Passage to other worlds

IT was in 1968 that Japanese literature bagged the Nobel prize for the first time through Kawabata Yasunari. His works combined old Japan's beauty with modernist trends and realism with surrealistic visions. It took another 28 years for another Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize: Kenzaburo Oe in 1994. He has been reflecting the conflict between tradition and modern Western culture and Japan's cultural and social isolation from other Asian countries. Tanizaki Junichiro's works, ranging from fantasy to domestic realism, are a landmark in Japanese literature. Yukio Mishima, author of the The Sea of Fertility was obsessed with traditions of an older and purer Japan. He embodied the tortured contradictions of contemporary Japan. He shot to international fame more by his publicised suicide than by his works.

Among the post-modernist and contemporary Japanese writers, Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami are among the most popular and widely read. Both of them are not worried about the question of Japan's position relative to the rest of the world. Their novels relate to present day Japanese traditions and the characters are ordinary mortals who take life with equanimity. They are much more individualistic, and this makes the writing more appealing outside Japan. The Guardian's Stephen Poole ranks Murakami "among the world's greatest living novelists".

Haruki Murakami's sensibility is that of the skeptical realist and his fiction contains dreams, hallucinations, wild imagination and actualities. His protagonists are young men and women who always seem to wind up on quests of some kind, searching for an old friend or lover or an enigmatic sheep or cat. While discussing his writings, Murakami stated that there is a type of underground within his mind and that it is very important to him as writer. "Writing, for me, is a passive way to get these thoughts in-side of me out". He also recognises that the subconscious is terra incognita and he does not want to analyse it and that it "may be that's kind of weird, but I am feeling like I can do the right thing with that weirdness." He also affirms that when he "is getting more and more serious" he "gets more and more weird." It is further elucidated when he states that he has "drawers in his mind, so many drawers. I have hundreds of materials in these drawers. I take out one of the memories and images that I need. The war is a big drawer to me, a big one. I felt sometimes I would use these, pull something out of that drawer and write about it. I don't know why. Until that time (of writing) you carefully continue to pile up your daily experiences one by one as if to lay bricks one after another."

Murakami does not believe that a writer can narrate his personal experiences and make them into a novel. But his first novel, written at the age of 29, was out of a sudden impulse while he was watching a baseball game. He explains that the elements connected got together and they "stimulated something in me... All I needed was the time and experience to identify myself. It doesn't have to be a special experience. I doesn't matter that they are just a series of ordinary experiences. But they have to be the experiences that are embedding themselves deeply in my body. When a student I could not find out what to write depsite the itch for writing something. I needed the seven years and hardships to discover the theme for my writing".

In his latest novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, Murakami compares the technique of writing a novel to that of the ancient Chinnese tradition of building a huge gate at the entrance to guard a city. "When the gate was finished they would bring several dogs over to it, slit their throats, and sprinkle their blood... to magically revive the dead souls. Writing novels is much the same. You gather up bones and make your gate, but no matter how wonderful the gate might be, that alone doesn't make it a living, breathing novel. A story is not something of this world. A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side." No wonder his novels are strange, addictive and dazzling in their plots and narrative styles.

Sputnik Sweetheart (Japanese name Sputoniku no koibito), was published in April 2001. It is a powerful and moving story of an extraordinary love affair and a lingering mystery on the loneliness of the human condition. His earlier novels translated into English are, Hear the Wind Sing (1987), Pinball, 1973 (1985), A wild Sheep Chase (1990), Norwegian Wood (1997), Hard- Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1993), Dance Dance Dance (1995), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1998), South of the Border, West of the Sun (1999). Apart from these, his short story collections The Elephant Vanishes and a nonfiction book titled, Underground are also available in English. The last one consists of interviews with 63 victims of Sarin Gas attack in Subway train in Tokyo in March 1995 by a radical Cult Group called "Aum Supreme Truth".

His first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, published at the age of 29, won him the Gunzo New Writer Award. For A Wild Sheep Chase, he bagged the Noma Literary Award. The Norwegian Wood, published in Japanese in 1987, sold four million copies and Haruki Murakami boom was at its best. He bagged the coveted Japanese honour of Yomiuri Literary Prize, whose previous recipents include Yukio Mishima, Kenzabure Oe, and Kobo Abe. Murakami symbolises the post-modernist literary school in Japan, as he grew up in a post- industrial, late-captalist society already permeated with so- called post-modern properties from traditional culture. The influence of American culture and literature in his writings is profound. Loneliness of human beings lingers in all the novels and the characters are typically western while retaining the traditional Japanese customs and lifestyles.

Murakami was born in Ashiya near Kobe on January 12, 1949. His parents were teachers of Japanese literature. After graduating from Kobe High School, he majored in drama from the literature department of Waseda University in 1973. From 1974 to 1982 he managed a jazz bar in Tokyo and it was during this time that he began his writing career. His knowledge of western music, gained from personal experience in the jazz bar,are remarkably expressed in his novels The best selling Norwegian Wood itself is a record that sets tune to the theme of the novel. However, there has been criticism in Japan that his works lack a deep-seated socio- politico-historical awareness, though it has been admitted that he is not oblivious to socio-political concerns. However, they are not central to his narrative. But, his writings, put through the words of the protagonist in Sputnik Sweetheart have "the living force of something natural flowing through it."

Sputnik Sweetheart is a simple but enigmatic and at the same time melancholic love story. Its dimensions are in the theme of human loneliness and of intense love with which Murakami's characters are identified. There are only three main characters in the book: the narrator K who is a 24-year-old school teacher, an aspiring, untidy and rebellious writer Sumire and the beautiful and sophisticated businesswoman Miu. The erratic dreamy writer Sumire idol-worships Jack Kerouac and she wants K to be her best friend whereas he looks for true love from her but never expresses it. She spends most of her time writing stories but never gets satisfied and she talks and talks to K at the oddest of hours from a telephone booth and she is waiting for life to really begin. And it does begin when Miu employs her as an assistant in her business. She falls head over heels in love with the businesswoman who has a secret past. Miu and Sumire take a business trip to Europe. From an island off the coast of Greece the story turns into a mystery. Miu finally confides to Sumire the nightmarish experience that psychically broke her and she is only a shell of the person that she once was. One night's harrowing experience had turned her hair pure white. The intensity of the revelation and the physical intimacy is such that Sumire disappears from their room that night without leaving any trace. It is a shattering journey to the "other side". The event had destroyed Miu as a person. The teacher K who is summoned to assist in the search, experiences his own disturbing visions from the computer accounts of the strange events and stories within stories. He understands her statements that both Sumire and Miu were travelling companions, literally meaning Sputnik, "no more than lonely lumps of metal on their own separate orbits". He returns to Japan and dreams and waits for the phone to ring. It does actually ring one day. And she says, "I really need you. You are a part of me. I am a part of you." That enables him to understand the intensity of their feelings for each other.

Murakami has also written about the disappearance of Izumi, the main character in his short story in The New Yorker (December 4, 2000), under the title "Man Eating Cats" (pp.84-95). Both Izumi and Sumire disappear from the Greek island and the descriptions of the search in the night and the illusory music on the other side are almost identical (pp.184-187 in the book and pp.92-93 in the story). Both the situations evoke the same response: where is the real person? Reiko, an important character in Norwegian Wood, writes to Toru Watanabe, "All of us are imperfect human beings living in an imperfect world" (p.269). And there are lots of mind games, the supernatural and the surreal in his gripping stories that make Murakami one of the greatest living novelists who admits that as a writer, fiction is his battlefield.


Sputnik Sweetheart, Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel, Harvill Press, £ 12.