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.

Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem