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Roland Kelts    VOL.16:

  Surfacing with Strength: Haruki Murakami at 60

by Roland Kelts                     

"My idol is Dostoyevsky,h Haruki Murakami told me one evening late last year. gMost writers get weaker and weaker as they age. But Dostoyevsky didn't. He kept getting bigger and greater. He wrote The Brothers Karamazov in his late 50s. That's a great novel.h

Earlier this year, Murakami turned sixty. In recent, casual conversations with him in the US and Japan, I learned that this milestone was very much on his mind. gIfm going to be sixty, you know,h he would often begin. Or: gIfm almost sixty, so ch

But references to the encroaching years seemed to embolden rather then deflate him, especially when coupled with discussion of the book he was then writing. Murakami proudly announced that it would be his longest yet, twice the size of his last major work, 2002fs Kafka on the Shore, which spanned over 450 pages. It would be published in two volumes in Japan, and would land in Japanese bookstores some time in the spring of this year.

Well, land it has - and to thunderous, earth-shaking effect in Japanfs literary and publishing worlds.

Titled 1Q84, the two-volume, 1,055-page novel is being hailed by some as Murakamifs masterwork. It is also selling like ghotcakes,h as one character says of another book in the novel, borrowing the American idiomatic expression (a trademark Murakami move). The novelfs publisher, Shinchosha, plans to increase the print run to 1 million copies by the end of June.

During a live, onstage conversation I conducted with Murakami at the University of California, Berkeley last fall, he spoke repeatedly of the gdangeroush nature of fiction writing, noting that the writer ghas to go down into a dark placeh while working on a novel, gand you need physical strength to survive, to come back to the surface.h

By most accounts, 1Q84 sent its author plunging into the pitch black. Its title is an echo of English author George Orwellfs dystopian classic (the letter gQh in English is a homonym for the pronunciation of the number 9 in Japanese), 1984. Orwellfs novel was first published exactly sixty years ago, on the heels of the Second World War in 1949 - the very year Murakami was born in Kyoto. 1Q84 story features cults, violence, sexuality, sexual abuse, murder and suicide amid Murakamifs now characteristic depiction of parallel worlds.

Murakami once told me that he liked to alternate between lighter, shorter novels, short fictions, nonfiction and the type of long-haul marathon focus sessions required to produce longer, darker works such as 1995fs The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and the aforementioned Kakfa. The two books preceding 1Q84 were the comparatively slimmer novel After Dark - though that book does contain, at its center, an act of brutality that explores questions of violence, racism and personal/historical memory - and a loosely constructed memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which he told me he wrote as coherent whole work, not a collection of essays, to examine the connections between running and writing.

gItfs not just about running, itfs also about a way of life. Itfs not a how-to book. The way I run is the way I have lived, so the book is about the connections between living, running and writing. My attitude toward life.h

Murakamifs attitude toward life seems to have shifted in recent years. The man I first met over ten years ago sternly resisted politics and public appearances alike. But in Berkeley, California last fall, he spent hours responding to studentsf questions and signing books. And this February, viewers worldwide saw him standing firm behind a podium in Israel, accepting that nationfs highest literary award, and delivering a speech in eloquent, deeply felt English. He spoke of his opposition to any and all wars, his empathy with the weak and the dissident and his passion for the uniqueness of the human soul. Spoken with power and clarity, Murakamifs words blended the personal with the political, and the metaphorical with the logical, to make an eloquent argument for individual freedom and justice.

When I ask him about these changes, he described his rising sense of responsibility to speak up and speak out about our world. gI feel itfs my duty now.h

Surely his idol, I point out, the considerably harder-living Dostoevsky, took a slightly different approach to producing a great book in late-middle age?

Murakami looks slightly perplexed through a widening smile: gI donft know how that happened. I donft think he was running or anything. He was drinking and gambling, I think. But hefs a model in terms of his achievement.h

Welcome to your sixties, Haruki. Long may you thrive. **

By Roland Kelts, Author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, Lecturer at The University of Tokyo and Contributing Editor of A Public Space


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