Haruki Murakami:’ You have to go through the darkness before you get to the light’

The books interview: his surreal narratives are read by millions but the Japanese novelist is bemused by his celebrity. The eternal Nobel favourite discloses why his books appeal in times of chaos

The day before we gratify in Manhattan, a woman stopped Haruki Murakami in Central Park, where he had come for his late-morning run. “Excuse me,” she said,” but aren’t you a very famous Japanese novelist ?” A faintly odd style of putting the question, but Murakami responded in his usual equable way.” I said’ No, really I’m just a novelist. But still, it’s nice to meet you !’ And then we shook hands. When people stop me like that, I feel very strange, because I’m just an ordinary guy. I don’t really understand why people want to meet me .”

It would be a mistake to interpret this as false modesty, but equally incorrect to see it as genuine discomfort with renown: so far as it’s possible to tell, the 69 -year-old Murakami neither enjoys nor disfavors his global celebrity. His outlook, instead, is that of a curious if slightly bemused spectator- both of the surreal narratives that originating from his subconscious, and of the fact that they are devoured by readers in their millions, in Japanese and in translation. It’s surely no coincidence that the typical Murakami protagonist is a similarly detached observer: a placid, socially withdrawn and often nameless man in his mid-3 0s, who seems more intrigued than alarmed when an inexplicable telephone calls, or the search for a lost cat, leads him into a dreamlike parallel world inhabited by exploding dogs, men in sheep costumes, enigmatic teenage girls and people with no faces.

Murakami has a theory that this mesmerising literary formula appeals particularly in times of political chaos.” I was so popular in the 1990 s in Russia, at the time they were changing from the Soviet Union- there was big confusion, and people in confusion like my volumes ,” he explains, sipping water in a conference room at the offices of his American literary agency.” In Germany, when the Berlin Wall fell down, there was confusion- and people liked my books .” If that’s right, Donald Trump’s America and Brexit Britain should prove especially fertile marketplaces for his 14 th novel, Killing Commendatore , a 674 -page dose of high Murakami weirdness, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen and published in the UK on 9 October.

Trying to summarise his plots is a mug’s game, but it may suffice to note that the book’s anonymous narrator is a disconsolate portrait painter, recently abandoned by his wife, whose attempt to get away from it all in the mountains of eastern Japan turns into an elaborated adventure involving a mysterious technology entrepreneur, a buzzer that rings spontaneously in the night, an underground shrine- wells and other subterranean chambers, together with lost cats, are a Murakami trademark- and a strikingly chatty two-foot-high samurai soldier who springs from the canvas of a painting the narrator detects in an attic.( For the author, a devotee of the fiction of F Scott Fitzgerald since his teens, these ingredients combine to constitute” a homage to The Great Gatsby “- a claim that grows somewhat less improbable as the new fiction proceeds .)

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Flight of imagination … a stage adaptation of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle . Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

It constructs sense that Murakami’s work might prove popular in times of political nervousnes: it exerts an entrancing, sometimes almost sedative consequence on the reader, the strangeness of the plot developings dampened by an emotional flatness that can feel like a comforting refuge from the real world and its extremes. Murakami once told an interviewer that he liked baseball “because it’s boring”, and his 2007 memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running praises the pleasure- if that’s the right word- of running as a respite from feeling too much.

However, you should not expect Murakami to tell you what any of the fantastical content in his work is supposed to mean. He operates from a bedrock trust in his subconscious: if an image is coming from that dark inner well, he figures, it must be meaningful by definition- and his task is to record what develops, rather than to analyse it.( That’s a job for” intelligent people”, he says, his face crinkling into a smile.” And novelists don’t have to be intelligent .”) In his 2002 fiction Kafka on the Shore , for example, there’s a scene in which fish begin to fall, like hail, from the sky.” People ask students,’ Why fish? And why are they falling from the sky ?’ But I have no answer for them. I just got the idea that something should fall from the sky. Then I wondered: what should fall from the sky? And I said to myself:’ Fish! Fish would be good.’

” And you know, if that’s what comes to me, maybe there’s something right about that- something from the deep subconscious[ that resonates with] the reader. So now the reader and I have a secret meeting place underground, a secret place in the subconscious. And in that place, maybe it’s absolutely right that fish should fall from the sky. It’s the meeting place that matters , not analysing the symbolism or anything like that. I’ll leave that to the intellectuals .” Murakami’s sense of himself as a sort of pipeline- a conduit between his subconscious and that of his readers- is so pronounced that he even pauses, after referring to himself in passing as a” natural storyteller”, to issue a correction:” No, I’m not a storyteller. I’m a narrative watcher .” His relationship to those stories is that of the dreamer to a dream, which may explain why he claims almost never to dream at night.” Well, maybe once a month, I dream ,” he says.” But I usually don’t. I think it’s because I get to dream when I’m awake, so I don’t have to dream when I’m sleeping .”

The key moments in Murakami’s emergence as a novelist share this sense of having arisen from somewhere beyond his conscious control. Born in 1949 in Kyoto, during the postwar American occupation of Japan, Murakami frustrated his mothers by spurning a corporate career in favour of opening a jazz club in Tokyo, Peter Cat, named after his pet. A few years later he was in the stands at a baseball stadium watching the ball sail off the at-bat of an American player named Dave Hilton, where reference is suddenly passed to him that he could write a novel, an epiphany that led to Hear the Wind Sing ( 1979 ). Soon after, when the Japanese literary publication Gunzo woke him one weekend with a phone call informing him that the fiction had been shortlisted for its new writers’ prize, he hung up, then went for a walk with his wife, Yoko. They found an injured pigeon, which they carried to the local police station.” That Sunday was bright and clear, and the trees, the buildings, and the shop windows sparkled beautifully in the spring sunlight ,” he wrote year later.” That’s when it hit me. I was going to win the award. And I was going to go on to become a novelist who would enjoy some degree of success. It was an audacious presumption, but I was sure at that moment that it would happen. Wholly sure. Not in a theoretical style but directly and intuitively .”

Critical acclaim in Japan was slow in coming.” I was a black sheep in the Japanese literary world ,” Murakami recalls- partly because his volumes, with their absence of any sense of being rooted in Japan, and their multitudes of American cultural references, were seen as” too American-like “.( These days, by contrast, he’s regularly discussed as a leading nominee for the Nobel prize, though he withdrew his name from the” alternative Nobel “ established in response to the postponement of this year’s award, saying he preferred to concentrate on writing .)” Being born just after the war, we grew up in American culture: I was listening to jazz and American pop, watching American TV depicts- it was a window to another world. But anyway, by and by I got my own style. Not Japanese or American style- my style .”

In any case, whatever the critics supposed, his commercial success grew steadily, reaching a high point in 1987 with Norwegian Wood , an aching tale of nostalgia for young love, which sold 3.5 m copies within a year of publishing. It was written in a realist manner to which Murakami would never return in his novels- although, on reflection, he rejects the notion that his tales of falling fish and supernaturally impregnated girls aren’t realistic.” It’s my realism ,” he says.” I like Gabriel Garcia Marquez very much, but I don’t think he thought of what he wrote as sorcery realism. It was just his realism. My style is like my eyeglasses: through those lenses, the world constructs sense to me .”

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A still from the 2010 film adaptation of Norwegian Wood, directed by Tran Anh Hung. Photograph: Publicity image from cinema company

As his stature increased, he also began to perfect the daily writing routine for which he’s arguably now as famous as for any single novel: rising at 4am to write for five or six hours, creating 10 pages a day before a run of at least six miles, and maybe a swim.” Owning a jazz club, life was so disorderly and confusing- going to bed at three or four in the morning- so when I became a writer, I decided to live a very solid life: get up early, go to bed early, exert every day ,” Murakami says.” My belief is that I should be strong physically in order to write strong things “: he may only be a pipeline, but it’s his duty to keep the pipeline in good working order. From the outside, it certainly seems to be working- he could pass for 50- but the rhythm is also a source of deep happiness, which probably accounts for the lengthening of his volumes.” Those days are pleasurable days, so the more days, the more fun, and the more pages ,” he says.” I actually don’t know why people like to read my long books. But”- this without a trace of arrogance-” I am very popular .”

His hyper-productive routine also provides him with surplus capability, which he use for short narratives; for non-fiction( most notably Underground , based on numerous interviews with survivors of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metro, as well as with members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult responsible ); and for personally answering his readers’ questions , not only about his volumes but also in his role as a kind of agony uncle. (” Thirty is right around the corner for me, but there isn’t a single thing that I feel like I’ve accomplished ,” begins one of the 3,716 questions to which he provided answers in an ebook published in Japan in 2015.) Murakami is also a resulting translator of American fiction into Japanese: Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Grace Paley, JD Salinger, and most recently John Cheever.

He enjoys reading his own work in English translation, because it’s like reading a brand new novel.” It takes a year or two to translate these big books ,” he says.” So by the time I read the translation, I’ve forgotten everything .” He mimes excitedly turning the pages:” What’s going to happen? And then the translator calls me:’ Hi, Haruki, how did you like my translation ?’ And I reply:’ This is a great story! I like it very much !'”

It’s only when our conversation turns to American politics, as it unavoidably must, that he adopts something closer to an authorial mission. Asked for his thoughts on the crisis in the country whose culture he holds in such affection, he believes, in silence, for almost a full minute. Then he says:” When I was in my teens, in the 1960 s, that was the age of idealism. We believed the world would get better if we tried. People today don’t believe that, and I think that’s very sad. People say my volumes are weird, but beyond the weirdness, there should be a better world. It’s just that we have to experience the weirdness before we get to the better world. That’s the fundamental structure of my narratives: you have to go through the darkness, through the underground, before you get to the illuminated .”

Which feels like a sort of hope well suited to the moment. A Murakami protagonist doesn’t necessarily aim the novel having learned that much, still less in a state of perfect happiness; but he has usually been delivered from his off-kilter dream world to a place of equanimity and soothe. Life may be abidingly strange, Murakami’s books seem to say, but nightmares do end. You can find your lost cat.

* Killing Commendatore is published by Harvill Secker.

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