Murakami in Russia: How Do They See Him?

An interesting take from Ivan Sergeevich Logatchov, on “What Russians See in Murakami,” written around 2005 as Murakami fever was hitting Russia, with an in-depth look at The Wind-up Bird Chronicle from a distinctly Russian perspective:

“In this article I would like to consider how Haruki Murakami is received in Russia today and what lies behind his current fame. The ‘Murakami boom’ reached Russian shores some twenty years behind Japan, where he rose to prominence in the 1980s, and spawned many fans of his works. At the time of his emergence in Japan, there were numerous other rising writers. In Russia, however, no contemporary Japanese writers were known when Dmitry Kovalenin’s translation of A Wild Sheep Chase ignited Murakami’s popularity. Thus, Murakami has become the yardstick by which other contemporary Japanese writers are measured in Russia. At least, the works of Ryu Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, the next Japanese writers to be translated into Russian, have invariably been compared with Haruki Murakami’s works.

To the Japanese, Murakami is but one of many popular writers. In the eyes of the Russians, however, he both symbolizes contemporary Japan and epitomizes the Japanese mentality. Here, I believe, lies a fundamental difference in how his works are received in Japan and in Russia.

There are two well-known Murakamis in contemporary Japanese literature. Though their surnames are the same, Haruki Murakami and Ryu Murakami have highly contrasting lifestyles and little in common as writers. And yet, being familiar with the surname, Russian readers are quick to pick out a Murakami from among the exotic names of Japanese writers.

Needless to say, Haruki Murakami and Ryu Murakami are received in distinct ways. Unlike the works of Haruki Murakami, those of Ryu Murakami are replete with features that hardly suit the tastes of Europeans, such as the violence and explicit sexuality of his Almost Transparent Blue. The characters in Ryu Murakami’s novels take heroin and have sex after drinking whiskey. After reading all the details of the protagonist’s decadent life, readers may be left with such a sense of filth that they feel the urge to wash their hands.

Above all, Russian readers seek the sort of exoticism that they find in Haruki Murakami’s works. They are rather disappointed when they have finished reading a Ryu Murakami novel, therefore, not finding it entertaining at all. While Ryu Murakami’s works are far from primitive or banal, they are less accessible to Russians than those of Haruki Murakami.

Russian empathy with the protagonist’s self-awareness and loneliness

The protagonist’s self-awareness, and his loneliness arising from social alienation, an issue frequently addressed by Haruki Murakami, is one that is vitally important and familiar to Russian society today. Following the fall of the Soviet Union many Russians fell up against a similar problem, which might be phrased as, ‘How should I define my place in the society of the new Russia?’ or, ‘Am I a Russian, or am I a Soviet?’ Because life in Russia has lately become insecure and precarious, just as in Murakami’s world, Russian readers may be able to discover their own identity and resolve problems involving personal relationships by reading Murakami’s works. His protagonists, who embody contemporary society, offer answers to a variety of compelling questions, such as what human beings are about and what we are living for.

The anecdotes about Russia and Russians that often appear in Murakami’s works are also very interesting to Russian readers. Some examples are the nonsense about Leon Trotsky in Pinball, 1973 and the references to the Nomonhan Incident in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. These descriptions give Russian readers a good idea of how the Japanese envision Russians.

Acceptance as a modern writer by young Russians

Many Russian readers look upon Murakami as a sophisticated modernist writer. In fact, the very act of reading his books may be taking on the overtones of a fashion rather than a personal pursuit. It has recently become quite common to see someone reading a Murakami book on the Moscow subway. Typically, thinking it is stylish to be reading Murakami, the individual is reading the book without a protective cover, so as to draw the attention of those in the same car to its identity, and wearing a smug look as if to say, ‘I’m sure you all know exactly what I’m reading.’ We appear to be seeing the emergence of a new generation of Russians who try to assert that they are different from everyone else by reading books of the moment.

The vast majority of Murakami fans in Russia are either university students or people in their twenties and thirties employed in the financial and media industries. They represent a generation of people who have been groping for their place and a set of values to live by in a changing society. Perhaps they see a reflection of their own vacillation in Murakami’s cool and eccentric characters, who distance themselves from those around them. Moreover, his works are exciting and straightforward, and the stories are intriguing. Thanks to a steady stream of translations of works by such contemporary Japanese writers as Haruki Murakami and Ryu Murakami, Russian perceptions of Japan and the Japanese are likely to change substantially.

Speedy translations into Russian

Russian publishers are rushing to translate the works of Haruki Murakami. Three new translations of his works, including the masterpiece Portrait in Jazz, were issued in Russia in 2005. Russian readers are already enjoying After Dark, while readers in the United States are still working on Kafka on the Shore. The largest bookstores in Moscow, such as Biblio-Globus and Dom Knigi, not only offer large selections of Murakami’s books but have special sections set aside for them. The interest in his works is so high that even major publishers cannot keep up with the demand, and new works often sell out almost as soon as they arrive on store shelves.

Eksmo Press, one of Russia’s leading publishing houses, obtained the translation and publication rights for all of Murakami’s works in 2005 with a view to publishing a complete collection by the end of 2006. Meanwhile, the second printing of the Russian translation of Kafka on the Shore, which was published in December 2004, is almost sold out. Kafka on the Shore is the first major novel by Murakami to be translated into Russian before English.

Gripping descriptions of Japanese society

Below I will focus primarily on The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to discuss my observations regarding Murakami’s writing style. I believe that his works cannot be classified into a single genre. They are not suspense or horror stories along the lines of those of Stephen King, nor are they science fiction or fantasy. But there are views to the contrary, such as that offered by the critic Tetsuya Hatori. In an essay titled ‘The Modern Significance of Supernatural Powers (An Analysis of the Wind-up Bird Chronicle),’ published in the periodical Kokubungaku in 1995, Hatori wrote that A Wild Sheep Chase, with its numerous aspects of mysticism and occult horror, is ‘the Japanese version of the American horror film The Exorcist.’ Murakami can be said to have been greatly influence by famous Western writers of the twentieth century. His characters drink Heineken instead of sake and eat hamburgers instead of sushi, and this sort of un-Japanese lifestyle arouses the interest and curiosity of overseas readers.

As readers of Murakami are aware, most of his finer novels are in the first person. In this way he imbues readers with his distinctive manner of thinking and draws them into his fantastical universe. Murakami’s readers have a certain appeal to Russian readers simply by virtue of the abundance of scenes that bear no resemblance to Russian life. Moreover, contemporary Japanese society – the setting of many of Murakami’s novels – is a world apart to the ordinary Russian.

A hard-boiled world of pop culture

Murakami’s hard-boiled literature, overflowing with references to pop culture based on the American lifestyle, unfolds like a puzzle and draws readers into a postmodern world in a fantasy-like manner. The excitement is akin to that of a mystery novel. This aspect of his works, along with a literary style reminiscent of improvisational jazz, seems to account in part for his immense popularity.

Lately, Murakami has often been compared with such postmodernist authors such as Jack Kerouac and Umberto Eco (MY NOTE: Interesting combination!). A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are said to show the strong influence of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., while Franz Kafka appears to have influenced The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. (MY NOTE: Now that I can see.) Murakami himself has been ambiguous at best when it comes to assessing literary influences on his career.

The critic Koichiro Koizumi compared Toru Okanada, the protagonist of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, with the protagonist of Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes in his essay ‘Haruki Murakami’s Style: With a Focus on the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,’ published in Kokobungaku in 1995. Murakami himself has admitted that he has been strongly influenced by Kobo Abe, but he also remarks that he loves the writing style of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In one interview, for example, he referred to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov as ‘an admirable, ideal novel.’

Incidentally, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle contains surprisingly few references to American culture, in contrast to Murakami’s earlier novels. A comparison of the novel’s first chapter, ‘Tuesday’s Wind-Up Bird: Six Fingers and Four Breasts,’ with the short story ‘The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,’ on which the novel is based illustrates this point well. The protagonist in ‘The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s women’ reads Len Deighton (a British-born author known primarily for spy novels), listens to Robert Plant (former lead singer of Led Zeppelin and a rock vocalist), and eats McDonald’s cheeseburgers. Toru Okada of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle listens to Rossini instead of Plant and cooks spaghetti instead of eating cheeseburgers. Although spaghetti could conceivably be likened to fast food like McDonald’s hamburgers, Rossini bears no comparison to Led Zeppelin.

Murakami typically blends several genres in a novel, adopting a flexible literary form spanning various categories that do not adhere to a single genre. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for example, crosses over several genres. Aspects of domestic drama, postmodern utopianism, and historical fiction all coexist in the novel.

The domestic-drama part of the book centers on the life of Toru and Kumiko Okada. The opening chapters feature episodes involving their family life, and references are made to the background of their marriage and to the Watayas, Kumiko’s eccentric relatives. As the reader approaches part two of the book, whoever, scenes of everyday life recede and supernatural phenomena come to the fore, as if a disassociation of consciousness or a shirt to a different dimension (the otherworld) were taking place. Thanks to Murakami’s use of diverse artistic techniques, the labyrinthine plot is able to segue smoothly from the real world to the otherworld. The author lets his characters wander between reality and fantasy, organizing reality as he pleases. The wall separating reality from pseudo-reality gradually fades away, and the notion of the ‘here’ loses its former meaning. In other words, the ‘here’ simultaneously becomes the otherworld and the real world.

The very title of the novel and the names of its characters – the sisters Malta and Creta Kano, Nutmeg, Boris the Manskinner – have a postmodern feel. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle can also be defined as a postmodern work by the coexistence of the surreal scenes that inundate the novel and true-to-life scenes, most of which depict the Nomonhan Incident and the Sino-Japanese War. With The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami can be said to have combined for the first time the style of a historical novel with a fantastical postmodern utopianism.”

My next post will be on WEDNESDAY, July 16, on The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Book Three, Chapters 9-23.

Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.


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