bus back to the station and have a steaming bowl of udon in the same diner as the day before. I take my time, gazing out the window as I eat. The station's packed with people streaming in and out, all of them dressed in their favorite clothes, bags or briefcases in hand, each one dashing off to take care of some pressing business. I stare at this ceaseless, rushing crowd and imagine a time a hundred years from now. In a hundred years everybody here - me included - will have disappeared from the face of the earth and turned into ashes or dust.

Haruki Murakami is a gifted writer since one devours his books and little of what he writes rings false. But he is not from an age that prides itself in its literature; by constantly invoking the literary greats of the past he has tried to imply that their company is where he belongs. But, as I have tried to demonstrate, one reads his stories and novels without any strong impulse to retain anything from them or, regardless of their ‘weirdness’, even interpret them as we do earlier writers like Fitzgerald, Kafka and Faulkner. Rather than a satisfying gourmet meal he offers us vast quantities of potato crisps made up with doses of monosodium glutamate.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

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Updated Date: Feb 07, 2019 19:05:51 IST

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