In 1978, Murakami was watching a baseball game when American player Dave Hilton came to bat. At the exact moment that Hilton hit a double, Murakami realised that he could write a novel. He began writing Hear the Wind Sing that same night. Before that game, Murakami has said, he was just ‘one of those ordinary people’ who never thought of writing; in an instant, his mind changed. Such are the events that frequent Murakami’s novels: the sudden discovery of something life-changing inside the mundane; the dreamlike overturning of an otherwise stable personality.
Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan in 1949. Although his parents both taught Japanese literature, Murakami grew up reading a wide range of Western authors, from Lewis Carroll and Fyodor Dostoevsky to Raymond Chandler and Kurt Vonnegut. This fusion of cultures, as well as traditionally literary and pulp writing, is evident in his work, which consistently resists genres and definitions. His novels tend to inhabit a surreal space somewhere between crime fiction, science fiction and boy-meets-girl love stories.
After attending Waseda University, Murakami ran a jazz bar in Tokyo from 1974 to 1981. His rhythmic style of writing originates from obsessive listening to the harmonies and melodies of jazz music, and musical references are interwoven throughout his novels.
Hear The Wind Sing was published in 1979, one year after inspiration struck at the famous baseball game, and it became the first instalment of his Rat Trilogy. These early novels show the beginning of Murakami’s distinctive style: the trilogies’ narrator and protagonist is an aimless young man, female characters and domestic animals seem to possess supernatural powers, and inanimate objects carry tremendous and often unexplained significance.
Murakami’s next novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the Edge of the World, developed this style, but it was his 1987 work Norwegian Wood that gave him a major breakthrough. This diverged from his earlier writing with a story about loss and nostalgia during the student protests in 1960s Tokyo. This novel made Murakami a celebrity amongst Japanese youth, and its historically accurate, realistic depiction of Japan may be part of the reason why Western audiences think of Murakami as a quintessentially Japanese author.
This is not the label Murakami, a self-proclaimed “outsider”, would claim for himself. After writing Norwegian Wood, Murakami has gravitated more and more towards postmodern styles and the pulp-influenced, from the world at the bottom of a well in A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to UFOs in Kafka at the Shore, and parallel worlds in his huge (and hugely popular) 1Q84 trilogy.
In his more recent fiction, the world of Norwegian Wood is seen only in brief, elliptical glimpses: rare moments of miso soup and truck drivers are hidden amongst the bizarre events of his plots. Murakami does not present a Japan ripe for the visiting of literary tourists – rather, it is a globalised, dehumanised place of sunken car-parks, airless shopping malls and sparsely populated hotels.
The quiet, eerie markings of the supernatural seem to be a natural addition to this environment. When, in 1Q84, Aomame climbs off a staircase into a world with two moons, one of which may be paper, the well-versed reader of Murakami would not be surprised. His books occupy a unique place in literary fiction – between high and popular culture, Japan and America, Murakami creates a world where the only things that can be predicted are the recurring symbols of dreams and isolation.
Image: Farley Santos via Flickr.