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Haruki Murakami: 'My lifetime dream is to be sitting at the bottom of a well'

The Japanese author talked writing, heroes, domestic life, dreams and how his life informs his novels at a Guardian book club at the Edinburgh international book festival – and he answered some of your questions.

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cultural/genetic differences?

I just finished "A Wild Sheep Chase." I didn't find "Norwegian Wood" very inspiring, but a student saw the book on my desk and said he was a big Murikami fan, and I should try such and such, which was his favorite. The next one I picked up was "A Wild Sheep Chase." I still didn't get it. Then the student responded with this:

> I'm not that surprised to hear you weren't thrilled with
> Murakami - a lot of people aren't crazy about him. I guess
> what I like about him is the way he captures what it's
> like to be a young male. Sort of "I don't know what the
> heck is going on, but all this strange stuff keeps
> happening and these crazy women keep appearing and
> disappearing so I guess I'll just bumble around
> good-naturedly and hope things work out".

I guess I can see that point of view. I think I also understand why I don't "get it" or identify with it. Strange to say, I don't ever remember approaching life with the idea that "I don't know what the heck is going on." It's not that I did know what's going on, but the fact that I didn't never seemed to strike me as having central importance. I also never really had the experience with women per se.

I think maybe part of what one is saying when he says "I don't know what the
heck is going on," is that life seems to be without any underlying purpose.
It has always been my assumption that there is an underlying purpose. It
may sound racist, but I think this may almost be genetic. A historian once
wrote of Celtic people that they approach life with the attitude that it is
worth fighting for something, even though they recognize the likelihood of
"dying on a battlefield not of their own choosing."

I've always believed there was something solid that could be understood and
acted upon. I've made some pretty serious mistakes, but some of the results
seem not so bad. But the mere fact that I don't know what is going on, so I'm somehow overwhelmed by aimlessness, is foreign to me.

I remember Wendell Berry writing about American Indians (and others from
similar cultures). They build their lives around the idea of physical labor
being integral to purpose in life. When they are 40 years old, their bodies
are worn out from use, but they feel they have fulfilled a purpose with
their bodies. This is set in contrast to our society in which we vilify
manual labor and embrace lives where we do not know the effects of our
actions due to specialization and separation from, for example, our food
supply---so as not to simply say we embrace aimless and meaningless lives.

Looking to validate my genetic hypothesis with suicide rates one finds:

Japan 19.8 -vs- UK 6.9

But also: South Korea 20.1 -vs- North Korea 3.5

so that's pretty much out the window. At least genetics isn't the whole story.

Finally, I wonder if aside from the genetic influence there might be something simply significant in reading something like Murikami when you happen to be a young man. Maybe that has an influence. If you read about purposeless young men having temporary relations with many women, then maybe you are influenced to
think that's normal.

I found a new quote in Norwegian Wood

The sage Nagasawa says:

An unfair society is a society that makes it possible for you to exploit your abilities to the limit.

I'm not sure what it's good for...or even if it's good, but there might be some kind of idea in there.

Michael Nystrom's picture

What a fabulous article, Davy!

Are you a Murakami fan, too? Or did you post this just for me?

I remember Toru Okada, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, ends up at the bottom of a well. When you're going down, go all the way down. Or, When you're falling, dive


I love this part about his writing process:

I don’t have any idea at all, when I start writing, of what is to come. For instance, for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the first thing I had was the call of the bird, because I heard a bird in my back yard (it was the first time I heard that kind of sound and I never have since then. I felt like it was predicting something. So I wanted to write about it). The next thing was cooking spaghetti – these are things that happen to me! I was cooking spaghetti, and somebody call. So I had just these two things at the start. Two years I kept on writing. It’s fun! I don’t know what’s going to happen next, every day. I get up, go to the desk, switch on the computer, etc. and say to myself: “so what’s going to happen today?”It’s fun!

He's the man.

Yes, a fan

and also of the other Murakami

I did know you loved his work as well.

Michael Nystrom's picture

Yes, for a long time I've been a fan

I posted this the other day, thought you might have seen it.


He's got a new book out in English.

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BTW, Thank you for your contribution! It was nice to see your username on the return address. Are you still making good use of the juicer?

He's the man.

I look forward

to reading that one too. I was originally obsessed with Japanese cuisine, and Samurai films, then Yakuza films, and early Japanese literature like Tanazaki, Edogawa Ranpo, and finally Haruki and Ryu.

The juicer? You bet, we use it every morning. Don't know how we lived without it.

Michael Nystrom's picture

A Japanophile!

My major in college was international studies, with a focus on postwar Japanese economics, aka "The Japanese Miracle." After I graduated, I went to live there for a couple of years.

The only book I read by Ryu was Almost Transparent Blue

I remember it blowing my mind. I was around 22 at the time.

Before that I read a lot of Yukio Mishima, Natsume Soseki, Kenzuboro Oe in college.

When I lived in Japan I came across a biography of Mishima in a used English bookstore. I can't remember which one, but I think it was this one:


And Whoa! Whoa!! Whao!!! I couldn't believe it.

In 1970 he startled the world by stepping out onto a balcony in Tokyo before an assembly of troops and plunging a sword into his abdomen; a disciple then beheaded him, completing the ritual of hara-kiri.

He was trying for a revolution. Which is a good lesson. When attempting a revolution, plan carefully so as not to end up like him.

- - -

Glad you're enjoying the juice! It is like drinking life itself every morning.

He's the man.

ah Mishima

the Japanese Hemingway. How could I forget? Probably because I never really latched on. I highly recommend COIN LOCKER BABIES. One more thing I love from Japan, GUITAR WOLF. I never have visited the country (being a budget traveler). Closest I came was a few hours in the Tokyo airport which in itself was kind of interesting.

New to Murakami

At Nystrom's suggestion, I have started to read Norwegian Wood. I can't say that I find it extremely inspiring so far, but I did find some notable turns of phrase (at least in translation). I'll give you my favorite:

Midiri is describing her relationship with her parents and Watanabe asks: Do you feel they didn't love you enough? Her response:

"Somewhere between not enough and not at all."

I don't know if the phrasing is striking in Japanese or the translator came up with it, but it's nice.

Reminds me also of my favorite translation from the movie "One Fine Spring Day":

"Women are like busses: There is no point in chasing one that has pulled away."

I wonder what it was like in the original Korean.

Michael Nystrom's picture

The original is actually Japanese, lol

Norwegian Wood was a great book when I was 22 and living in Japan. It is kind of a sad romance, which is something the Japanese really seem to dig. They love the metaphor of the cherry blossoms: So radiantly beautiful for such a short period, and then... Gone.

Probably my favorites are The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. They're both metaphysically bizarre. There's nothing quite like them out there.

- - -

"Women are like busses: There is no point in chasing one that has pulled away."

Same with stocks.

He's the man.