Haruki Murakami (b.1949) is now one of the most famous living authors both in his native Japan and beyond.
He first became popular in Japan amongst the post-war generation, those coming to maturity in the late-1960s and mid-70s and inheriting the new economic prosperity of the previous generation.
These were often politically active people, reacting against the oppressive conservatism of Japan’s politics and traditional social structures. Some of Murakami’s stories capture this broad culture of student activism, which ran from politics through to the hippie movement and experimentation with violence, sex, and drugs.
But after the heavy governmental clamp down on Zenkyoto student activism in the 1960s, and as ordinary Japanese grew less concerned with politics and more determined to share in the wealth and affluence of their country, a generation gap opened up between those who were acutely aware of how hard they had had to work to afford prosperity and those who didn’t remember the hard times and couldn’t understand affluence as a goal in itself.
Murakami regarded this newly consumerist culture as a painfully superficial form of self-expression, which was giving rise to a severe identity crisis first amongst his contemporaries and then the generations that followed. He and his writing rose to prominence in Japan on the back of this crisis of moral uncertainty and political disinterest.
Murakami’s early work – 1979 to 1995 – brims with young protagonists who are cool and detached, seeing student activism as no more than a fashion statement or a crusade for the original – whose actual uniformity rendered it bitterly ironic. Murakami’s heroes and heroines are rarely socially incompetent; they’re just reluctant to build meaningful human relationships.
Murakami’s breakthrough came in 1987 with the publication of his fifth and most famous novel Norwegian Wood. It sold over three-and-half million copies by the end of 1988 and brought him unanticipated celebrity.
The story is told by an ordinary middle-aged man, Toru Watanabe, recalling his experience as a university student during the late 1960s.
Against the backdrop of student activism, he is forced to face, for the first time, the highs and the lows of what life has to offer. However, much like Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, he accepts everything as if there is nothing that could or should be done.
The only thing that vaguely interests him is his incomprehensible attraction towards two young women who could hardly be more different from one another.
Midori is a fun-loving girl, optimistic and full of energy. Naoko is fixated on a difficult past, unable to commit fully to her present.
Through Murakami’s exquisite depiction of Toru’s ambivalent first love, a mood of bitter-sweet nostalgia pervades the whole book. His ability to evoke adolescence in all its melancholic richness surely makes Norwegian Wood the Japanese Catcher in the Rye. At the same time it goes beyond boy-meets-girl to encapsulate the broader confusions of people living in Japan at the height of its economic success.
Murakami himself described Norwegian Wood as “100% realism”. This is in contrast to most of his other books, which are marked by fragmented and discontinuous narratives, a decentralising of protagonists and plots, emphasis on pastiche and parody, a delight in verbal and rhetorical playfulness, and oblique and often nonsensical humour.
Added to this is a highly distinctive psychedelic take on the experience of being human – an everyday scene suddenly ruptured by fish falling from the sky, in one instance – which Murakami uses to remind us how our quotidian lives could be overturned in an instant with the introduction of a tiny, but crucial, vibration that sets off a chain reaction.
He wants us to appreciate how the human mind shapes as well as reflects reality, by blurring constantly the line between perception and imagination.
Or does he? Some of Murakami’s critics, especially those of his later writing – after 1995 – have painted him as a mere purveyor of pop-fiction, with a penchant for avant-garde posturing. In the second half of this post I’m going to turn to these criticisms of Murakami, and look at why 1995 was a turning point for this most celebrated of Japanese authors.
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