Finding Murakami

Hiroyuki Izutsu

The former editor of The New Yorker on discovering Japan’s most distinguished novelist

I first encountered the work of Haruki Murakami in 1986, when, as one of the judges of the annual Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for translation (I’m still at it), I read his second novel and the first to be translated into English, Pinball, 1973. None of us had read anything like it—its explosive energy, its range of cultural references, its sheer modernness. This was not the world of Kawabata and Tanizaki, of Mishima and Abe. This was Japan, 40 years after the end of the war, blasting into the future. I was gratified to introduce him to the readership of The New Yorker in 1990, with “TV People,” the first of some 26 stories of his that have appeared there.

The promise of Pinball was quickly fulfilled with A Wild Sheep Chase—a brilliant thriller/fantasy/magic realist/romantic concoction—that put him on the world map. Then came The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84, among many others. His one straightforward narrative—Norwegian Wood, a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story—has sold millions of copies in Japan alone, with an influence on young people there equivalent to that of The Catcher in the Rye here, a novel that Murakami translated into Japanese, along with The Great Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, some of Raymond Chandler, and all of Raymond Carver. In other words, while he’s deeply rooted in his country’s canon, he’s umbilically connected to American literature, as well as to American jazz and pop culture in general, having lived in the U.S. for several years (teaching at Princeton for some of them), largely to avoid the movie-star attention he can’t escape at home.

Murakami was a late starter. It had never occurred to him to become a writer until one day—he and his wife were running a jazz club and coffee bar in Tokyo at the time—he was at a baseball game and the notion flashed into his mind: I could write a novel. He was 29. That night he started writing. And within a few years he had become Japan’s most successful author ever.

Despite their complicated postmodern strategies, his books tend to be melancholic. His heroes are constantly searching for—and rarely finding—the perfect woman, the perfect life. It’s not a comfortable or comforting stance, but it’s one that speaks to millions of followers. “Lost opportunities, lost possibilities, feelings we can never get back again,” a character says in Kafka on the Shore. “That’s part of what it means to be alive.”

In His Own Words

“How did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.... The rhythm comes from the combination of words, the combination of the sentences and paragraphs, and pairings of hard and soft, light and heavy, balance and imbalance, the punctuation, the combination of different tones... I’m a jazz lover, so that’s how I set down a rhythm first. Then I add chords to it and start improvising, making it up freely as I go along. I write as if I’m making music.” —Haruki Murakami, excerpted from Absolutely on Music: Conversations, his book-length dialogue with maestro Seiji Ozawa (Knopf, out November 15;