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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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser