Thursday, 10 January 2013

'Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words' by Jay Rubin (Review)

Jay Rubin is an American academic who is well known for his translations of Japanese literature, including works by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Natsume Soseki.  However, he is undoubtedly best known in the west for his work on some of Haruki Murakami's back catalogue, including Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and After Dark.  Not content with just translating Murakami's fiction however, Rubin, who knows the writer quite well, decided to write a book about the man and his creations - and a good one it is too...

Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is the next logical step for Murakami fans to take when they've burned through all of his translated works.  It's a book which gives an insight into the author's life while also shedding some light on what it is he is actually trying to say in his writing (something which has puzzled me for a long time...).

We follow Murakami through his less-than-stellar school days and his riot-interrupted time at university, finding out about his early marriage and his years running a jazz club along the way.  He was never a typical Japanese writer, showing little interest in his native literature or culture, preferring instead to experience American novels and jazz (which will come as little surprise to anyone who has read any of his books).  Eventually though, he decided to try his hand at writing - and the rest, as they say, is history...

As interesting as Murakami's life is though, what we're really here for is the guided tour through his books, and Rubin is just the man for the job.  He carefully takes the reader through assorted novels, stories and non-fiction pieces in chronological order (which isn't always the order, or the format, they appeared in overseas), explaining the thought processes behind the books and highlighting connections between the various works - some obvious, others not quite so easy to spot at first glance.

Rubin shows how Murakami was the first of a new breed of writers, one who (unlike his predecessors) was in tune with the new Japan:
"...Murakami has been called the first writer completely at home with the elements of American popular culture that permeate present-day Japan.  He has also been seen as the first genuinely "post-post-war writer", the first to cast off the "dank, heavy atmosphere" of the post-war period and to capture in literature the new Americanised mood of lightness." p.17 (Vintage Books, 2005)
As well as this difference in style, Murakami was also a literary outsider in other ways.  He was not a member of any literary group (very unusual for a Japanese author), and his books were initially frowned upon by such heavyweights as Kenzaburo Oe.

However, this difference was not quite as marked as first appears.  His stories, with their typical unresolved endings, are compared to traditional Japanese writers such as Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, and he is also the latest in a long line of writers to enrich Japanese literature through his work in translation (following in the footsteps of Tsubouchi and Futabatei!).  In fact, for those not overly familiar with Murakami, his work as a literary translator may come as a bit of a shock.  According to Rubin, he has translated dozens of American novels and short story collections and has been responsible for a resurgence in the popularity of American literature in Japan.

For me, the most useful part of the book though was the focus on themes in Murakami's work.  Rubin concentrates very heavily on Murakami's handling of the subject of memory and its unreliability, claiming that:
"Perhaps no other writer concerned with memory and the difficulty of reclaiming the past - not Kawabata, not even Proust - has succeeded as well as Murakami in capturing the immediacy of the experience of déjà vu." p.60
While I'm a little dubious about that boast (and in certain blogs I frequent, I'm sure them's fighting words...), it's true that the writer is fascinated with the way we see the world and the impossibility of ever knowing the truth about the past and other people.

Rubin also devotes a lot of time to Murakami's concept of 'the other place', the space occupied by the things that are not present in our current location.  Whether it refers to the psyche, an afterlife or another dimension, it's ever-present in Murakami's writing, and many of his protagonists are trying to bridge the gap between here and 'the other place'.  How?  Well, some of you may have noticed that there are a fair few wells, tunnels and corridors in his books...

While I could misinterpret Rubin's ideas all day, I think I'll leave the analysis there.  Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is an excellent book and one I enjoyed immensely.  Still, there are a few issues I'd like to quickly point out.  If you haven't really read a lot of Murakami, I'm not sure that this is for you.  Part of the fun lies in recognising the stories Rubin is discussing - and there are a lot of them.  I was able to frequently refer to the many books on my Murakami shelf to jog my memory and spent a lot of time rereading certain short stories.  If all you've read is Norwegian Wood, leave this one for the future.

Another possible issue is that it doesn't always pay to see your heroes up close, warts and all.  On the whole, Rubin (a close friend) paints a very favourable picture of the writer (and any mention of his wife Yoko verges on hagiography), but I was a little troubled by a couple of images.  For one thing, his style of writing appears a little haphazard, and he rarely seems to know where he's going with the books he's writing.  He could also be accused of writing for the sake of writing as his output is truly phenomenal (and covers all kinds of areas and genres).  For a fan of translated fiction like me though, perhaps the most worrying revelation is that he is comfortable with translations of translations, preferring his work to get to readers quickly, even if it isn't quite what he wrote in the first place...

Still, nobody's perfect, and anyone expecting perfection deserves all the disappointments they get.  Readers who set their bar a little lower will have great fun with this book - just don't blame me if you get hooked on hunting down translated rarities of Murakami's work...


...speaking of which, I have a little story to tell you ;)

I recently saw a comment on the January in Japan blog where someone signed up for the challenge, and (like a good host) I popped over to check out the blog.  The blogger was Carola of brilliant years, and she had just published a post - one in which a link was given to a translation of a rare Murakami work.  It's called The Sheep Man's Christmas, and while the quality of the translation (and the formatting) may leave a little to be desired, it's still a fun piece of writing with that inimitable Murakami sense of humour.

I was very happy with my unexpected Christmas present, and I'd urge you all to have a look too :)