In anticipation of the Man Booker International Prize announcement, we’re celebrating a fascinating writer of often-surreal novels: Haruki Murakami.
Most things are forgotten over time. Even the war itself, the life-and-death struggle people went through is now like something from the distant past. We’re so caught up in our everyday lives that events of the past are no longer in orbit around our minds. There are just too many things we have to think about everyday, too many new things we have to learn. But still, no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things we can never assign to oblivion, memories we can never rub away. They remain with us forever, like a touchstone.
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
When I think about an author that has never disappointed me over the years, whose every work I instantly loved, I think of Haruki Murakami.
I first discovered Murakami when I was fifteen years old and obsessed with Japanese culture, manga, anime and all of that. I had just finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and I was craving more picturesque novels set in exotic Japan.
As it happens, I realised that Murakami’s Japan is nothing like that of my imagination, made of temples, kimonos and submissive, delicate women. It is a dreamlike, surreal world crammed with strange characters and inexplicable events, talking cats and parallel universes.
My initiation to Murakami’s work came through one of his most famous titles, Kafka on the Shore.
Published in 2002 in Japan, and in 2005 in its English edition, translated by Philip Gabriel, the novel follows two different characters, whose self-searching journeys intertwine, but never overlap.
On the one side, there’s Tamura Kafka, a fifteen year-old boy, abandoned by his mother at the age of four. On his birthday, Tamura decides to run away from home in a desperate attempt to escape his father’s oedipal prophecy – you will kill your father and lay with your mother and sister. Tamura has an alter ego, the Crow – which is a reference to Franz Kafka, as kavka means “crow” in Czech, and whose appearance is that of a creature half human, half crow. After a long, aimless wander, Tamura finds shelter in the small Kōmura library, where he is seduced by Saeki, a mysterious and attractive woman past her prime. He see his mother in her, but fighting the curse is more difficult than he had imagined.
On the other side, there’s a senile old man by the name of Nakata. He had a strange accident during a school trip – all the kids fell into a trance and woke up a few minutes later, all but him, who woke up only weeks later. Since then he’s been unable to read or write, yet he has developed paranormal abilities, like talking to cats. On a day like any other, he bumps into yet another weird character, the cat murderer Johnnie Walker. After killing the man, confessing the crime and being laughed at by the police, Nakata leaves his hometown and ends up – surprise, surprise – in the small Kōmura library.
Tamura and Nakata never cross paths, yet their stories are inextricably linked.
What I love about Murakami, and this novel in particular, is the way he sneaks the fantastical into the ordinary. He can suck you into a world that looks so similar to our own, and then surprise you with talking animals and bizarre events.
His wild imagination is unsettling but absolutely addictive. His novels are not a reassuring, comforting read, yet I can’t resist them! Nothing is simple, nothing is as it seems. You are constantly encouraged to find the underlying meanings and the hidden references. Ah, the references! Murakami draws from everything from contemporary to mythological literature, classical and contemporary music, movies and TV series.
He is the kind of author you turn to when you want to challenge yourself and keep your brain switched on. Just my kind of author, indeed.