Notes from the Underground: Novelist Haruki Murakami Writes Surreal Global Best Sellers That Tackle the History and Horrors of Japan

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, April 30, 2001 | Go to article overview

Notes from the Underground: Novelist Haruki Murakami Writes Surreal Global Best Sellers That Tackle the History and Horrors of Japan


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Haruki Murakami has brought flowers to the Kasumigaseki subway station. Located in the heart of Tokyo's government district, this is one of the city's busiest stations. But what strikes a Westerner accustomed to the jostling chaos of American subways is the almost surreal orderliness of the place. People queue up at appointed places. Trains arrive at precisely scheduled times a few minutes apart. Uniformed attendants are posted throughout the gleaming, well-lit station--a dependable oasis of rational order in the hectic urban whirlwind that is modern Tokyo. So you can imagine the terror that broke out on March 20, 1995, when members of Aum Shinrikyo, an extremist religious cult, uncorked enough deadly sarin gas in the subway system to injure 5,000 people and kill 12. Two of the dead were station attendants at Kasumigaseki, and it is in their memory that Murakami has brought flowers. "The anniversary was last week," he says apologetically, "but I want to honor them."

You want to argue that he's already done that, with "Underground" (Vintage), his oral history of the gas attack that salutes the decency and unselfishness of so many ordinary people on that day. But no argument seems appropriate here, so you trail along while he delivers his flowers to the station office, and then searches fruitlessly for a plaque commemorating the dead. Like so much about the gas attack, it is tucked out of view. "People are very reluctant to talk about the gas attack," he says. "They want to be quiet, because that's a tradition of Japanese society. People are not supposed to make waves. That's the rule of the system." But it's a rule Murakami despises--"I hate the Japanese system"--and he's been breaking it at every chance for years, first as a college protester in the '60s, then as the bohemian manager of a jazz bar in the '70s and then as a novelist who turned his back on Japanese literary tradition and flaunted his Western influences.

"Underground," his first nonfiction book, marks a radical departure for Murakami. His fans will surely think it strange, with its focus on social issues and Japanese character. He has, after all, made his reputation as an internationally popular writer of what even he calls "weird stories" with titles cribbed from Western pop ("Norwegian Wood," "Dance, Dance, Dance"). His protagonists are smart but alienated young men and women who always seem to wind up on quests of some kind, searching for an old friend or a lover or battling subterranean monsters, or simply chasing a lost cat. There is nothing particularly Japanese, or even Asian, about any of this, nor about the tastes of Murakami's characters. They dine on pasta, dote on American Westerns and read Jack Kerouac. In "Sputnik Sweetheart" (Knopf), a new Murakami novel published concurrently with "Underground," the hero's a schoolteacher in love with a woman who's in love with another woman. The women take a trip, and one of them vanishes. The teacher comes to help, but everything comes to grief. And yet, as heart-wrenching as this story is--everyone's love is unrequited--somehow, mysteriously, it remains an almost cheerful book. Perhaps it's because Murakami's narrators are never odd people. Odd things happen to them. But they are easygoing, regular Joes, and their stories are completely addictive.

These coolly surreal novels have made Murakami a success at home ("Norwegian Wood" has sold 4 million copies just in Japan, where it's sort of that country's "Love Story," only a lot better written) and abroad. "A Wild Sheep Chase" and "Dance, Dance, Dance" have each sold more than 1 million copies worldwide. But while he is Japan's most famous novelist--and its best candidate for a Nobel Prize--he's also its most polarizing. …

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