[Paleopsych] NYT: A Rebel in Japan Eyes Status in America

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A Rebel in Japan Eyes Status in America


    TOKYO, June 12 - If he has not achieved that status already, Haruki
    Murakami is on course to becoming the most widely read Japanese writer
    outside Japan, past or present.

    His novels (including "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle") have long been
    popular in China and South Korea, as well as Germany and the Baltic
    states. "Kafka on the Shore," his most recent novel, published in
    English by Alfred A. Knopf, made some best-seller lists in the United
    States earlier this year. That, and a film adaptation of his short
    story, "Tony Takitani," which is to open on July 29 in the United
    States, may give him the popular visibility in America he has long
    coveted. (In Japan, paperback copies of "Kafka" are still prominently
    displayed in bookstores, next to his more recent novel, "After Dark."

    Still, for all his success, Mr. Murakami, 55, speaks with a bitter
    edge toward the Japanese literary establishment, which has kept him at
    bay as much as he has distanced himself from it.

    "I don't consider myself part of the establishment," he said. "I don't
    deal with the Japanese literary circle or society at all. I live
    totally separate from them and still rebel against that world."

    Indeed in Japan, the traditional literary critics regard his novels as
    un-Japanese and look askance at their Western influences, ranging from
    the writing style to the American cultural references. (In the United
    States his work is taught in colleges and has been reviewed by John
    Updike in The New Yorker.)

    During a recent interview at his office, a barefoot Mr. Murakami,
    wearing jeans and an orange shirt, spoke on a variety of subjects,
    from his place in contemporary literature to his writing habits. He
    appeared at ease, since he was preparing to take one of his periodic
    breaks, both from his writing and from Japan. He will spend the next
    year at Harvard as a writer in residence.

    "Kafka on the Shore" tells two alternating and ultimately converging
    stories. Mr. Murakami said he had become bored writing about urban
    dwellers in their 20's and 30's, and so in "Kafka" he decided to
    create two different types: a 15-year-old boy named Kafka Tamura, who
    runs away from home to rural western Japan; and a mentally defective
    man in his 60's, Satoru Nakata, who has the ability to talk to cats.

    The novel has Mr. Murakami's signature surrealism, as fish rain from
    the sky, and characters named Johnnie Walker, a cat killer, and
    Colonel Sanders, a pimp, play critical roles.

    Like his other novels this one is filled with references to American
    culture, but Mr. Murakami said he regarded Coca-Cola and Colonel
    Sanders, for instance, as worldwide references. "References such as
    Colonel Sanders or Johnnie Walker are in a way Western and everybody
    tends to fix their eyes on that," he said. "But as for the essence of
    a story, my stories have strong Japanese or Oriental elements. I think
    the structure of my stories is different from so-called Western

    His storytelling, he said, "does not develop logically from A to B to
    C to D, but I don't intentionally break up or reverse episodes the way
    postmodernists do. For me, it is a natural development, but it is not

    Mr. Murakami's attachment to American literature is longstanding. As a
    high school student in Kobe, in western Japan, he read, in the
    original, Kurt Vonnegut, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and
    Raymond Chandler. Like many Japanese of his generation, he became
    passionate about jazz and rock.

    "American culture," he said, "became ingrained in my body." By
    contrast, he never read Japanese novels until he was an adult. "I
    didn't read them when I was young because they were boring," he said.

    In Japanese, Mr. Murakami speaks in declarative, sometimes blunt,
    sentences that convey exactly what he means. He eschews the
    expressions that most Japanese use to soften their speech and that
    tend to make the language vague.

    His writing is infused with the same directness, which makes it easy
    to translate into English, but which many critics here say lack the
    richness of traditional literary Japanese. And there are readers here
    who say that his writing reads as if it had been translated from
    English into their own language.

    Mr. Murakami - who translated English-language novels into Japanese
    before he wrote them, and two years ago offered a new Japanese
    translation of "The Catcher in the Rye" - said he has chosen to write
    in a "neutral" Japanese, explaining:

    "There was a notion in Japan that novelists write in a certain style.
    I totally ignored it and created a new style. Therefore, in Japan,
    there was resistance. I was much criticized."

    When "Kafka" was published in Japan in 2002, it was popularly
    acclaimed. But some of this country's top literary critics dismissed
    it as an example of the impoverishment of Japanese literature, with
    language devoid of depth and richness.

    Among readers, however, his novels are wildly successful, allowing him
    to write fiction full time - something he said he had never imagined

    He wrote "Kafka" in six months, starting, as he usually does, without
    a plan. He spent one year revising it. He follows a strict regimen.
    Going to bed around 9 p.m. - he never dreams, he said - he wakes up
    without an alarm clock around 4 a.m. He immediately turns on his
    Macintosh and writes until 11 a.m., producing every day 4,000
    characters, or the equivalent of two to three pages in English.

    He said that his wife has told him that his personality changes when
    he is writing his first draft, and that he becomes difficult,
    nontalkative, tense and forgetful.

    "I write the same amount every day without any day off," he said. "I
    absolutely never look back and go forward. I hear Hemingway was like

    Unlike Hemingway, Mr. Murakami leads a healthy lifestyle. In the
    afternoons, to build up his stamina to keep writing, he works out for
    one or two hours. Whenever he is in Tokyo, he also visits old-record
    stores, especially ones in the youth mecca of Shibuya, which appears
    to be the unnamed setting of "After Dark," published last fall to
    relatively little attention here.

    A short novel, which has yet to be translated into English, "After
    Dark" centers on the stories of several characters over the course of
    one night as seen, neutrally and coldly, through a camera eye. The
    novel could be easily adapted into film, unlike Mr. Murakami's other
    novels. He has resisted selling his novels to filmmakers, though he
    said he would hand them over unconditionally to Woody Allen or David

    He may now be enjoying the big break in the United States that he has
    worked for since spending two years in the country in the early

    "I went to New York myself, found an agent myself, found a publisher
    myself, found an editor myself," Mr. Murakami said. "No Japanese
    novelist has ever done such things. But I thought I had to do that."

    He added: "I wanted to test my ability overseas, not being satisfied
    with being a famous novelist in Japan."

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