Despite having written at least 21 books, all translated into up to 50 languages, Haruki Murakami is a surprisingly unknown author compared to the extreme success his books have achieved. His body of work includes fiction, nonfiction, and short story collections, nine of which have won notable awards. The Japanese author has sold 2.5 million copies of his writings; his most popular being Norwegian Wood.
Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan on 12 January 1949 in the post-war baby boom as an only child. Growing up in Nishinomiya to parents who both taught Japanese literature, Murakami was surrounded by literature from a young age, his passion stemming from this. However, his father was involved in the Second Sino-Japanese War, which deeply traumatized him, later affecting Murakami himself. This is reflected in some of his own novels where he embeds war memories and narratives, such as A Wild Sheep Chase. Murakami grew up heavily influenced by Western culture, immersing himself in a wide range of European and American writers, like Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka and Gustave Flaubert.
Studying at Waseda University, Murakami met his now wife, Yoko. Together they opened a coffee house and jazz bar in Tokyo, calling it 'Peter Cat'. The couple decided not to have children, focusing on their work instead. Murakami is a particular man who loves his rigid routine that intensifies when he’s in novel writing mode. He is said to wake up at 4 am to write for 5-6 hours and then run for 10 kilometers, later going to bed at 9pm.
"I keep to this routine every day without variation." He says, “The repetition itself becomes the important thing”.
He also loves collecting records, especially jazz- the author's first job was at a record shop. This is a parallel to the narrator of his book Norwegian Wood, Toru Watanabe. Allegedly, he owns over 6000 music records and loves going to Boston, USA, because it is “satisfying to collect secondhand jazz records”. Murakami includes many nods to the musical world in his work, such as analyzing Saeki’s song through both a literary and musical lens by the protagonists in Kafka on The Shore or naming Norwegian Wood after the infamous Beetles song.
Like many of us, Murakami likes to dive into his work without a plan. Preferring to see where his words take him, the author has said he grasps opportunities and seizes his moments of inspiration, even if they are at 4 in the morning. Enjoying “dreaming while you are awake”, Murakami suggests that the surreal nature of his books originates from his lack of planning, never knowing where the plot will wander after beginning. Of course, he acknowledges the drawbacks of this spontaneous method, his first drafts always being messy, taking months to edit and revise. He praises his strict fitness regime for allowing him to keep to a schedule, even if he stays up into the small hours of the night, he systematically completes his exercise, permitting him to have more flexibility in terms of his writing.
Throughout his collection of works, Murakami conveys themes of love, loss, music and sexual identity. In one of his novels, After Dark, written in 2004, he tells the story of the entanglement of models, prostitutes, and musicians in one single night in Tokyo. Nineteen-year-old Mari is sitting in a secluded café and is met by an acquaintance of her older sister, when she is pulled into a situation with a prostitute at a near-by hotel. Then the hours till dawn unfold as the novel progresses.
Another one of Murakami’s best novels is the third in the so-called ‘Trilogy of The Rat’ although it stands independently. A Wild Sheep Chase is set in 1978 Japan. The novel is led by a 29-year-old divorced man who is never named. It tells the detective narrative of the protagonist following letters from his old friend ‘The Rat’ as he leads him on a search for these special yet strange sheep. All this, whilst the man tries to navigate his seemingly bleak personal life, his new girlfriend improving it slightly as he is infatuated with her ears. A Wild Sheep Chase is an obscure mystery novel which displays Murakami’s writing abilities and style perfectly.
Kafka on The Shore is a novel told by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, and an older simpleton, Nakata. Kafka runs away from home to search for his mother and sister, who have been gone since he was young, whilst there is a kind of oedipal prophecy that follows him. Never recovering from the distress of wartime, Nakata is unexplainably drawn to Kafka. As the paths of the two characters converge, Murakami unfolds the reason why they come together. The lines of reality are blurred slightly. The novel takes place in a world where cats can talk, fish fall from the sky and people’s spirits can explore sexuality and commit murder together.
The most renowned of his novels is by far Norwegian Wood, a nostalgic story of loss partnered with romance and the exploration of sexuality. The coming-of-age novel begins with 37-year-old Toru Watanabe, who looks back at his days at university in Japan, his relationships, and the influence of mental health. While being devoted to the introspective Naoko, Toru and she are brought together by the tragic death of their mutual friend. Blending music, the sixties ethos and a relatable protagonist, Murakami tells a captivating story that is named after the Beetles song with main characters Toru, Naoko, and Reiko, all loving it dearly.
Although they are just 3 of Haruki Murakami’s writings, the man has many to offer, all notable and having their own unique characteristics. The routine-loving author has provided us with many a novel to keep our time occupied and allows us to appreciate Japanese life as well as excellent narratives. After travelling across Europe and living in the USA, Murakami now resides in Oiso, Japan, with his wife Yoko, hopefully writing another masterpiece for us to read soon enough.