Japanese Writer Haruki Murakami's Prescient Fiction

Article excerpt

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami uses his novels to peel back the layered chaos of an uncertain world.

In Haruki Murakami's world, fish fall from the sky near a Tokyo train station, backyard wells lead to personal and political violence, and a giant frog tells a businessman how to save Tokyo from its next major earthquake. The mundane mingles with the absurd, but neither offers solutions in a universe bent toward chaos.

Mr. Murakami cites Franz Kafka as one of his major influences, yet he warms Kafka's chilly detachment with Japanese earnestness, producing novels that anticipate apocalypse without succumbing to easy cynicism. In Murakami's world, chaos is softened by empathy - a quality in sorrowfully short supply, in fiction or in reality, in our 21st century.

"Everything is uncertain," muses Tengo, the male protagonist of Murakami's forthcoming novel, "1Q84," "and ultimately ambiguous." In Murakami's world, uncertainty is the norm. But once you accept it, his stories suggest, you can live and love accordingly.

Murakami's native land, Japan, has honed apocalyptic narratives by necessity. The only nation to have been victimized by the atomic bomb in 1945 is an archipelago slightly smaller than the state of California, subject to typhoons, volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis - the latter of which recently destroyed the homes and livelihoods of much of its northeastern population. The brutal irony of the nation's embrace of nuclear power after its World War II blasts was summarized by Murakami himself during an awards speech in Barcelona this spring: "The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is the second major nuclear detriment that the Japanese people have experienced," he said. "However, this time it was not a bomb being dropped upon us, but a mistake committed by our very own hands.

"Yet those who questioned nuclear power were marginalized as being 'unrealistic dreamers.' "

Murakami may well have been talking about himself. Throughout his career, he has been marginalized by his generation, Japan's "boomers," many of whom abandoned political causes when the country's economic juggernaut seemed a sure thing. Living abroad, he heard a lot about his country's wealth and technology but nothing about its culture. "[My generation] was arrogant," he says now. "We believed that the future would always be better, but that's not true."

In his fiction, Murakami depicts a Japan of near-stifling mundanity. His protagonists are frequently bored and self- abnegating chumps whose lives are pierced by the supernatural, leading them to encounters with the darker forces of history, sexuality, and war. "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," his sprawling 1998 novel, begins with its unemployed hero boiling spaghetti and whistling to Gioachino Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie." Suddenly his cat disappears, his wife leaves him, and he is drawn into a horrific confrontation with Japan's massacres in China.

The shattering impact of the natural and man-made disasters of March 11 in Japan is well suited to Murakami's world, where passive acceptance of the way things seem leads to the violence of the way things are. His generation's blind faith in the future and the ultimate good of technology is being severely tested, with an ongoing nuclear disaster serving as a persistent reminder of "mistake[s] committed by our very own hands." Tellingly, Murakami's readers in Japan tend to be younger than he ("I get older and my readers get younger," he often says), perhaps because they can see what his own generation has chosen to ignore.

Unrealistic and dreamy, Murakami's first novel, "Hear the Wind Sing" (1979), won him Japanese literary magazine Gunzo's prize for rookie writers and launched his literary career. His fifth novel, "Norwegian Wood" (1987; Knopf, 2000), now a motion picture from Anh Hung Tran, won him 2 million readers in Japan - and launched him into a white-hot spotlight. …