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Dreaming and running with Murakami

By Harrison Goldspiel
On November 7, 2011

  • Murakami‚Äôs literary influences include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Mann and Raymond Carver. acatea/Flickr Creative Commons

Dreams, sex, jazz, cats, solitude, running, wells, sheep and the Beatles. To some people, this list may seem like an incoherent string of unrelated concepts. But to millions of avid readers, these words strike a chord of literary passion. They are none other than the motifs and fixations of internationally acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

For millions of people in the United Kingdom and North America, the wait for the next Murakami novel is finally over. On Oct. 25, stores unveiled Murakami's magnum opus, 1Q84.

Containing a staggering 944 pages, the three-volume novel follows the converging exploits of two characters, Aomame and Tengo, in a parallel narrative across time, space and reality. Already a huge bestseller in Japan, 1Q84 is sure to mesmerize Western readers as well. I'm currently deeply immersed in it myself. 1Q84 presents an interesting mix of themes, ranging from murder to plagiarism. The most engaging component is the subtle accumulation of connections between the two characters' narratives. If there is any time to discover Murakami, this celebrated author, athlete, translator and cultural commentator, now is the perfect occasion.

Murakami is the one author who I recommend to everyone. He changed my life significantly, transforming me into the avid reader I am today. I have a bit of an obsession with his work. I've consumed all of his books, with the exception of two novels not printed in America. I've read Murakami blogs online and seen modified movies and short films. I've downloaded all the musical tracks mentioned in his stories. I had a short running craze, after being inspired by the 62-year old author who runs marathons and competes in triathlons every year. I've even read the works of his favorite authors who pop up in his books frequently, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Mann. Since the first time I opened Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994), one of Murakami's largest novels, I've gained a great appreciation for literature.

Reading Murakami is like peering into a dream, in that his scenes are both wildly imaginative and utterly realistic. He writes with incredible clarity, making even his quirkiest narratives accessible to the average literary mind. He is a perceptual amplifier who magnifies the slightest senses to supernatural proportions. His novels and short stories exhibit the characteristic qualities of magical realism. Raining sardines, parallel worlds, talking cats and lingering spirits—these fantastic images are a mere fraction of the paranormal scenes you will come across in a Murakami novel. Most of his protagonists are indifferent, passive individuals who somehow wind up in absurd situations paired with eccentric characters. They float through life like feathers caught in the wind, subject to both mundane breezes and irregular gusts without gaining a foothold.

One Murakami novel which is especially indicative of this style is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Published in 1985, this book follows two nameless male characters in alternating chapters. One of the protagonists is a data processer who takes on a mysterious assignment from an old scientist that leads him to distant physical and mental planes. The other character enters into a village where he is disconnected from his shadow and required to read the dreams of unicorn skulls. With all of its eccentricities, this novel is prime Murakami.

But fiction is not the only genre in his repertoire. Murakami has written several distinguished essays and non-fiction pieces. While riding the subway to lower Manhattan this summer, I read Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (1997), Murakami's gripping account of the 1995 subway terrorist attacks in Tokyo. I was probably insane to expose myself to the stark reality of an underground terrorist attack in such a similar setting, but, oddly, I did not become anxious or paranoid. If anything, Murakami provided me with feelings of security and awareness. I now know exactly how to perceive and respond to an underground gas attack after reading the recollections of the Tokyo victims. Underground should really be required reading for every New Yorker.

On a less terrifying note, if you need a good read while strolling along the Charles River, I would recommend Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007). As a busy Brandeisian, I barely have enough time to read leisurely or work out. If I can squeeze in a run or two into my crazy week I consider it a success. But Murakami manages to do it all. He reads and writes voraciously and runs miles upon miles, six days a week. At 62 years old, Murakami has a long history of running long races. In his memoir, he reflects on his running experiences while training for the annual New York City marathon.

Though he refrains from calling himself an athlete, Murakami fits the label well. For over 25 years, he has been running, biking and swimming all over the world, from Boston to New York City, Hawaii, Greece and Japan. He has even completed a 62-mile ultra-marathon in Hokkaido, Japan.

One of the author's favorite running spots happens to be along the Charles River, where he exercised while living in Cambridge for some scattered years over the past two decades. He regards running as an essential component to his writing. Like competing in a marathon, constructing a novel requires endurance, an open mind and a whole lot of energy.

Murakami is my personal inspiration. He opened my mind to new cultures, ideas and great works of literature. If you are looking to pick up a new author, purchase a Murakami novel, find a comfy chair and lose yourself in his magical words. Your life may never be the same again.

Editor's note: The writer is a member of the Class of 2013. 

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