A '60s Refugee Speaks to '80s Youth. INTERVIEW: BEST-SELLING JAPANESE AUTHOR. Haruki Murikami's searching message is snapped up by the millions in Japan
HARUKI MURAKAMI is a man uncomfortable with success. He is a self-professed refugee from the 1960s, the former owner of a jazz club named after his cat. Now he's a best-selling novelist. His books have become a publishing phenomenon here, selling in the millions of copies.Skip to next paragraph
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``It's difficult to live naturally, especially if you have money,'' says Mr. Murakami during a rare interview. He still dresses like a college student in jeans, a yellow sweater and a tweed jacket. ``Sometimes I feel strange. If want to buy a Mercedes, I can. I can't believe it.''
In his eight novels (one unpublished), as well as in his life, Mr. Murakami expresses an alienation from the images of wealth and power associated with modern Japan. With his wife, he fled Japan for Italy three years ago, and talks of how ``things I cannot understand [about Japan] have been increasing'' - its domestic policies, the controversy over Emperor Hirohito's role in World War II. He lives outside the tightly woven social structure, the enclosed and supportive world of the mura (village), and its extensions into family and company.
Mr. Murakami's fictional world is populated by rootless individuals, inhabitants of apartment blocks in giant Tokyo who have none of the group affiliations seemingly essential to Japanese life. The nameless narrator of all his books is a college student during the turbulent 1960s. In Japan, as in America, that was a time of anti-war protest, rock and roll, and a search for identity. He wanders from job to job as a writer or translator, searching for meaning in love affairs and small moments of revelation.
The 40-year-old writer is openly nostalgic for those earlier days. ``What happened in the 1960s was special to our generation,'' he recalls. ``There was an idealism in the 1960s but it has disappeared. Now,'' he laments, ``the rules of the game have changed,'' replaced by Japan's relentless search for affluence. ``In the 1960s, my friends were all poor. But those people are now riding in BMWs and Mercedes - with telephones in the car.''
Mr. Murakami is distressed by a younger generation - Japan's own ``me generation'' - where girls choose their boyfriends by the car they drive. In the old days, ``everyone was poor, and loving somebody was a treasure, a way to kill time, everything. Things were simpler. It's getting more difficult to love somebody purely. You can get almost everything with money.''
His writings contain a message for that generation, he says. He sets out ``some kind of guidelines'' as to what is important in life. He starts with small things - ``as if to pile up stones'' - such as his detailed descriptions of men cooking their own meals (women do the vast majority of at-home cooking in Japan), of going to work in scuffed desert boots, of thoughts transported by old Beatles songs or jazz tunes.
Murakami does not, however, claim a moralistic stance. In his latest novel, ``Dance, Dance, Dance,'' the narrator, in his mid-30s, converses at length with a 13-year-old girl on what they should eat, the value of going to school, and of life. ``The narrator is an incomplete person and so is the girl - they are thinking together,'' he comments.
WHEN Mr. Murakami started writing a decade ago, his following was mostly in his own generation. But it has grown to striking proportions among youth. ``Norwegian Wood'' has sold more than 2 million copies since it was published in 1987. ``Dance, Dance, Dance'' has already sold more than half a million since its release a few months ago.
In the ``100 percent pure love story,'' as the author describes ``Norwegian Wood,'' the narrator recalls his college love for Naoko, a beautiful girl troubled by an inability to express herself. A mental breakdown sends her to a sanitarium, where he follows her. The novel was timely, says Makoto Tanno, a professor of modern literature at Sophia University, because it coincides with a backlash among youth against careerism and materialism.