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Haruki Murakami: a buyer’s guide into the Japanese author’s alternative universe

With an illustrious career that shows no sign of stopping, we take a look at the best works of one of modern day literature’s finest voices in Haruki Murakami.

It’s hard to author a buyers’ guide on the art form of books simply because of the spoiler aspect, so bear with us, we’ll do our best.

Reading a Haruki Murakami‘s novel is like going into a time capsule.

Or a new world. Perhaps both.

The term “desert island disc” was thrown around a lot at the backend of the last decade. To me, it was about as annoying as the term “bucket list”.

However, bowing to the mass culture buzzword, and anyway Murakami‘s books feels like a desert island concern away from that very desert island.

Reading a Murakami novel for the first time is one of those journeys that you will never forget. Words that capture vivid dreamlike imagery.

It’s like they say about The Fall, your favourite Fall record is the first one you listen to. Perhaps the same can be said about the Japanese maestro of the written word.

Murakami himself is a pensive personality. Prior to his endeavours as one of the world’s great modern day novelists, Murakami and his wife opened a coffee house and jazz bar in Tokyo. From there, the Kyoto-born Murakami began writing what would be his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, which was released in Japan in 1979.

Murakami doesn’t mix with other literary figures and keeps very much to himself.

A writer who revels in “quiet” time and through his characters you can sense this. With all writers, their characters portray certain qualities of themselves and Murakami is no different.

There’s a dystopian Kafka-like haze that hovers over his work. There’s the dry humour of John Irving too, that essence of working class vitality dripping off the pages. There’s also a free spirit element that is passed off with Murakami‘s characters, loosely inspired by the likes of the beats, in particular, Jack Kerouac.

Murakami‘s characters are deep thinkers. Fundamentally odd and some may say slightly disturbed, finding their paths through a steaming stew of obscurity, tension, fantasy and the everyday.

Yet for all the obscurity jumping from his pages, Murakami‘s prose is so deceptively simple.

Water-tight. A writer that never wastes his words.

It feels as if Murakami writes within himself at times, but it’s the simplicity of his prose that shines through, almost like there are hidden messages between the lines.

There has been nobody in the last several decades who has produced gripping surrealism like Haruki Murakami.

The translations from Japanese to English are uniformly as intriguing. You get a sense that Murakami‘s voice has not been lost at all through this and in fact, it feels enhanced.

Murakami‘s non-fiction takes intriguing paths, too.

His memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, sheds some light into the pondering mind of Japan’s most celebrated novelist. Murakami, an avid long distance runner, who has also participated in the Boston Marathon goes onto talk about the writing process in which running plays a crucial role.

So too, music, which features heavily throughout the pages of his work.

An avid classical and jazz enthusiast, Murakami released Absolutely On Music, which contains a raw, intimate conversation between Murakami and the former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa.

In 2018, Barn Burning from Murakami‘s short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes, was adapted into a film titled Burning. Directed by Lee Chang-Dong, Burning was awarded the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize for best film.

Murakami has also translated many English novels into Japanese, authors including Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and John Cheever.

In his work of fiction, Murakami has written about things not limited to phantom sheep, unicorn skulls, one-armed poets, skies littered with raining fish and that’s not to mention expertly portraying gruesome war imagery and a whole host of other historical snapshots.

Below is a brief summary of his work. Everyone will have different opinions on Murakami‘s best work and where to actually take the plunge and enter his world. Because it is his world. An alternative universe rarely inhabited.

When you arrive there you won’t want to leave.

Norwegian Wood (1987)

“I wonder what ants do on rainy days?”

Perhaps the obvious choice, given it’s one of Murakami‘s best sellers.

However, oddly enough, Norwegian Wood could be seen as the bastard child out of the collection of his work, for it’s the most straightforward. The surrealistic element of his work is near-non-existent here.

It’s a love story that attempts to excavate landscapes of intimacy with a shovel as opposed to an industrial machine.

If anything, Norwegian Wood touches on the fringes of tenderness and intimacy where Murakami flourishes in later works, such as 1999’s Sputnik Sweetheart and 2004’s After Dark, both possess similar elements to Norwegian Wood, but delve into the darker sides on intimacy.

Set around 1960’s Japanese counter culture, these themes continue to resonate with Murakami‘s younger fans which is one of the reasons why Norwegian Wood remains one of his go-to pieces for so many.

Norwegian Wood is a taster for those unaware of his work, but doesn’t encapsulate the essence of what he later becomes as a writer.

A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) / Dance Dance Dance (1994)

“My biggest fault is that the faults I was born with grow bigger each year.” – A Wild Sheep Chase.

“The ones with no imagination are always the quickest to justify themselves.”Dance Dance Dance.

At the heart of A Wild Sheep Chase‘s is a chain-smoking ex-advertising executive who is unnamed, and a character called The Rat, who appears in Murakami‘s first two novels, 1979’s Hear the Wind Sing and 1980’s Pinball,1973, which were only translated to English in 2015.

Here, we capture Murakami‘s initial explorations with surrealism and existentialism, themes that Murakami has honed in on and refined during his career.

Many of Murakami‘s male characters find themselves emotionally bankrupt and lost in this world, almost searching for a new parallel universe in a bid to escape post-WWII Japanese cultural.

This pair of novels require reading in succession, the themes run seamlessly from A Wild Sheep Chase to Dance Dance Dance in this engrossing journey, which is our first glimpse at the mind of one of the greatest surrealistic pen-smiths that has graced this earth.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991)

“Genius or fool, you don’t live in the world alone. You can hide underground or you can build a wall around yourself, but somebody’s going to come along and screw up the works.”

After the mind altering twists and turns of the above two novels, it’s important to acknowledge Murakami‘s shorter works and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is not only the best place to start, it’s the only place (we say short, but it’s 400 pages).

Where Murakami‘s wacky themes are concerned, some of his most outrageous can be found within the pages of Hard-Boiled Wonderland…, which is set between parallel universes with reference points required and provided by a frontispiece map. A unique netherworld.

In many ways, only Murakami could get away with writing something as absurd as the story which unfolds here. His deceptively simple prose makes this journey far easier than what it appears to be from the outset, which is probably Murakami‘s greatest skill.

There’s a David Lynch film in the offing right here.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997)

“Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?”

“We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?”

This is Murakami at his best. Like any art that truly captures your imagination and pulls you into its world, I remember exactly where I began reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It was my introduction to Murakami‘s work and it was without doubt the moment that reached the summit of any type of art form.

Here, Murakami captures and stirs the spirit of existentialism, with all of Murakami‘s themes colliding throughout the pages of this incredible work.

It’s chamber literature, a flawless mind-bending excursion that alternates through a plethora of portals. There’s aching tenderness, there’s uncompromising brutality to the point where certain passages have you dry retching.

There’s subterfuge. There’s just plain bizarre.

There are aspects of this work that shouldn’t coexist but through Murakami‘s ability as a world building architect, it just works and is delivered with an effortless panache.

Whether it’s music, film, or the written word, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of the finest pieces of art I’ve ever engaged with and if Murakami ever comes to authoring something that ascends its vividness, then it will be one of modern day literature’s greatest feats.

Kafka On The Shore (2005)

“Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on. In fact, things will even be worse the next time you open your eyes. That’s the kind of world we live in. Keep your eyes wide open. Only a coward closes his eyes. Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears won’t make time stand still.”

Kafka On The Shore has the unbridled task of following The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but here’s the thing, it runs ‘Wind-Up…’ in a very close race. Very close, indeed.

Escapism and isolation runs deep with Kafka On The Shore. Here, Murakami even manages to unravel his surrealistic elements that are woven in and out of the story as something completely unreal, yet subconsciously, you develop this nagging sense that this may actually happen.

Murakami‘s setting of scenes throughout Kafka On The Shore are probably some of his greatest moments as a writer. As an individual who has not yet visited Japan, Murakami provides serene snapshots of its beautiful landscapes and here the pictures he paints couldn’t be clearer.

It’s Murakami‘s second greatest work and while some may feel that its legend may recede by reading it in succession from his greatest accomplishment, well, consider this.

Life’s too short.

Music plays a prominent role in Murakami’s work.

Men Without Women (2017)

“Once you’ve become Men Without Women, loneliness seeps deep down inside your body, like a red-wine stain on a pastel carpet. No matter how many home ec [sic] books you study, getting rid of that stain isn’t easy. The stain might fade a bit over time, but it will still remain, as a stain, until the day you draw your final breath. It has the right to be a stain, the right to make the occasional, public, stain-like pronouncement. And you are left to live the rest of your life with the gradual spread of that colour, with that ambiguous outline.”

Comprising of seven heartfelt tales, Men Without Women is Murakami‘s finest collection of short-stories.

Perceptively zoning in on existentialism, Murakami ventures on a deep exploration of what it is to be isolated and what it feels like to be truly alone.

It possesses the meandering minimalism of Norwegian Wood, but during Men Without Women the themes are more complex. These stories are produced by a person who has experienced more life since his humble beginnings as an author.

A person that has seen the world through wiser eyes.

While perhaps not his most talked about pieces of work, it’s the perfect collection to escape to and have a break from weightier and more intense offerings.

1Q84 (2011)

“Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.”

Split up into three books, 1Q84 is the work that lifted Murakami into another stratosphere where the public eye is concerned.

With Murakami having made a rare public appearance at the New Yorker Festival in 2008, fans flocked from all corners of the globe to catch a glimpse of a writer that many class as a reclusive figure.

Such that his relevance had risen considerably in the public eye, Murakami would not part with any details of 1Q84, claiming that past leaks of his work had reduced his readers’ experience.

Books One and Two were released in Japan in 2009 as one novel and while it’s said that the story was to conclude at the end of the latter, due to popular demand Murakami wrote and released Book Three shortly after in 2010.

All three were translated into English by long-time Murakami collaborators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel and released in 2011.

1Q84 rivals The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka On The Shore as his greatest achievements and I’m sure many of his fans would even consider this as his finest. It’s certainly not an outlandish position to take.

1Q84 sees Murakami delve into religious themes, whilst still intertwining surrealistic and dystopian elements into a plot which is based on a parallel universe, the latter premise he explored earlier in his career, most notably with the aforementioned Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Murakami‘s explorations of love and relationships run deep with 1Q84. Perhaps they haven’t run deeper, which is why 1Q84 resonates so profoundly with Murakami aficionados.

Killing Commendatore (2018)

“There are probably things people are better off not hearing … But they can’t go forever without hearing them. When the time comes, even if they stop their ears up tight, the air will vibrate and invade a person’s heart. You can’t prevent it. If you don’t like it, then the only solution is to live in a vacuum.”

In the lead-up to his latest novel, there was speculation that Murakami would be one day awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In typical response from the modest Murakami, he said, “No, I don’t want prizes. That means you’re finished.

One thing to take out of Killing Commendatore is this.

Haruki Murakami is far from finished.

The central theme that binds Killing Commendatore together isn’t a world away from Kafka On The Shore but it’s the splintering subplots which make Killing Commendatore yet another triumphant journey.

Whilst we have done our best to supress plots and characters throughout this feature, it would be remiss of us not to reference one of Murakami‘s strangest characters to grace our eyes and occupy our minds, who features in Killing Commendatore, the venerable Menshiki.

Menshiki may only be rivalled by the similarly absurd chain-smoking Isikawa, who, like a human haze, fleetingly drifts in and out of several of the aforementioned titles.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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