Haruki Murakami: “Think of me like an endangered species”

The taciturn novelist has made his first appearance in Japan since 1995.

The famously taciturn novelist Haruki Murakami has made his first appearance in Japan since 1995. Murakami’s new novel – Shikisai wo Motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to Kare no Junrei no Toshi (the English reads Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and the Year of His Pilgrimage, though this title may change) – has been selling over a million copies each week since the Japanese edition went on sale last month, according to the Associated Press.

Murakami spoke at a seminar in his birthplace, Kyoto, to mark the establishment of a new literary prize in memory of the Jungian psychotherapist and writer Hayao Kawai, who died in 2007. Tickets were limited to 500 and issued by lottery. No recording was permitted.

The new book's plot - closely guarded until publication - focuses on Tsukuru Tazaki: a 36-year-old railway station architect who returns to his hometown of industrial Nagoya before travelling as far as Finland to discover why he was rejected by his four closest friends 16 years previously, in the hope of confronting them and moving on.

Where Murakami’s previous novel, the huge three-volumed IQ84, relied heavily upon allusion, action and surrealist detachment, the new work is said to be grounded in a more traditionally novelistic mode - with a greater focus on characters and their relationships.

“At the beginning, I was planning to write something allusive, as in my past works,” Murakami said at the seminar on Monday. “But this time I developed a great interest in expanding on real people. Then the characters started to act on their own. I was intrigued by the relationships between people.”

He also described writing – not for the first time – as akin to descending a very dark basement in the psyche, one in which all sense of structure is lost. “For novelists or musicians, if they really want to create something, they need to go downstairs and find a passage to get into the second basement,” he said. “What I want to do is go down there, but still stay sane.”

Murakami is a noted marathon runner, who despite calling himself “an ordinary runner whose times are nothing special” has run marathons across the world and ultra-marathons (100 miles) in Greece and Japan. As with writing, he began later than most, at the age of 33. In his memoir on the subject, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he outlined his daily routine – early mornings spent writing, afternoons running increasingly long distances and doing housework, admin and spending time with family – and the need for stamina in art, as in sport.

Throughout the book Murakami plays down his personal discipline, while simultaneously cataloguing his astonishing capacity for regimented activity. When questioned about his apparent dislike for publicity (arguable, yes – but he’s not on social media, and seldom gives interviews), Murakami said the idea of being recognised on the street made him deeply uncomfortable:

“Please thing of me like an endangered species and just observe me quietly from far away. If you try to talk to me or touch me casually, I may get intimidated and bite you. So please be careful.”

Murakami’s last public appearance in Japan followed the Kobe-Hanshin earthquake in 1995. He currently lives in Japan and Hawaii. There is as yet no English publication date for Colourless Tsukuru.

Murakami en route to Kyoto University on 6 May. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times