Haruki Murakami talks cats, enemies, and his subconscious at the Auckland Writers Festival.
In person, Haruki Murakami is surprisingly sprightly. The crowd’s gentle laughter is constant at his sold-out Auckland Writers Festival Q & A, and even at his most solemn his playful nature shines through.
His fixation on cats is a recurring topic. An only child, Murakami says that a feline was his sole companion growing up, and jokes that in a hypothetical house fire his cat’s safety would take precedence over his wife and 11,000-strong record collection. When asked if their frequent presence in his fiction stems from a spiritual connection he responds curtly: “no… it’s just a cat.”
He speaks modestly of his success and says he was shocked when Norwegian Wood sold two million copies. “I wasn’t ready to be a bestselling author,” he reflects. “I made a lot of enemies… So I got out of Japan and went to America. I was hated by so many in Japan in those days. In America many people didn’t know me so it was very comfortable.”
His dissenters included Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe. “Murakami writes in Japanese, but his writing isn’t really Japanese,” claimed Oe in the wake of Norwegian Wood’s success. “If you translate it into American English it can be read very naturally in New York.” Murakami himself has admited that “self-imposed exile” while living in Italy, Greece, and America left him disconnected from Japan.
The author’s parents were both Japanese literature professors. “So naturally, I hated Japanese literature,” he explains with a smile. “Everywhere, in every time, kids are doing what their parents don’t like.” His take on teenage rebellion was favouring Russian and American authors like Dostoyevsky and Raymond Chandler over their Japanese counterparts.
The Kobe earthquake and Tokyo subway gas attack spurred his homeward return in 1995. “This was the time for me to go back to my country. I had to do something for my people.” That something was Underground—an oral history of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s gas attack, based on the interviews of 65 survivors.
The research process was a humbling experience. “When I ride the train there are so many people on one carriage. They’re just strangers, but after I published that book I found they are not strangers, they are my people.”
When it comes to fiction, Murakami says his stories are as unpredictable to him as they are to his readers. His most recent work, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was intended as a very short story, but expanded to novel length because he had to find out what happened next. To the dismay of many fans, not even he knows the outcome of its cliffhanger conclusion.
His distinctively minimalist style stems from an experiment while writing his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in which he rewrote the first chapters in English before translating them back. “I knew so much about Japanese language… My English vocabulary is so small and I don’t know so many expressions. What I wrote was very clear and succinct.”
In a separate session at the Auckland Writers Festival, fellow novelist Ben Okri described Murakami’s daily routine as “Spartan.” He wakes at 4 am (unassisted by an alarm clock), writes for five hours, goes running, spends the afternoon translating (which he considers a pastime) then watches baseball after sunset.
Despite the sombre content of his novels, Murakami seems to live a happy life. His 44-year marriage has “never been boring” and sometimes he feels an invisible force is assisting his good luck. Unearthing bleak stories involves delving into his subconscious. “I go down to the darkness of my mind and find something. Sometimes I see evil things and it’s dangerous to be there, but I have to do that… That is my work. That is my job.”
The 2015 Auckland Writers Festival ran from May 13-17 at the Aotea Centre.