A casual assessment of Haruki Murakami novels

Category: Literature

I inadvertently read all but two of Haruki Murakami full-length novels. I say inadvertently, as roughly half of this reading I took on as but the means to contrast the heavier reading I was doing at the time. And yet many of these works rendered experiences of such dimension that they deserve the classification heavy in their own right, at least if you pay them the due diligence.

I noticed a range of themes and techniques characteristic of nearly every novel: the subconscious, dreams, allegory, dark humor, sexuality, solitude, parallel narratives, mundane life, a recurring symbol embodied in a particular metaphor. The novels often interplay between heavy consumerism and introspective alienation. The protagonists also tend to exhibit elements of heavy alcoholism and chain smoking (between seafood salads, soy sauce, and coffee). Really, it recognizes few boundaries.

However, no degenerate habits suggest a hindrance to cognitive ability. On the contrary, the characters typically demonstrate notable eloquence in art criticism. Pounding shattering quantities of cheap beer and whiskey one moment, the protagonist indulges in extensive jazz critique the next; as well as classical, rock music, high-brow literature, and older cinema. They all pass for amateur critics as far as I’m concerned. Beyond that, rarely in a novel did I not encounter a reference to ultra-left-wing movements of the ‘68-70 period Japan.

It makes sense. You leverage what you know as an author. Murakami-san operated a jazz bar for a respectable period, beset by the same habits, influences, inspirations, and degenerative lifestyle as explored throughout the novels. That makes for an enormous pool of experiences to draw from. However, that’s not to dissimulate his own erudition concerning the aforementioned art forms. His autobiographical account What I talk about when I talk about running details much of this history.

Some novels provide a sense of closure, others drift into the cosmos. As I’ve numerously commented prior, not only do I not mind, but often prefer such (lack of) structure. Although it’s not for everyone.

Let me now casually run down my thoughts on the individual novels in no particular order. Before that, I must emphasize that I read the Russian translation of every novel and cannot account for the liberty the few translators imparted on each work. Naturally, the same can be stated for any translation of any novel. Read in Japanese if capable. That’s all I can suggest, lest you risk, as I did, a cultural 'adaptation’ (something that I somewhere read Murakami-san even encouraged).

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Amusing how some translations present a more compact title, and others more verbose. What is “Хроники Заводной Птицы” in Russian, becomes “Crónica del pájaro que da cuerda al mundo” in Spanish, yet only “Crônica do Pássaro de Corda” in Portuguese. The Russian heavily case-based system triumphs in compactness. :)

WUBC is the first, one of the longest, and the heaviest of the HM novels I’ve read. And it still is a personal favorite. Heavy usage of parallel stories and historical wartime accounts drawn upon here. At the same time, the novel develops a stage for dreams, allusions, surrealism, strong symbolism, and spaghetti. It begins with the mundane, but gradually transcends into a dream landscape. Such dimensionality lies in this novel that I wished it continued for yet another 900 pages.

1Q84 The longest in strictly page count (split into three volumes), but I found this one a page turner. It pays a tribute to literature beyond the other works, with notable references to Russian literature especially. Layers, upon further layers you’ll find in this engaging parallel narrative of alternate realities, dreams, symbols, and underground sects. So much literature does this book reference that I took upon myself to read Karen Blixen’s Out of Afrika out of sheer curiosity, influenced by the protagonist’s back pocket reading material. That autobiographical novel, by the way, in the words of Yoda, a page turner is not.

Kafka on the Shore. I expected something else entirely as I pursued this novel. I’m also a heavy admirer of the Franz Kafka works, and suppose the title sold me. Now, the book, while not a FK novel, is a formidable HM novel, with homage to Greek drama, the Bible, and, extensive Classical music. Otherwise, the novel shapes into a surreal adventure (parallel) narrative with the search of identity and meaning. The forest plays a crucial symbolic element. And talking animals represent nothing to the extraordinary.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (Страна Чудес без тормозов и конец света). Both the English and Russian titles equally appeal to me in this case. “Hard-Boiled* and "Без Тормозов”, both products of certain artistic liberty, sound visceral in their own right. This became the only HK novel I once abandoned early on, imagining it was to become something far more surreal than I could enthusiastically digest. And yet upon the second attempt it turned out perfectly grounded (in the Murakami sense), and engaging. This two-element story arch actually draws more inspiration from (Franz) Kafka compared to the above novel.

The book, similar to Kafka on the shore, heavily appeals to the forest for symbolism. Then it boards the subconscious, the question of identity, with severe dark humor application in company of much beer and whiskey. In addition, the Wonderland story arch draws inspiration from the Cyber Punk genre, although I found it to (thankfully) serve more of a parody function.

(I normally embrace many of the Cyber Punk genre films, but experience certain dyslexia for Cyber Punk literature, even for the supposed classics. I read Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids dream of electric sheep” exclusively in Spanish, pretending to emphasize language maintenance to the content. Dick’s English-language prose bores me, in spite of the fascinating ideas it aims to foster.)

Wild Sheep Chase. This one is a third in the trilogy of HM’s first three books, but compared to the first two (which the author refers to as the “immature period”), the third thrusts off into hyperspace. To satiate our four-dimensional palate, we are bestowed such staples as psychedelics, surrealism, shamanism, and allegory, all deeply interwoven into a kind of a mystery narrative. And would you believe it, the title lies fairly transparent into what you might expect. This was the first novel that I became actually invested in the character development.

Dance, Dance, Dance. An unofficial sequel to the first trilogy and one of my favorites, it offers at least as much as WSC. Interesting how each novel finds a different symbol as an anchor to explore the underlying ideas, in this case that being a hotel. Many fun, memorable characters to be acquainted with in the novel. Now, for the unacquainted, the title may not exactly ‘swing’, but pay no mind.

After Dark. A shorter piece that reads like an interminable dream sequence with no beginning or end. Nor does it pretend to be anything else. My least favorite, it presents less of a complex multi-layered world than the heavier works, but more of a televised snapshot into another ongoing narrative. That concept too gains a fractalized stature quickly into the book.

Sputnik Sweetheart. A twist of unrequited love, hints of shamanism and out-of-body experiences, mixed with a dynamic landscape and an adventure feel. Probably my second least favorite to the above. In retrospect, it felt slightly superficial, although still entirely engaging among the relatively shorter works. I seem to least remember the finer details of this book despite having read it under a year ago. Not without certain strain do I place the title in references to the Russian satellite, forgetting the specifics. However, I assume the book contained plenty of witty music and literature remarks to contrast the supernatural otherwise transpiring.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I felt something remarkably fresh in this penultimately published full-length novel. Or perhaps it were the unexplored themes and symbols. It presents a mixture of an identify crisis, an unsolved mystery, and a detective storyline. The concept of color, as applicable to the Japanese culture and language, became something entirely new to me.

Bear in mind with nearly all these commentaries, while I indicate such and such format/structure, each novel invariably borders a common set of themes in a dark-humor, internalized solitary sense. Nowhere does it feel as a work of a different author, be it for the better, or for the worse. I personally don’t care.

Norwegian Wood. This highly prolific novel belongs not to my top favorites, also being the least supernatural of the works. What are some of the underlying themes? Solitude, abandonment, sexuality, identity exploration. Some of these themes start to blend with enough of these novels. It felt like a testament to music the way 1Q84 in regards to literature. In this case, the title speaks transparently. Strangely, the reading continued to evoke in me Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, although the two hold little in common. This one focuses on the 18-22 period of upbringing precisely during that ultra-left student movements of ‘68-70 I’ve earlier alluded to. Contrary to most novels, the author explores the turbulent period in greater detail here. Overall, the work left me with a bit of a sour aftertaste, perhaps due to the more serious narrative without the touch of magic realism or the degree of humor to which I’ve become accustomed.

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. These first two novels seem almost naively infantile and experimental compared to the third (Wild Sheep Chase) that culminates this trilogy. It is a trilogy after all, yet with such a drastically different rhythm separating these first two from the third. These novels feel like fragments or journal entries in the life of two friends in the late teens/early twenties (I often forget the precise age). And yet they feel plain entertaining, especially Pinball. The sporadic and unconventional romances the narrator attracts, the endless nights spent at Jay’s bar over beer, whiskey, the jukebox, and at some point the pinball machine (the focal point of the second book), the somewhat mysterious supporting character “the Rat”; that’s about as much of a structure as I recall. However, the second book explores the history, the mechanics, the impact, and the business side to pinball machines to uncanny detail. HK embarks on a similar study of sheep in the novel that follows. Odd subject matter? That’s why it works.

Questions, comments? Connect.