Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Murakami conquers the world

So I was in the bookstore the other day (despite the huge pile of unread books I have in my office), eyeing Murakami's newly published 1Q84. I flipped through it. Picked it up and turned it around. Read the blurbs. Read them again. Then put it back and down and carried on. I decided to wait or perhaps it was just a thought that Murakami no longer says much to me. On the one hand, having written a fair amount about contemporary Japanese fiction and being very interested in Japanese culture generally, Murakami is a writer I should be reading. On the other hand, in the sea of buzz which has surrounded his work and career the last number of years, my critical alarm bells go off, making me question the hype. Haruki Murakami and his work have reached a frenzied pitch allotted usually to rock stars or certain athletes.

Though I did enjoy Norwegian Wood and a few stories from After the Quake, his later work hasn't really done much for me. In Japanese, Murakami writes in a rather informal style but when the translator tries to mimic that style in English, it often doesn't work. I remember getting irritated in Kafka on the Shore about the use of language. I'm not sure how this operates in his new work but it's something I've had difficulty with generally in his work. My biggest gripe, though, is perhaps personal: I get highly annoyed at all the Western cultural references. But I imagine that this is what precisely speaks to Western readers and critics and makes Murakami so accessible. And if we write what we know, then it's simply the writer reflecting his own experience: Murakami studied Western literature and then owned a jazz bar for many years so naturally the cultural references aren't put ons.

But any writer (from anywhere) needs to use these kinds of references very carefully and a very few go a long way. When a writer refers to a song playing on the radio, it helps him create an atmosphere. But it also seems like a shorthand way of connecting to the reader without really doing the work necessary. To me as a reader, it's also distracting because listening to music is a different experience than reading and even if I know the song or composer or musician he's referring to, I still feel compelled to open youtube and listen to the song to get a sense of the scene in which the piece (or musician, etc.) figures. When there are references constantly to composers, other books, other writers, cultural figures, etc., I start to get irritated...

What I love about contemporary Japanese fiction is precisely what Murakami generally doesn't do: create a soporific and meditative atmospheres using images or almost incantatory language; or explore how one individual fights against the strictures of conformity and shame (which isn't unique to Japan by any means but is something individuals often struggle against in real life). Writers like Yoko Ogawa or Kenzaburo Oe (to use two contemporary examples) or older writers like Yasunari Kawabata open a door to me that helps me understand Japan or Japanese people in a way that I find difficult with Murakami. I have also long been a reader and fan of Yukio Mishima though in some ways, Murakami feels like his heir in terms of style. Mishima didn't write with the same informality that Murakami does but there is a certain tendency towards long and detailed passages that lack the passion of other writers' works. Yet for me, this works in Mishima and doesn't work in Murakami. I also find Murakami's dialogue unnatural and stilted.

Though I've never been the world's biggest Murakami fan, I will still eventually read 1Q84. Though I get annoyed (as I'm sure he does!) with all the hype surrounding him and his work, generally this bodes well for fiction. I do wish that the general public had a larger appetite for international (particularly Asian) fiction. And this leads me to my biggest gripe against the buzz around Murakami:

It's perhaps cynical but much of the Western love of Murakami stems from, it seems to me, the opportunity to see our lives and cultures reflected back to us through the eyes or words of an outsider. It's all about us, in the end, and not about Japan or another culture at all. If this is true, it's a mildly depressing fact and makes me pessimistic about the ability of "international" writers to appeal to broad audiences in North America (or, indeed, Europe).

No comments:

Post a Comment