Haruki Murakami Essay - Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki

Introduction

Haruki Murakami 1949-

Japanese novelist, short story writer, translator, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Murakami's career through 1999.

One of the most commercially successful and influential writers of contemporary Japanese jun-bungaku (“serious literature”), Murakami is a best-selling novelist and prolific short story writer who has extensively translated works of modern American fiction into Japanese, including the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, John Irving, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Many critics recognize Murakami as a spokesperson for the shin-jinrui (“new human beings”)—the affluent postwar generation that typically shuns traditional Japanese values in favor of the appeal of American popular culture. In his fiction Murakami has consciously diverged from the mainstream of jun-bungaku. Murakami writes in a new style of Japanese prose, which juxtaposes and merges distinctly American motifs and diction with such traditional jun-bungaku themes as love, death, and the self. Combining metaphysics with the cinematic devices of film noir, Murakami's fiction frequently alludes to commercial brand names and cultural icons of the United States. Much of his work has been noted for its surreal qualities, blending bizarre plot twists and unique narration styles in a fashion that nevertheless retains an air of plausibility. Those of the shin-jinrui generation have bought millions of Murakami's books, prompting both popular and critical attention from a global audience. Although some critics have characterized Murakami's novels as slickly packaged consumer products, several others have compared Murakami's literary achievement to the works of Ōe Kenzaburō and Kōbō Abé, whose writings from an earlier generation similarly changed the Japanese language.

Biographical Information

Murakami was born January 12, 1949, in Ashiya City, Japan, a suburb of Kōbe. His mother and father were high-school-level Japanese literature teachers. As a boy, Murakami felt alienated by the authoritarian strictures and familiar closeness of traditional Japanese culture. Rejecting the values of his World War II veteran father, Murakami instead immersed himself in 1960s American popular culture, growing familiar with Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, the television show “Peter Gunn,” and American jazz. As an adolescent, his interest in jazz deepened, and Murakami began reading American literature, both in Japanese translation as well as the original English. Murakami entered Tokyo's Waseda University in 1968 and spent seven years earning his bachelor's degrees in screenwriting and Greek drama. In 1971 he married Yoko Takahashi, a fellow university student, and together they opened a suburban Tokyo jazz bar shortly before their graduation. The couple managed the Peter Cat nightclub until 1981, catering to a diverse clientele of Japanese students and American soldiers from a nearby U.S. military base.

In 1978 Murakami began writing his first novel, Kaze no uta o kike (1979; Hear the Wind Sing). Murakami published two more novels, 1973-nen no pinbōru (1980; Pinball, 1973) and Hitsuji o megaru bōken (1982; A Wild Sheep Chase), which were met with critical acclaim. After the publication of his third novel, he decided to sell the nightclub and commit to a full-time writing career. In 1981, Murakami published the first work in a continuous series of Japanese translations of modern American fiction. Subsequently, Murakami turned his attention to shorter fiction, publishing three Japanese-language collections of short stories. In 1985, Murakami published Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). Murakami then spent the next decade travelling around Greece, Italy, and the United States, contributing individual stories to both Japanese- and English-language publications, as well as writing the novels Noruei no mori (1987; Norwegian Wood) and Dansu, dansu, dansu (1988; Dance, Dance, Dance). Murakami attained international celebrity after the 1989 publication of the first English-language edition of A Wild Sheep Chase, his first translated novel. Murakami held a visiting fellowship in East Asian studies at Princeton University from 1991 to 1993. At Princeton, Murakami completed the novel Kokkyō no minami, taiyō no nishi (1992; South of the Border, West of the Sun) and released his first English-language collection of previously published and new short fiction, The Elephant Vanishes (1993). Before returning to Japan in late 1995, Murakami also served as a writer-in-residence at Tufts University, where he wrote his three-volume novel Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (1994–1995; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).

Major Works

Leaving behind both the conventions and expectations of traditional Japanese jun-bungaku, Murakami's major works examine contemporary Japanese identity through such unconventional devices as colloquial language, postmodern plotting techniques, and pessimistic thematic material. In Murakami's first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, the protagonist (conventionally referred to in jun-bungaku as “Boku”), is a twenty-one-year-old biology major who has come home from college. After drinking at a local bar with an older friend known as “The Rat,” Boku eventually realizes that he wants to write fiction. Although Boku and the Rat never encounter each other in the narrative, they both appear in Murakami's next novel, Pinball, 1973, set during the autumn months of 1973. The novel focuses on Boku as he confronts the world of his memory by generating a compendium of early 1970s pop trivia. A Wild Sheep Chase completes Murakami's trilogy centering on Boku and the Rat. Set in July 1978, Boku recounts his adventures of attempting to locate the Rat, but his quest is blocked by a mysterious supernatural sheep who embodies the Rat's persona. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World tells two separate, alternating first-person narratives which gradually converge and unite by the novel's end. The story follows one narrator (Boku) as he interprets dreams within the confines of a fantastic walled town, while the second narrator (Watashi) lives in a futuristic city resembling Tokyo, where internal conflicts are growing within the information syndicate.

Evoking the ambiance of the 1960s with lyrical prose, Norwegian Wood is Murakami's most realistic and most commercially successful novel, representing the peak of his popularity with shin-jinrui. This dark, “boy-meets-girl” novel, which derives its title from a Beatles song, recounts the maturation of a college student, similar to the hero of the Japanese classic Tale of Genji. A relationship between the student, Toru, and Naoko is marked by the death of a mutual friend years earlier. Naoko turns increasingly inward and is eventually resigned to a drug rehabilitation center where she commits suicide, and Toru turns to another character, Midori, for comfort. Dance, Dance, Dance continues the adventures of the protagonist from A Wild Sheep Chase. The protagonist is searching for an old girlfriend and learns that a famous movie star has murdered her. South of the Border, West of the Sun begins with a description of the sexual exploits of a teenage narrator and then flashes forward to a present-day affair between the now-thirty-something narrator and a former classmate. The classmate vanishes from the narrator's life as quickly as she first appeared, leaving him to wonder how well people can truly know one another. Murakami's short story anthology The Elephant Vanishes contains seventeen first-person narratives that span the spectrum between realism and fantasy, covering a similar range of themes and motifs as his longer fiction. Distinguished by its treatment of historical and political events, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle rejects the popular Japanese image of its citizens as the victims of World War II. Instead, the novel examines the massacre at Nomonham, a World War II battle in the Mongolian desert where the Japanese blindly attacked Chinese soldiers, who then massacred the Japanese in retaliation. Recounted through the memories of soldiers who were there and citizens of the era, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle confronts the legacy of Japanese aggression during World War II from the perspective of Murakami's generation, illuminating the darker chapters of Japan's recent past for a younger audience. In 1997, Murakami published the first volume of Andaguraumdo (Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche), a collection of interviews with victims of a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway that occurred in March 1995, perpetrated by a radical cult group called “Aum Supreme Truth.” A second volume was published in 1998, collecting interviews between Murakami and members of the cult. Murakami returned to fiction writing in 2001 with Suputoniku no koibito (Sputnik Sweetheart), a romantic novel about a young high-school teacher who travels to Greece to find a missing friend who has mysteriously disappeared.

Critical Reception

Beginning with the publication of his first novel, Murakami has enjoyed literary success in Japan, attracting younger readers by the millions with his linguistic playfulness and indeterminate narratives. However, Murakami has also baffled Japan's World War II generation for many of the same reasons. While most professional Japanese critics of jun-bungaku have favorably received Murakami's writings, praising his fusion of conventional Japanese literary aesthetics with postmodernism, other critics have expressed skepticism about his “American” language and cinematic plotting techniques. Many critics in both the East and the West have admired Murakami's skillful recognition of the irony that pervades grave situations and his ability to create strong characterizations. Although his fiction is often noted for its distinctly postmodern devices, most reviewers have agreed that these devices are not mere gimmicks, but rather valuable keys to understanding his fiction. Several Western critics have traced Murakami's influences from a range of contemporary American writers, often speculating upon the role of his Japanese translations of their works in shaping his style and narrative techniques. Other commentators have noted the “confluence” of Eastern and Western literary traditions in Murakami's writings. In addition, Murakami is often credited with introducing a new type of jun-bungaku hero, one that reflects the author's own politically aloof and cutting-edge public persona, which, critics note, are tendencies exhibited and emulated by Murakami's generation in Japan. Critics have also referred to Murakami as the Japanese equivalent of American novelist Jay McInerney or Bret Easton Ellis. Despite these comparisons and the rampant consumerism of Murakami's characters, many reviewers have acknowledged a psychic or spiritual dimension to his writings.

Principal Works

Kaze no uta o kike [Hear the Wind Sing] (novel) 1979

1973-nen no pinbōru [Pinball, 1973] (novel) 1980

Hitsuji o megaru bōken [A Wild Sheep Chase] (novel) 1982

Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando [Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World] (novel) 1985

Noruei no mori [Norwegian Wood] (novel) 1987

Dansu, dansu, dansu [Dance, Dance, Dance] (novel) 1988

Murakami Haruki zensakuhin, 1979–1989. 8 vols. [Complete Works of Murakami Haruki, 1979–1989] (novels and short stories) 1990–1991

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Criticism

Naomi Matsuoka (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Murakami Haruki and Raymond Carver: The American Scene,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4, 1993, pp. 423–38.

[In the following essay, Matsuoka compares A Wild Sheep Chase to Raymond Carver's “Blackbird Pie,” tracing similarities between motifs, themes, and characters to illustrate the “confluence” of American and Japanese fictional conventions in contemporary world literature.]

In the preface to From Puritanism to Postmodernism, Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland write:

Now, by virtue not only of its quality but its modern resonance, and indeed America's own power of influence...

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Yoshio Iwamoto (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: “A Voice from Postmodern Japan: Haruki Murakami,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 295–300.

[In the following essay, Iwamoto identifies the distinctly postmodern qualities of Murakami's fiction, focusing on A Wild Sheep Chase.]

Forget everything you know about Japan and enter the postmodern world of Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase, where people sweat about their careers, drink too much, and drift through broken marriages, all without a kimono in sight.

A postmodern detective novel in which dreams, hallucinations and a wild imagination are more...

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David L. Ulin (review date 4 April 1993)

SOURCE: “Disorder Out of Chaos,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Ulin describes the general style, themes, principal characters, and tone of Murakami's short fiction in The Elephant Vanishes.]

For better or worse, we live today in an atmosphere of cultural cross-pollination, where words and images are transmitted across continents at the speed of television, and the writing of one society can influence the writers of another until the idea of boundaries becomes nearly irrelevant.

In some circles, it's fashionable to lament this process, to see it as responsible for a kind of mass homogenization...

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Brooke Horvath (review date Fall 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Norwegian Wood, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, Fall, 1993, pp. 228–29.

[In the following review, Horvath summarizes the plot and themes of Norwegian Wood, comparing the novel to Murakami's other works.]

In 1989 Kodansha International published Alfred Birnbaum's translation of Murakami's 1982 novel A Wild Sheep Chase (reviewed RCF 10.2). Kodansha followed up on that novel's success with the release of Birnbaum's translation of Hard-Boiled Wonderland (1985) in 1991 (reviewed RCF 12.2). Although Murakami's own follow-up to that novel, Norwegian Wood (1987), has not yet been released in...

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Jim McCue (review date 19 November 1993)

SOURCE: “Doing without Feeling,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 19, 1993, p. 23.

[In the following review, McCue focuses on the indifferent descriptions and emotional detachment of Murakami's narrative style in The Elephant Vanishes.]

Haruki Murakami's people are mostly youngish, middle-class, educated, smart and, without realizing it, disaffected. They are caught up in jobs, property, habits, relationships, marriages which mean nothing—but they are not looking for meanings. Each day is unexceptionable, except that each day is unexceptional. “It was another beautiful, cloudless day, just like yesterday. In fact, it was like a continuation of yesterday....

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Constance Markey (review date 2 January 1994)

SOURCE: “In the Steps of a Japanese Gumshoe,” in Chicago Tribune Books, January 2, 1994, p. 6.

[In the following review, Markey outlines the central themes of Dance, Dance, Dance.]

Haruki Murakami's Dance, Dance, Dance is a mystery that requires the reader to do some sleuthing. Without providing much background, it picks up abruptly where the author's earlier novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, ends—inviting the reader to speculate on the riddle of Sheep Chase and at the same time puzzle through this book.

The story takes place in today's Japan and involves tangled adventures and grisly crimes, but the lure of the uncanny clearly...

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Elizabeth Ward (review date 16 January 1994)

SOURCE: “The Long Sayonara,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 24, No. 3, January 16, 1994, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following review, Ward describes the plot of Dance, Dance, Dance, detailing the novel's settings and characters.]

Don't read Haruki Murakami if you want Japanese exotic. His settings—Sapporo, Hakone, Shibuya, Azabu—may exert an initial outlandish charm, but his props—from steak houses and Maseratis to Sam Cooke and Cutty Sark—are as Western as last week's New Yorker tossed on the coffee table. This is mi casa es su casa with a vengeance: We are all living in the suburbs of a global metropolis in which the discontinuities...

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Alan Wearne (review date February 1994)

SOURCE: “Adventurous,” in Australian Book Review, Vol. 158, February, 1994, pp. 43–44.

[In the following review, Wearne provides an overview of Murakami's works and career through Dance, Dance, Dance.]

Every adventurous reader of fiction ought to have a private hoard of novelists, preferably from a non-English writing background, who have escaped the appalling nonsense of Booker style PR hype. Luckily publishers like Collins Harvill set about promoting such writers; unluckily for Australia though our major literary pages often neglect to review the bulk of such output. You will have your favourites in such a category but let this reviewer recommend the following:...

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Alexander Harrison (review date 18 March 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Dance, Dance, Dance, in Times Literary Supplement, March 18, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following positive review, Harrison praises Murakami's achievement in Dance, Dance, Dance.]

The nameless copywriter who narrates Dance, Dance, Dance is a modern Japanese. He has schooled himself in Western music, from Count Basie through Isaac Hayes to Boy George, and knows every trick that Hollywood ever pulled. He sustains himself on Japanese food or high-quality international cuisine. Gotanda, a film star of consummate elegance and beauty, and he become friends, finding each other as they drink Cutty Sark and vodka gimlets while discussing the ocean of...

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Celeste Loughman (review date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: A review of The Elephant Vanishes, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, Spring, 1994, pp. 434–35.

[In the following review, Loughman discusses the sense of emptiness conveyed by the themes and characters of The Elephant Vanishes.]

Among Japanese writers born after the war whose work has been translated into English, Haruki Murakami (b. 1949) has received the most attention, especially since the 1989 publication in English of his 1982 novel Hitsuji o megaru bōken (Eng. A Wild Sheep Chase; see WLT 64:4, p. 701). The Elephant Vanishes is the first collection of his short stories, many of which have appeared elsewhere, including...

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Celeste Loughman (essay date Winter 1997)

SOURCE: “No Place I Was Meant to Be: Contemporary Japan in the Short Fiction of Haruki Murakami,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 87–94.

[In the following essay, Loughman analyzes the characterization, particularly of the narrators, in Murakami's stories.]

The opening scene of Natsume Soseki's 1914 novel Kokoro shows Sensei, the central figure, at a beach accompanied by a Westerner, alluding to his and the Japanese attraction to the West. In the end, however, following General Nogi's example after the Emperor Meiji's death in 1912, Sensei makes the traditional samurai choice of committing suicide to redeem his honor. Similarly,...

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Elizabeth Ward (review date 9 November 1997)

SOURCE: “A Medley of Good and Evil,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 45, November 9, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following review, Ward discusses the moral issues raised by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, calling the novel “a turning point” in Murakami's career.]

Haruki Murakami's English-language fans have read enough of his work by now—most notably the novels A Wild Sheep Chase, Dance, Dance, Dance and the era-defining Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—to be able to recognize The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as something of a turning point. It is not just that this is Murakami's most ambitious attempt yet to...

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Lindsley Cameron (review date 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in Yale Review, Vol. 86, No. 1, 1998, pp. 167–74.

[In the following excerpt, Cameron finds The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to be ambitious in its scope and skillfully crafted in its style, but ultimately decides that the novel (“a bad good book”) is a failure.]

The Far East brings out the best in some, the beast in others. Oddly, this observation holds true even for Far Easterners themselves. This season brings four fictional takes on East Asia, of widely varying merit: Yasunari Kawabata's The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories, Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Arthur Golden's...

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Edward Hower (review date May 1998)

SOURCE: “The Salaryman's Quest,” in The World & I, Vol. 13, No. 5, May, 1998, pp. 261–66.

[In the following review, Hower assesses Murakami's accomplishment in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, offering thematic and character analyses.]

The idea of the quest is as old as storytelling itself, occurring in tales all over the world. In one version an innocent young man goes in search of a woman who is held captive by an evil sorcerer. Along the way he is helped by loyal friends and supernatural beings. At the end he not only frees the woman but gains spiritual powers himself.

This story is one that Haruki Murakami, one of Japan's most...

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Matthew C. Strecher (essay date May 1998)

SOURCE: “Beyond ‘Pure’ Literature: Mimesis, Formula, and the Postmodern in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki,” in Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2, May, 1998, pp. 354–78.

[Strecher is an assistant professor of Japanese Language, Literature, and Culture at the University of Montana. In the following essay, he discusses Murakami's narrative strategies and styles in A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Norwegian Wood, speculating on the novelist's achievement in relation to both the traditions of jun-bungaku and postmodernism.]

With the publication of Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind...

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Julian Ferraro (review date 1 May 1998)

SOURCE: “The Mystery in Room 208,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1998, p. 22.

[In the following review, Ferraro praises Murakami's narrative skills in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, particularly admiring the delineation of his fictional world and the persona of his hero.]

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the fourth of Haruki Murakami's novels to be translated into English. The first, A Wild Sheep Chase (translated in 1990), with its story of a man uncovering a right-wing corporate conspiracy in the course of pursuing a mutant sheep across Japan, created a distinctive imaginative world and established the persona of the Murakami hero: “Say...

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Michael Wood (review date 11 May 1998)

SOURCE: “The Roads Not Taken,” in New Republic, Vol. 218, No. 19, May 11, 1998, pp. 49–52.

[In the following review, Wood examines the metafictional themes of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.]

Fiction constantly concerns itself with the lives of others, with the lives that we are not living. But then someone is pictured as actually living them, and there remains a purer, more speculative possibility, which is the life that no one is living except as an act of the fearful or desiring imagination. Fully realized pictures of this second life are quite rare in fiction, for reasons that are perhaps not as self-evident as they would seem. Why (we could ask, grumbling and...

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Tom Hiney (review date 20 June 1998)

SOURCE: “Yearlong Paranoia Binge,” in Spectator, June 20, 1998, pp. 35–36.

[In the following mixed review, Hiney describes the postmodern method and themes of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as praiseworthy but lacking spirit.]

The themes of this big novel [The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle]—paranoia, sterility, general loss of national confidence—are clearly ones that are striking at the heart of contemporary Japan. Few developed cultures currently show such a determined lack of interest in procreating. The birth rate is at its lowest since 1899, and the population—as in several European countries—is shrinking. While this is clearly good news in the...

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Yoshiko Yokochi Samuel (review date Spring 1999)

SOURCE: A review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 2, Spring, 1999, p. 389.

[In the following review, Samuel highlights the postmodern conventions of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, comparing its style to that of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.]

Published half a century after the end of Japan's fifteen-year war that began with the seizure of Manchuria in 1931, the voluminous narrative (1,156 pages in three volumes in Japanese) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle probes the meaning of time, memory, and self-actualization in the “high-tech” age. Haruki Murakami spices this postmodern work with elements of science fiction,...

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Phil Baker (review date 23 July 1999)

SOURCE: “Old Sweet Songs,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 23, 1999, p. 21.

[In the following review, Baker comments on the role of popular Western music in South of the Border, West of the Sun, focusing on the novel's motifs and use of simile.]

Books like A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World have established a distinctive image of Haruki Murakami as Japan's most contemporary writer, a man in love with all things Western, who writes slightly off-the-wall postmodern novels influenced by science fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun should modify that picture considerably. Plainly and beautifully...

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Lorna Sage (review date 30 September 1999)

SOURCE: “A Simpler, More Physical Kind of Empathy,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 21, No. 19, September 30, 1999, pp. 22–23.

[In the following review, Sage relates the common themes of South of the Border, West of the Sun and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to Murakami's general concern with defining a postmodern Japanese consciousness.]

Talking to Jay McInerney in 1992, the year South of the Border, West of the Sun was published in Japanese, Haruki Murakami said that he wasn't so much an international writer, as a non-national writer: ‘You might call it the Japanese nature that remains only after you have thrown out, one after another, all...

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Scott Reyburn (review date 15 November 1999)

SOURCE: “Intimate Encounters,” in New Statesman, Vol. 128, No. 4462, November 15, 1999, p. 54.

[In the following review, Reyburn assesses the strengths of Murakami's storytelling in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.]

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is one of the most compellingly original voices in world literature. Born in Kyoto, in 1949, the son of a Japanese army veteran of the second world war, Murakami used to run a jazz bar before publishing a series of weird and wonderful novels whose commercial and critical success have earned him superstar status in his native land.

The English-speaking world has taken longer to catch up with him. His...

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