Last week was a good week for super high-profile visitors to our campus. Murakami Haruki, quite possibly the most popular living Japanese author the world over, has been here this term (or this whole school year?) as a “writer-in-residence” with the East Asian Languages & Literatures department. I’ve read and very much enjoyed several of his novels, but I cannot say that I really know that much about him. I guess, I’ve gathered over the last several months, that he seems to be somewhat reclusive. There are rumors that he has something against the Japanese media, and for that reason does not do many (or any) public appearances in Japan, book signings, or the like, and that he tends to avoid the limelight in general. He has been quietly visiting Japanese language and literature classes on campus all year, but up until a few weeks ago, I had not heard anything about any larger public talk, and was given the impression that he most likely would not do one, since it wasn’t something he tends to do. Even at the talk, once he did agree to do it, he seemed quite strict about his personal request – not the venue’s policy, but Murakami’s direct request – that there be no photography or recording of any kind. I was amazed that he was willing to take time to sign books afterwards. I hear that he doesn’t do booksignings in Japan, hardly ever. Huge thanks to Miz Yvette for sharing with me one of her books to get signed – I didn’t bring one, as I didn’t have one to bring (I don’t read fiction during the school year) and didn’t expect there to be a book signing.
Murakami spoke briefly about his thoughts on the process of writing, and such. I had hoped for this to be longer, and more insightful – for this to be the main part of the event. I would have loved to be able to come here and share with you new insights into how to interpret and appreciate his books, or into who he is as a writer. But, I’m afraid I couldn’t really follow most of what he was saying. His English is nearly flawless. That was not a problem. But the content of what he was saying was just hard to follow. Something about being fascinated by beautiful yet completely useless, absurd structures such as the idea of a bridge under water? I’d hoped that someday, years from now, I would find myself in a conversation about Murakami, and could be able to say, “oh, I heard him speak once, and I gained this great insight about his work,” or “.. and he had this great quote. He said…” But, alas, there was none of the that.
The main event of the evening was a reading of two of his decades-old short stories, written around the time of his first marathon, the 1983 (I think) Honolulu Marathon. He read each story in Japanese, alternating sections with Prof. Ken Ito, a literature professor here at the University of Hawaii, who read from an English translation. I thought Murakami should have spoken more slowly, and more clearly, but my advisor said he had no trouble understanding him, and that the speed and style of his reading gave it appropriate energy, character, and drama. So, I guess this says more about my waning language skills than anything else…
The first story, “Mirror” (Kagami), is a sort of ghost story, featuring a school security guard who is attacked by his own reflection in a mirror. The story itself was a bit meh, though Murakami, as usual, reveals his brilliant insights into the strangenesses of everyday life, as he talks about the question of which one is real and which is the reflection; the protagonist expresses his anguish and fear as he finds himself following the actions of the man in the mirror, rather than the reverse. I particularly liked the framing device for this story, which reads as though you have broken into the middle of a much longer story or scene of people sitting around each telling different ghost stories. This is the only one written down and published, but it starts out in media res, if I have my usage of that term correctly, with the protagonist talking about how everyone else has already shared their stories, and he himself has never actually seen a ghost, nor had premonitions, but he did have this strange experience this one time…
The second story I found much more interesting and rewarding. Tongariyaki, awkwardly translated as “Sharpie Cakes,” is a story about a fictional commercial brand sweet or pastry, akin, I imagined in my mind, to Twinkies, though perhaps Murakami had something more traditional in mind, like taiyaki. (Tongari means ‘pointy’, and yaki means ‘grilled’, so, it’s a sort of nonsense word that sounds like it could be a real pastry / treat). I definitely suggest reading the story yourself, and I apologize to just summarize and ruin the ending here, but, essentially, it is about a man who proposes a new type of tongariyaki, a new, updated, version of the classic pastry, and while the staff of the tongariyaki company like it very much, they take him and his creation to a secret room in the company compound, which is full of crows. A very particular kind of crow, which only eats tongariyaki, and only “real” tongariyaki. If his creation is not accepted as being a valid variation, a valid type of tongariyaki, the crows will tear him apart. The story being so weird and fantastic, and humorous, I didn’t quite make the connection until after the reading ended, and Murakami added some extra remarks. My friend turned to me and said “I’ve got some crows like that in my life. They’re called my thesis committee.” It’s true. Substitute scholarship for the tongari cakes, her or I for the protagonist, and the thesis committee for the crows. Or substitute fiction writing for the cakes, Murakami for the protagonist, and publishers & critics for the crows. This is how it has to be because this is how it has always been done, and this is the way we have always liked it. And if we don’t like it, we tear you apart. …. Oh, how I wish I could just write what I wanted to write, and not have to worry about it being accepted.
There was a brief Q&A, in which I think the most interesting question was one about Murakami’s opinions on the quality of the published translations of his works. The fellow who asked the question has published his thoughts on the whole event here. Murakami answered something to the effect of that, so long as you enjoy it, it’s a good translation. Everyone laughed. But the next audience member to speak said that she has read several of his stories in both English and Japanese, and that they read as very different. Maybe this is just a function of the texture, the flavor, the atmosphere, the cultural nuance of the language – but maybe the two versions really are that different. I think it doesn’t really address the question to say “so long as you enjoy it, it’s a good translation.” I could read a story by George RR Martin and enjoy it quite thoroughly, but that doesn’t make it a good translation of a Murakami novel – that makes it a very enjoyable story that’s entirely different from what Murakami wrote in Japanese. … I think he was just disinterested in answering questions, and more to the point, disinterested in revealing anything more about himself, his attitudes, his insights. Which was a shame. That’s truly what I came there for – yes, the special opportunity to simply say that I have seen him speak, have shaken his hand, have spoken to him directly, however briefly – but also for the ability to gain some new or different insights into who he is, his attitudes, his thoughts on writing. His thoughts on culture, or on politics.
Ah, well. shou-ga-nai, as they say. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading some more of his work this summer.