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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism