1Q84, Haruki Murakami‘s new novel, is 1,000 pages long and is published in three volumes. It took the author three years to write and it is possible, on an 11-hour flight from New York to Honolulu, to get through about half of it. Murakami looks crestfallen on receipt of this news – the ratio of writing to reading time is never very encouraging for a writer – and yet if anything tests a novel’s power to transport, it is reading it at the back of economy on a full flight over long haul. For those 11 hours, you disappear wholly into Murakami world.
We are in the presidential suite of the Hyatt, Waikiki, overlooking an ad-perfect beach framed by mountains. Murakami, who at 63 still looks like an adolescent skateboarder, divides his time between homes in Hawaii, Japan and a third venue he calls Over There. This is where he disappears every morning while writing his novels, a place populated by the kind of characters who have come to define the Murakami style: enigmatic, deadpan, full of big emotions sheared flat by repression and presented with a detachment that, unusually for a novelist who sells in the millions, has given him a cult-like status. Before I leave for Hawaii a friend confesses his enthusiasm for Murakami is partly based on a desire to be the kind of person who likes Murakami.
“I don’t think of myself as an artist,” says the author more than once in the interview. “I’m just a guy who can write. Yeah.”
Murakami’s cool benefits from an un-nerdy background running a jazz club in his 20s, and his equally un-nerdy Ironman routine. As he detailed recently in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami rises at 4am on most mornings, writes until noon, spends the afternoon training for marathons and browsing through old record stores and turns in, with his wife, at 9pm. As a regime, it is almost as famous as his novels and has the clean, fanatical air of a correction to the mess of his 20s. It is also the kind of discipline necessary to crank out 1,000 complicated pages in three years.
To Murakami, built like a little bull, it’s a question of strength. “It’s physical. If you keep on writing for three years, every day, you should be strong. Of course you have to be strong mentally, also. But in the first place you have to be strong physically. That is a very important thing. Physically and mentally you have to be strong.”
His habit of repetition, whether a stylistic tic or a side-effect of translation from the Japanese, has the effect of making everything Murakami says sound infinitely profound. He has written about the metaphorical importance of his running; that to complete an action every day sets a kind of karmic example for his writing. “Yes,” he says. “Mmmmm.” He makes a long contemplative sound. “I need strength because I have to open the door.” He mimes heaving open a door. “Every day I go to my study and sit at my desk and put the computer on. At that moment, I have to open the door. It’s a big, heavy door. You have to go into the Other Room. Metaphorically, of course. And you have to come back to this side of the room. And you have to shut the door. So it’s literally physical strength to open and shut the door. So if I lose that strength, I cannot write a novel any more. I can write some short stories, but not a novel.”
Is there an element of fear to overcome in those actions every morning?
“It’s just routine,” he says and laughs loudly. “It’s kind of boring. It’s a routine. But the routine is so important.”
Because there’s chaos within?
“Yeah. I go to my subconsciousness. I have to go into that chaos. But the act of going and coming back is kind of routine. You have to be practical. So every time I say, if you want to write a novel you have to be practical, people get bored. They are disappointed.” He laughs again. “They are expecting a more dynamic, creative, artistic thing to say. What I want to say is: you have to be practical.”
A person who gets up that early can live almost two lives. It’s a Murakami trope, this, the single life split in two, either through radical change in circumstance or in the gap between the exterior and interior life of a divided self. In his new novel, the heroine, Aomame – “Green Peas” in Japanese – starts off realistically enough stuck in traffic in a cab on a Tokyo expressway. It is 1984, a nod to George Orwell. To avoid being late, she gets out of the cab and takes a disused maintenance stairway down to ground level, where she finds herself in a parallel world, what she comes to call 1Q84. Like so much of Murakami’s fiction, it combines a gripping realistic narrative with the kind of bonkers surrealism – levitating clocks, exploding dogs, an entity called the “Little People” which emerge through the mouth of a dead goat – designed to pull the reader up short and wonder if it isn’t all nonsense, doubt that the author incorporates into the novel.
“People are left in a pool of mysterious question marks,” says an editor in 1Q84 to his star writer. “Readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness’.”
To which the fictional author replies, “If an author succeeded in writing a story ‘put together in an exceptionally interesting way’ that ‘carries the reader along to the very end’ who could possibly call such a writer ‘lazy’.” In its first month of release, 1Q84 sold one million copies in Japan.
Elements of Murakami’s background are mysterious, even to him. He can’t say why he decided to become a writer. It merely struck him one day, out of the blue, while watching a baseball game and having never had the slightest inclination in that direction. He was in his late 20s, running the jazz bar – he called it Peter Cat, after his pet. It was 1978. His period of rebellion was more or less over. He had grown up in the 1960s, the only child of a university professor and his homemaker wife and, along with the rest of his generation, rejected the course he was expected to take. He married straight out of university and instead of pursuing further studies, borrowed money to open the jazz bar and indulge his love of music. All around him his friends rebelled, too. Some killed themselves, something Murakami often writes about. “They are gone,” he says. “It was a very chaotic time, and I’m still missing them. So sometimes I feel very strange to become 63 years old. I feel myself as a kind of survivor. Every time I think about them, I have some feeling that I have to live, I have to live very strong. Because I don’t want to spend years of my life… it should be the very purpose, life. Because I survived, I have obligations to give fully. So, every time I write my fiction, from time to time I think of the deceased. Friends.”
Looking back, he sees how precarious his own situation was. He was heavily in debt, working long hours in the bar with his wife, unsure of his future. “In 1968 or 69, anything could happen. It was so exciting, but at the same time, it was risky. The bets were so big. If you can win, you could get big bets, but if you lose, you are lost.”
He took a gamble with the bar?
“Aaaaargh,” says Murakami. “Marriage is where I took that gamble! I was 20 or 21. I didn’t know anything of the world. I was stupid. Innocent. It’s a kind of a gamble. With my life. But I survived. Anyway.”
His wife, Yoko Takahashi, is his first reader. The novel that came out of his brainwave at the baseball game was called Hear The Wind Sing and won a new writers’ prize in Japan. For a while he continued to run the bar while writing and it was essential to his progress, he says: “I had my jazz club and I had enough money. So I didn’t have to write for my living. That is very important.” When his novel Norwegian Wood sold more than three million copies in Japan, Murakami had no need to carry on with the bar, although he sometimes has a vision of a parallel existence in which he had stayed in that life. He is not convinced he would have been any less happy.
“Do I have a sense of alternative lives? Ummm-a. Yes. So I feel it’s very strange, still. Sometimes I wonder why I’m a novelist right now. There is no definite career reason why I became a writer. Something happened, and I became a writer. And now I’m a successful writer. When I go to the States or Europe, many people know me. It was so strange. Some years ago I went to Barcelona and did a signing and, you know, 1,000 people came. The girls kissed me. I was so surprised. What happened to me?”
He writes intuitively, without a plan. His latest novel came to him while sitting in traffic in Tokyo. What if he got out on the gridlocked freeway and went down the emergency exit; would the course of his life change? “That is the starting point. I have a kind of premonition it’s going to be a big book. It’s going to be very ambitious. That’s what I knew. I wrote the novel Kafka On The Shore, maybe five or six years ago and was waiting for the new book to come; it came. It has come. I knew it was going to be a big project. It’s just a feeling.”
How a novel the length of 1Q84 can, simultaneously, seem elliptical is part of Murakami’s brilliance, although it can leave the reader feeling strangely unsatisfied. Artificiality in the novel can be excused by the author as commentary on the nature of artificiality itself and the deadpan tone is occasionally infuriating. “Ever since he saw two moons in the sky and an air chrysalis materialising on his father’s bed in the sanatorium, nothing surprised Tengo very much.”
As in earlier novels, some of the tenderest scenes are tangential to the main plotline. In Norwegian Wood, which Murakami wrote as conventionally as possible in the hope it would be a commercial hit, it was between the hero and his girlfriend’s dying father. In 1Q84, it is scenes between Tengo, Aomame’s love interest, and his own dying father, whom he found difficult to love. Most of Murakami’s characters had unhappy childhoods, not coincidentally, he says. Nothing dramatic happened when he was growing up. And yet, he says, “I had a feeling I was kind of abused. It’s because my parents had hoped that this child should be like this; I was not.” He laughs. “So they expected me to get good marks at school, but I didn’t. I didn’t like to study too long. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I’m very consistent. They expected me to go to a good school and get a job at Mitsubishi or something like that. But I didn’t do that. I wanted to be independent. So I opened up a jazz club and got married when I was a university student. They were kind of unhappy about that.”
How was it expressed?
“They were just disappointed in me. It’s tough on a kid to have that disappointment. I think they are nice people, but still. I was injured. I remember that feeling, still. I wanted to be a good kid for them, but I couldn’t be. Myself, I don’t have any kids. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d had children. I cannot imagine it. I’m not so happy as a kid, and I don’t know if I could be happy as a father. I have no idea.”
How, then, did he find the confidence to do what he wanted?
“Confidence; as a teenager? Because I knew what I loved. I loved to read; I loved to listen to music; and I love cats. Those three things. So, even though I was an only kid, I could be happy because I knew what I loved. Those three things haven’t changed from my childhood. I know what I love, still, now. That’s a confidence. If you don’t know what you love, you are lost.”
Murakami’s opinion on almost every topic is sought in Japan where he is the country’s most recognised intellectual. He dislikes public appearances; is shy and modest, but will engage in national debate through his books. In the wake of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway he wrote Underground, a set of journalistic essays about the event. He feels obliged to represent his country as a Japanese novelist and will agree to publicity abroad where he won’t at home. And although he has translated many western novels into Japanese – including the works of his favourite novelist, Raymond Carver – translating back the other way is too hard, he says. He would never translate his own novels; merely contest a word here and there with his regular translators.
He was in Honolulu earlier this year when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. It has changed the country, he says. “People lost their confidence. We had been working so hard, after the end of the war. For 60 years. The richer we became, the happier we become. But at the end, we didn’t get happy, however hard we worked. And the earthquake came, and so many people had to be evacuated, to abandon their houses and homeland. It’s a tragedy. And we were proud of our technology, but our nuclear power plant turned out to be a nightmare. So people started to think, we have to change drastically the way of life. I think that is a big turning point in Japan.”
He likens it to 9/11, which, he says, changed the course of world history. From a novelist’s perspective it is a “miraculous event”, too improbable to be true. “When I see those videos of the two planes crashing into the buildings, it seems like a miracle to me. It’s not politically correct to say that it’s beautiful, but I have to say that there is a kind of beauty in it. It’s awful, it’s a tragedy, but still there is a beauty in it. It seems too perfect. I cannot believe it happened, really. Sometimes I wonder if those two planes hadn’t crashed into the building, the world would be so different from what it is now.”
The change the Japanese are undergoing is partly, says Murakami, the reckoning that comes with losing so much and having to question what matters. His own priorities are simple, he says. For example, he doesn’t know how much money he has. “You know, if you are kind of rich, the best thing is that you don’t have to think about money. The best thing you can buy with money is freedom, time. I don’t know how much I earn a year. I have no idea. I don’t know how much I pay in taxes. I don’t want to think about tax.”
There is a long pause.
“It’s miserable. I have my accountant and my wife takes care of that. They don’t let me know anything. I’m just working.”
He must trust his wife! “We’ve been married for 40 years or something. She’s still my friend. We have a conversation, always a conversation. She helps me a lot. She gives me advice regarding my books. I respect her opinion. Sometimes we quarrel. Her opinion is so harsh sometimes. It can be.”
Perhaps he needs that.
“I guess so. If my editor did the same thing, I would get mad.” Murakami shrugs. “I can leave my editor, but I can’t leave my wife.”
His father died two years ago, his mother is still alive. He hopes they were happy about his success as a novelist but remains doubtful. Murakami has his consolations. He is a member of a running club in Hawaii, by far the oldest in the group, he says. He runs, as he writes, every day. Consistency is all. “I like to read books. I like to listen to music. I collect records. And cats. I don’t have any cats right now. But if I’m taking a walk and I see a cat, I’m happy.”
Emma Brockes, The Guardian