The Birdcage Archives

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Murakami: Miracle or Menace

Hello Gentle Reader

There can be no denying that Haruki Murakami would be considered an outlier or an anomaly within the literary and publishing world. Some, however, would go on and describe the author as a miracle of the literary and publishing world, due to his sky rocketing success he has found as a foreign author translated into English. Statistically speaking, only about 3% of books published in a year are translated from other languages—though this trend has increased over the past few years. Publishers have stated they do not publish translated literature, due to native English language speaking readers, treating them with uncertainty and disdain; which often meant publishing a piece of translated work was a gamble that often ended with little monetary gain and no success. Yet, publishers such as Dalkey Archive Press continued to push through language and cultural barriers, whereupon they published numerous translated pieces of literature. Their catalogue though was often populated by strange, experimental, and at times postmodern pieces of work that fit a niche readership rather than a widespread commercial oriented audience. To be blunt: a great deal of readers, have neither the time nor the tolerance to read a novel or a short story collection or a poetry ensemble, which patronizes them with pretense and pomp; a piece of work which was written on the sole ground to showcase its own self-absorbed grandeur and high opinion of its own cultural merits and cleverness. In short, if a book alienates a reader by its own volition, the writer has ultimately failed, and the reader will judge with scalpel scrutiny and there is rarely any room for redemption. Then there is Haruki Murakami, the translated literary superstar—the Japanese equivalent of J.K. Rowling with his literary success. His works are enjoyed globally, and he has faithful followings in such places as: China, Taiwan, (South) Korea, North America (United States especially), France and Germany.

Back in March: Newcastle United Kingdom, hosted its first Haruki Murakami Conference, which was attended by scholars, academics, and translators to discuss the work of the Japanese author. In usual character (or perhaps in good taste), Haruki Murakami himself was not present for the conference. Since the Newcastle Conference, other conferences have been planned in: France, the Philippines, and Australia, all with the same goal of discussing and reviewing the works of the author. A cynic might make a comment with ironic connotations about how one would know they’ve found success when conferences are hosted in your honour, and your work is reviewed with such inquisitive interest. For his part though, Haruki Murakami remains either reticent or nonchalant about the entire affair; in the end at this point: his silence is guaranteed. The academic attention coupled with his popular success and critical acclaim has made Haruki Murakami a polarizing figure. Some have called Murakami a literary miracle; while others have referred to him as a parading populist menace. This leads to the question: when does critical praise become cultural norm? and when does criticism become jealousy? When it comes to Murakami it is difficult to see where either begins or ends. Yet, when looking at the authors work through the context of Japan’s literary history, and the rampant rise of globalization and cultural exports, Haruki Murakami becomes a mercurial mirror like figure, one in which either perspective can be reflected; all the while the author himself declines in participating or clarifying either point.

More recently, Haruki Murakami’s influence can be seen with his recent withdrawal from the Alternative Nobel’s shortlist. The inclusion of the writer on the shortlist showcases his popularity and readership worldwide, as he beat out a longlist dominated by English language writers who have gathered worldwide attention and acclaim. But when it came to the world to vote on the authors they wished to see shortlisted and seek to win the award, Haruki Murakami came out triumphantly in the top four. Once again: another testament of his global readership and popularity. Yet, his withdrawal from the award is riddled with intrigue. As one of the most recognized and famous Japanese writers of the contemporary literary world, Haruki Murakami is often considered at the forefront for the Nobel Prize for Literature. In annual speculations and betting sites lists of potential winners, Haruki Murakami can be relied on to occupy a prominent spot, of a potential and perhaps even likely candidate to receive the award. Officially, Haruki Murakami had requested to be removed from the shortlist citing his desire to focus more on his writing. For the most part his devote readers have been accepting of this decision. Some have gone so far as praising the decision whereby they’ve expressed contempt towards the Alternative Nobel, as populist and reactionary against the Swedish Academy. It appears for Murakami’s fan, if he is to win any Nobel, it will be thee Nobel Prize for Literature. Anything secondary is just that: a hack or mere shadowy remnant of the true golden prestige.  It can be theorized that Haruki Murakami shares this same thought. If he is going to win any Nobel, it will be the true deal, not a gold plated alternative version of the prize. Removing himself from the shortlist may also help any of his future prospects (though this again is speculation), as it can be deemed by previous behaviors and precedence set by the Swedish Academy, they do not take it kindly when an author may have insulted their institution or prize, advertently or otherwise. By withdrawing from the shortlist, Murakami may maintain his chances at the real deal, while keeping good faith towards both the prize and the Swedish Academy. It should be noted, the idea of Haruki Murakami winning the prize is not discussed with the author personally, he treats the subject as impolite and even foreign; yet it is highly speculated the author seeks to receive the honour and solidify his position as one of the greatest writers of his time; but such coveting can only be seen as mere speculation not with any valid factual evidence.

The question then is: what is the secret success of Haruki Murakami’s global appeal with readers? After all, he’s a post-war [Japanese] baby boom postmodern novelist, which in any other case or in relevance to any other author would be considered a synopsis curse, rather than marketing mayhem blessing. For Murakami, he retains his stance as a curious breed of literary stardom; but his success can be made out quite clearly when reviewed as a whole. For English language readers, Haruki Murakami does not market himself necessarily as foreign or strange—though the term ‘strange,’ is often attributed to his works. His literary influences are explicitly Western in nature, and he makes frequent references to popular culture (music and films) and classical western culture in his work. His self-confessed influences are: Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka, J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Gabriel García Márquez. Following his influences are his themes—particularly his preoccupation with dealing with the mundane, the aimlessness of life, the unknown, and his use of empathetic existential dread. A great deal of Murakami’s readership is young; specifically readers in the transitionary stages of adolescences into adulthood and from university into the working world; therefore for the large youthful readership which consume and read his work, these themes particularly resonates with their own dilemmas and uncertainties, as they transition to the world of independence, which includes all of its requirements (education, work, family). Then comes’ Haruki Murakami’s style. His novels are narrated via the first persona, generally a solitary lone individual (more specifically a man), who can precisely observe and repot, with a reasonable objective perspective the situation(s) going within the story. His characters are nothing special: they work in offices, or run bars or cafes, or are unemployed. They are unremarkable. However, their saving grace is how close they exist and live to a rather absurd reality or slight magical infusion of reality. All those who read Haruki Murakami clearly state there is always a quirky and striking adventure to be had; some cryptic magical quest of sorts, which is always brought by the most mundane events; such as a cat going missing or a chance encounter with a mysterious woman. From there the plot twists and turns entering steadily into the absurd. In one novel a woman is stalked by a shadowy figure that inhabits her television—and she is eventually abducted by this stranger, and taken inside the television. In another novel a woman enters a different dimension after walking down a set of stairs. This new dimension appears almost mirror like in reality with the exception of it have two moons, one of which is green. In another a man enters a small village populated by casual violence, unicorn skulls and is deprived of his shadow. In these situations the reader is disarmed and less resistant to the impossibility of what is being depicted, due to reassurance by the casual narrator and observe of the events, who describe them with matter of fact certainty. Beyond his outrageous plots and stories, his casual and solemn observant everyday heroes, his empathic existential ponderings, Murakami’s literary style is also welcoming and comforting to readers in the English language. His language is explicitly minimal and simple; with heavy references to Western pop cultural music, jazz, food, and drink; this allows Haruki Murakami to be both exotic in a superficial manner without alienating readers. His novels and stories could take place anywhere, as it does not rely on any content or context from Japanese literature, culture, or aesthetics. This ironically enough puts Haruki Murakami at odds (or so he says) with the Japanese literary establishment; where he describes himself as an outsider.

When compared to previous Japanese writers such as: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, and Kenzaburō Ōe; Haruki Murakami would be described as the odd man out, both by his preoccupations, themes, style of writing, influences and success.  When reviewed, compared, and contrasted with his predecessors, Murakami would strike a reader to be staunchly starched, ironed, and whitewashed of any cultural components relating him specifically to Japan. If one were to read the short stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, there is a distinct cultural context and content included in his short stories. The same can be seen with Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata and his pupil, Yukio Mishima, who took Western modernist influences and applied them to Japanese influenced narratives. Kawabata in particular used the delicate nature of Japanese lyricism and haiku’s to paint condescended and emotionally impacting portraits of the human plight in an ever modernizing world, and questioning where Japan existed both traditionally and progressively in this world. Mishima, relied heavily on traditional Japanese cultural tropes in his often nihilistic and brooding narratives, where he discussed fatalist finalities, as well as the Bushido code and the bleak understatements of Buddhism thought, in an ever growing and meaningless modern world. Despite the influences and applications of new western literary tropes, Yukio Mishima was vehemently nationalistic in perspective, both personally and politically; though I do not enjoy his narratives personally, as I find them melodramatic and a bit exaggerated, I can respect his unique and controversial position in Japanese literature. Kenzaburō Ōe, by comparison to his own predecessors, had made a move away from overtly nationalistic principles (mainly in the case of Mishima) and instead focused on the end of Japan after the Second World War, where he explored unique philosophical issues, social issues, existential issues, and concerns about nuclear weapons and power; yet a great deal of his bibliography is centered on his personal autobiographical fiction detailing the crisis he experienced when his son Hikari was born with severe cognitive disabilities; and the theme of disabilities and being ‘wounded,’ or unable to speak or socially connect has remained a strong theme in his work. When compared to Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburō Ōe is equally as politically active, but on the other side of the political spectrum, he has rejected honours bestowed by the Japanese Emperor, and has remained staunchly liberal in his political occupations, as he explores the disenfranchised and disillusionment of contemporary Japanese society. Yet, even here, Kenzaburō Ōe remains interested and concerned about Japanese society, perhaps not praising or depicting it in the same manner as his forefathers and contemporaries; he remains concerned about Japanese society and by extension the reflection of human society as a whole. Haruki Murakami, when reflected on and compared to his predecessors, barely shares any similarities beyond superficial elements, such as: he’s a Japanese writer and he writes novels, short stories, and an essay collection here and there. Beyond that there are few similarities to grasp at. He lacks the lyricism, grace and modernist experimentation of Yasunari Kawabata; the aesthetics of Yukio Mishima; the influences of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and his traditional cultural contexts; as well as the true firm social engagement and social criticism of Kenzaburō Ōe.

What then does Haruki Murakami have? For one: he has a writing formula which has served him well, and allowed him to find a startling and yet fairly earned literary success. Due to his formulaic writing he can casually slip into the absurd and the surreal, and tell a unique story. His characters or rather narrators are empathic and generic enough that they could be anybody, and their issues and lives are as bland and mundane as anyone else’s. Yet, here the difference: they have the opportunity thanks to the author to escape into some strange alternate reality, and enter a unique adventure which takes them out of their normal routines and their boring lives. From there these narrators observe and report, and casually offer philosophical thoughts on their situations and on the world.  For this Haruki Murakami has found international success and a worldwide readership, devote in their enjoyment of his books; all the while publishers have certainly found themselves quite a cash cow for sales and success. Despite his successes, his popularity, and his reticence and nonchalant attitude towards the acclaim that surrounds him, I personally finding Haruki Murakami a literary menace. There is no denying he is a publisher’s miracle; but his supposed literary merits which are quickly attributed to him, are mistakenly applied and are for the most part precedent set pomp, and exaggerated.

When I think of Haruki Murakami and read some of his works (I won’t bother investing in anyway work which exceeds five hundred pages at most), I find his themes are always recycled and reused, and not in any clever way. His characters have become caricatures of themselves, and his depiction of women in particular is rather effacing, and they lack depth and any solid concrete character structure beyond their gender and their tendencies to disappear or being a mere object of desire and affection. His supposed philosophical perspectives are more like fetishist ideas of solitude, both as a requirement in today’s world, but also as a negative impact which has grown to epidemic scales in today’s world, along with other mixtures of sexual longing and other philosophical and existential considerations thrown into the loop. Mainly these are questions asked by all individuals in today’s world, as well as decades prior. The transition between childhood into adulthood, and independence and figuring the world out for oneself, is not a remarkable philosophy, nor is it ground breaking; but it is sellable and easily empathized with, as there is a time someone where in someone’s life they have asked themselves similar questions and contemplated their place within their own life, and what their life should look like. Quite frankly, these attempts at philosophical ‘topics,’ are no more groundbreaking then half-baked ideals of Ayn Rand. In this, I grow concerned with regards to Haruki Murakami and his widespread influence. I find his work often on the verge of being pedestrian and rather unimaginative; his work is outrageously repetitious, with similar plotlines, situations, surreal events, themes, characters, tropes, and narrators. In essence, I view Haruki Murakami as a product of literary globalization; the attempt at writing works which transcend realities of culture and geographical separations, whereby the narratives can essentially be taken in any context and speak on an attempted spiritual level on the basic elements of existence and being human. In reality Haruki Murakami comes across as a product of globalization and rampant suburbia on a global scale. As an author, Murakami has eschewed traditional Japanese literary formats in favour of one influenced by western cultures, especially pop culture, music, and pulp fiction. In reality he is nothing more than a literary menace and a byproduct of global suburbanization, which has placed Japan in the main exports of anime, martial arts/ninjas, Samsung and Android phones, Hello Kitty and other video games. His work is not literary groundbreaking, but rather fragrant frivolity, which has gathered popular attention and is paraded for its populist appeal. His success is owed to him, his work speaks to his readership, but as for any true literary merit and potential, his work is not on par with previous great writers—both Japanese and other wise; which leaves me gravely uncertain and horrified of where this leaves contemporary Japanese literature—or rather what will be translated into English, and be deemed an appropriate representation of true contemporary Japanese literature. At this point it were to appear everything produced or translated from Japan, is the attempt of publishers and agents, seeking to grasp their piece of the cash cow of the Haruki Murakami phenomena, as they vie and attempt to introduce the new Murakami sensation to a hungry English language readership.

First, there was: Banana Yoshimoto, who shares very similar styles and themes to Haruki Murakami. Her prose style is simple, easily translatable, and her work once again details and contemplates the youthful transitionary phase of coming into one’s own. Her work has been described as being aimed towards more feminine or female readers, and she carries a romantic and even slightly sentimental air to her work, as she explores and denigrates relationships between her characters, as well as themes such as the exhaustion of Japans youth, and how traumatic experiences shape an individual. She has found success within the English language, and retains her popularity at home in Japan, but her work is still overshadowed by Haruki Murakami abroad.

There was a brief attempt to see if Yōko Ogawa would be able to meet Haruki Murakami’s shadow. Ogawa had no interest in being compared or competing with Murakami, who she has stated with honesty, has been a great influencer on her work (though it is not readily apparent). Instead if Yōko Ogawa was going to make it in the English language market, she would do so on her own merits, with a translator who would translate and seek to publish her strikingly distant, emotionally restrained narratives, and macabre as well as grotesque imagery depicted with an almost ritualistic and obsessive compulsive manner. If Murakami is a fanciful and flighty magical realist of a writer; Yōko Ogawa’s narratives imply a dark and sinister world inhabiting the personal space of her characters. Her imagery is ghoulish in essence, depicting rotting food, or depleted and derelict buildings or landscapes, or people who are malformed or disfigured by birth or by accident. Despite the grotesque imagery, her narratives are emotionally restrained even stunted, and her narrative voice is distant, cool and detached, allowing her to escape any accusations of sentimentality or blatant exaggerations for a cheap shock or thrill; she avoids it all, and allows the prose and imagery to insinuate the sinister undercurrents of modern society, its disenfranchisement, its disillusionment, and inability to come to terms with its own past, and willfully seeking to absolve itself of its own memory. Her prose is similar to Murakami’s do to its simplicity and almost banal depiction of events, rendered with matter of fact bluntness. Yet her deft innuendos allow her to become an accomplished psychological writer, exploring the sinister crevices of the human soul and shadow, while tracing the curvatures of the obsessive mind, or reaching out to grasp a phantom limb, only to find air and a meaningless emptiness. In these regards, Yōko Ogawa, reaches back to former and formal Japanese cultural contexts and literary methods, as she explores a unique casual interest with the grotesque, and resonates ghostly and ghoulish themes into modern novels and stories, which explore the deft psychology of the peculiar, deformed, lonely, disenfranchised, disillusioned, and otherwise socially alienated from society; which puts her on level with Kenzaburō Ōe in exploring the socially intense themes, but she lacks his out righted critical eye and perspective on such matters. Yet, Yōko Ogawa, has never filled the role of Murakami clone and is not about to either; which is perhaps why in the English language, there is a lack of her work being translated and published, as she did not produce the same results as Murakami; whereas in French she is praised and critically acclaimed with her work being translated frequently into the French language, by her devote French translator: Rose-Marie Makino.

Now a new author has been placed centre stage, in the pursuit of the next Murakami. Her name is: Mieko Kawakami. Kawakami has been applauded in her native Japan as a unique voice literary voice, one that is readable but also literary in its preoccupations. Her use of language, style and themes are renowned for being experimental and unique. Haruki Murakami himself has even given credit to the author, stating she is his favourite young writer currently at work. This endorsement has most likely only increased her literary reputation, but also increased attention and demand for her in the English language. Her novel “Ms. Ice Sandwich,” received positive reviews in periodicals and newspapers in both the United States and the United Kingdom. It was praised for its unique perspective of a school boy’s crush on a woman who works in a local deli and makes sandwiches; critics applauded the novella for its ability to treat the subject matter with innocence and peculiar insight, while avoiding the tropes of sexualization. The novella was also praised for its ability to capture a childlike narrator’s ability to speak, perspective, and thoughts on the world including their ignorance on certain subjects, but also expressing insight into the realms of modern day loneliness and the alienation of technology and real connections. Since then, more of her novels are expected to be released in English translation, including her Akutagawa Prize winning work: “Breasts and Eggs.” Perhaps, Mieko Kawakami will be the predecessor of the new Murakami.

There can be no denying Haruki Murakami is positioned in a unique place the literary world. He’s a publisher’s dream, where he can be portrayed as foreign without alienating his readers, and still be called literary and receive international literary accolades. He’s continually named as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and many of his devoted readers believe this is an accolade that he deserves; especially considering he continues to wrap up and clean house with all the other preliminary awards. Yet, I urge caution and perhaps more viciously with great vitriol, a complete disregard for the supposed apparent literary qualifications and merits the author is supposed to be in possession of. When I read Murakami, and see his work I see a product of global suburbia, and one whose own work has become a self-absorbed caricature of itself, and lacking in any real literary merit. His recent attempts at social interference and commentary are as about as half assed as his output, superficial and cheap sentiment. With regards to the current dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, Murakami made only one statement, where he called nationalism on both fronts cheap liqueur. With regards to the recent executions of members of the doomsday cult: Aum Shinrikyo; Murakami—a renowned advocate of passivism and against the death penalty—stated he supported the executions considering the crimes the group committed; once again though he lacks the sincerity and genuine interest to come across as being engaged enough in the matter to actually merit an opinion on the matter, which would be considered significant. Unfortunately, his opinions are only given significance due to his reputation and success, as well as the desired possibility he may receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. His literary merits are questionable; his talents are perhaps over proportioned, his disregard for Japanese narratives and cultural contexts, is disappointing, which shows a real lapse of themes and beauty which can be found in his predecessors; his lack of social engagements and now attempts at being socially committed and open to discussing political and social concerns is rather superficial and does not carry the gravity of other authors such as: Kenzaburō Ōe. Despite this though, he is a literary miracle, though in my mind a product of global suburbia. He’s praised, lauded, and read worldwide. His work finds readerships, his stories connect, his narrators intrigue and observer. On the flipside he is a literary menace, a mere caricature of his earlier works, a populist paraded paradox; one in which is carried to literary award to literary award, and now literary festivals and confrences. Haruki Murakami is certainly a baffling phenomenon. His shadow resting uncomfortably now on the rest of contemporary Japanese literature being translated and published into other languages, each one expected to carry some reminisces or remnants of Murakami, with that same superficial foreign attitude, yet familiar enough that it’s not off-putting. To be blunt Gentle Reader: they can go on some ghostly cruise or mystery adventure, which takes them through the strangest subterranean realms of human society, but as long as someone listens to jazz music, eats spaghetti, and offers some existential poignant thought or observation which offers some empathic understanding towards the reader, then hell it’ll do just fine. It’s a baffling world; truly baffling.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

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