An Imaginary Toast to Haruki Murakami
Katherine Ashley Chen
February 8, 2022
Greetings everybody! I am absolutely delighted to see so many of you gathered here today to celebrate the immensely talented author, the one-and only Mr. Haruki Murakami. But before we invite him onto the stage to speak for himself, I’d like to give a couple words of introduction. Not only for those among us who aren’t quite as familiar with his work, but also to expound on just why he deserves so much recognition and appreciation, and why all of you need to pay attention to what he has to say.
At a fundamental level, Mr. Murakami is an artist. He doesn’t paint, he doesn’t draw, he doesn’t sculpt, but he writes pieces so beautiful and imaginative that they may as well be displayed in a museum. Scholars categorize his writing as “magical realism”, a genre where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred (Means). But this so-called “magical realism” doesn’t do a semblance of justice to Mr. Haruki Murakami’s masterful work. His distinctive dreamlike mood intertwined with his creative and mesmerizing characters amalgamate into nonconformist and nonlinear stories that somehow also strike deep chords within our hearts, due to the parallelism that he cleverly weaves in yet subtly obfuscates (Silva).
Just listen to the following excerpt from Mr. Murakami’s 1999 novel, Sputnik Sweetheart. “And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they looked like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing,” (Sputnik Sweetheart, p.128).
When I first read that passage in Sputnik Sweetheart, I was on a crowded bus after a long day of work. I was exhausted, apathetic, and honestly, pretty glum. But when I got to this page of the novel, I couldn’t help but read it again and again, and smile to myself at the sheer beauty of the language that Mr. Murakami employs. His simple yet enchanting prose drew me in, and his direct yet metaphorical tales fascinated me. In the quote above, Mr. Murakami discussed the contrast between being together and still being lonely, using satellites to further his imagery. That is Mr. Murakami’s attraction, his genius, his gift—his ability to reach out with words and touch those in other dimensions. And that is one of the reasons I am standing here today, giving you this speech about his achievements. Of course, it is remiss to neglect the context of this excerpt, and I will attempt to summarize it to those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to read his novel.
When we imagine the sensation of falling in love, we think of the thrill of possibilities and pleasure of losing ourselves in the fascination of another. We try to forget the crushing loss of unrequited love, when it doesn’t work out. But in Sputnik Sweetheart, Mr. Murakami delves into these emotions, and expresses that just as desire and love can mend a person’s heart, loss can splinter it beyond recognition. In the novel, the narrator begins the story of how his only friend, and love, Sumire, falls in love for the first time with another. He describes the pain, longing, and ache in watching the one you love the most fall for somebody else completely.
Unrequited love is something that, I’m sure, all of us can relate to. (Those of you in the audience who can’t, you’re either lying or extremely lucky.) And that leads me to the second charm of Mr. Murakami. Somehow, without knowing anything about our lives, he produces characters that relate to each and every one of us. By utilizing a wide range of emotions and themes—from loss to self-discovery, love to loneliness, Mr. Murakami imagines characters who are lost in the perception of who they are, characters who must journey through a series of obstacles in order to once again discover themselves, characters just like every single one of us (Silva). In relating to us, Mr. Murakami is able to tug on our heartstrings and make us sympathize with his characters, bringing them to life outside of the paper and into our world. Mr. Murakami’s “magical realism” doesn’t just blur the lines between fantasy and reality within his work, it also blurs the lines between his fantasy and our reality.
The short story The Silence from The Elephant Vanishes discusses perspective, solitude and loneliness. In a snippy 8 pages, the main character, Ozawa, tells a coworker his high school story, where he punches his classmate Aoki, for spreading a rumor that he had cheated on an exam. Later, when a fellow classmate committed suicide, Aoki falsely reported to the school and the police that Ozawa had bullied the classmate. Ozawa’s subsequent ostracization and loneliness led him through a period of reflection where he realized that while Aoki had wronged him, he was not deserving of a fight, but of pity. In that change of perspective, Ozawa’s inner turmoil calms to a quiet serenity, and his previously lonesome isolation was transformed into a tranquil solitude.
The lessons that Mr. Murakami’s characters experience resound through numerous facets of our own lives, and the themes of alienation and passivity pervasive throughout his works are especially relevant in the modern era of social isolation, coronavirus quarantine, and excessive work culture (Büttner). Throughout the same story, The Silence, Mr. Murakami uses boxing as a framework in which Ozawa views his life. At the beginning, before all the ostracization from his fellow classmates, Ozawa depicts boxing as something that enhances his life and elevates the quality of his solitude. He says, “When I’m in a match, I feel like I’m at the bottom of a deep, deep hole. So far inside I can’t see anyone else and no one can see me. Way down there in the darkness, doing battle. All alone. But not sad alone. There’s all different kinds of loneliness. There’s the tragic loneliness that tears at your nerves with pain. And then there’s the loneliness that isn’t like that at all—though in order to reach that point, you’ve got to pare your body down. If you make the fort, you get what you put in. That’s what I’ve learned,” (Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes 179). At this point in the book, Ozawa views boxing as a way to entertain himself, to increase his happiness. He views loneliness as something that can be positive or negative, depending on the context and says that he was “happy to be left alone” (Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes 179).
Later, as his segregation from the rest of the school community continues, Ozawa says, “If I hadn’t taken up boxing.. I would have been pretty damn lonely” (Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes 181). The shift in the way Ozawa views solitude shows us the duality of individualism—on one hand, it can be peacefully fulfilling; on the other, mirthlessly melancholic. As the community continues to avoid Ozawa, he experiences the inhospitable extreme of the scale. He says, “One half year more, sparring with the silence. But could I hold out that long… I was getting crushed” (Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes 183). As Ozawa continues under the crushing solitude, he begins to falter and flail, similarly to how many of us have faltered and flailed during the long and hostile quarantines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ozawa’s shifting view of loneliness that finally ends with his appreciation of individualism also showcases Mr. Murakami’s personal societal beliefs. Mr. Murakami doesn’t shy away from solitude, he embraces it (Büttner). And in our world of excessive social networking and unrestrained vicarious living, that is a rare trait. The same themes of solitude, tranquility and passivity recurrent throughout his work serve to remind us of a time where society wasn’t so unhealthily interdependent on others, but where people could feel fulfilled by their own individual self (Büttner). It reminds us of an era where people weren’t constantly striving for perfection, and where the hustle in work culture wasn’t placed upon an untouchable pedestal.
The third reason Mr. Murakami deserves so much appreciation is his sheer versatility as a writer. Not only can he write seductive novels, he can also craft enrapturing short stories and essays. One of Mr. Murakami’s most famous bestsellers is 1Q84, a 928-paged three-volume novel, but his other ultra-popular book, The Elephant Vanishes, consists of an astounding 17 short stories over a mere 327 pages. To be frank, some of Mr. Murakami’s most electrifying and thought-provoking works are those written on single-digit numbers of paper, where he conveys a provocative message through concise, yet simple paragraphs.
The piece that introduced me to the world of Mr. Murakami was Barn Burning, another short story from the previously-mentioned The Elephant Vanishes. I had gotten the recommendation from a dear friend of mine, who insisted that I would love Mr. Murakami’s work. I remained skeptical, as I wasn’t much interested in most literature from the postmodern era; but nonetheless, I obliged. With the intention of shutting my friend up, I cracked open the bookmarked page in his book, and began reading. Sure enough, I was spellbound within the first two pages, hypnotized by Mr. Murakami’s poetic and enrapturing prose.
For those that are unfamiliar with the passage, it begins with the introduction of the narrator to a struggling female model whom he quickly feels comfortable around. The model travels to North Africa, and soon returns with a wealthy businessman boyfriend. As the narrator and the boyfriend sit around smoking weed, the boyfriend confesses to his penchant for burning down barns. The narrator fades in and out of dreaminess—a hallmark of a good Murakami story—, and the boyfriend tells him that he finds barns just “waiting to be burned”—barns that are expendable, secluded, cut-off from the rest of the world, much like the model he is dating (Murakami, Barn Burning 8). With far too eerie of a coincidence, the model disappears unexpectedly at the end of the story, never to be seen again, leaving questions unanswered just as the story concludes.
The story is a bit random, and I’ll admit that at the beginning, I was rather confused. But in classic Murakami fashion, as we delve deeper into the allegory beyond its superficial surface, there is much to uncover. In the 13 short pages of text, the story contemplates morality, inequality, and the tendency of human nature towards destruction. While it is open-ended, the haunting coincidences point towards the boyfriend’s inclination towards serial killing, and draws multiple parallels between the expendability of dilapidated barns and those of low socioeconomic status.
In his conversation with the narrator, the boyfriend confidently interjects, “I won't get caught…The police aren't going to comb the streets over a lousy little barn burning down”, and seems to serve as a social commentary of the minute value placed upon those who are poor (Murakami, Barn Burning 7). The boyfriend continues, “I don't judge anything. The barns are waiting to be burned. I just accept that. I merely accept what's there. It's like the rain…Is the rain making a judgment? It's not like I'm out to commit an immoral act. I have my own code of morality” (Murakami, Barn Burning 7). In writing this, Mr. Murakami propels the readers’ musings surrounding morality and inequality. In a direct yet tropological manner, the story exudes an eerie sense of familiarity. How many times have we ourselves attempted to justify that we do not set out to commit immoral acts? How often do we dismiss ourselves from the blame surrounding our own wrongdoings? If the answer is many, then why do we feel such a strong sense of poignant moral ambiguity in listening to the excerpt from Mr. Murakami?
I’d also like to draw your attention to the theme of inequality interwoven throughout Barn Burning. Mr. Murakami purposefully emphasizes the wealth of the model’s boyfriend, comparing him to Gatsby and describing him as someone who“never seems to be hurting for money” (Murakami, Barn Burning 3). In contrast to the struggling model, who had no steady income and rarely received compensation for jobs. Although I do not want to put words in his mouth, Mr. Murakami seems to be insinuating the careless exploitation of the upper class of the lowest class, using metaphors to scramble the otherwise straightforward commentary (Popelka). The boyfriend, a seeming representation of the wealthy man, had everything he could possibly want, but somehow still felt drawn to the destruction of his less affluent counterparts (Popelka). The story—full of mystery and an undercurrent of violence that never quite breaches the surface, is now one of my favorites, and yet another reason I am standing here before you today.
You may have noticed that the examples I’ve given you so far today have seemed rather erratic, aimless in a sense. You may ask… What does Barn Burning, The Silence, and Sputnik Sweetheart have in common? The answer, my friends, is nothing, apart from Mr. Murakami’s consistently satisfying prose, enriching themes and enthralling storytelling. And this was done purposefully… with the complete intent at showing you just how talented our Mr. Murakami is at connecting common themes across different backdrops, and just how great his aptitude at language serves his flexibility as a writer of different genres, themes, and depths.
Those of you who haven’t yet had the enlightening opportunity of cracking open a book of Mr. Murakami, you may infer from what I’ve said that his writing is complicated, the type of onerous reading you get in your high school English class. The type of writing that serves no meaningful purpose other than to fill up your valuable free time. But Mr. Murakami uses diction that is widely accessible to all, which makes him all the more intriguing. In every aspect of his writing, he showcases his dexterity and his unique style of diction—short, sweet and unpretentious. He doesn’t use big words to try and sound “intelligent”, he embraces the language of the common man, like you and me. This is the fourth charm of Mr. Murakami. The simple yet elusive verbiage is an insignia of Murakami’s work, and along with that, he proclivity towards crafting stories in such a way that leaves plenty of room for the imagination, and allows readers to interject themselves into the story. His fictitious style leads to a thread of surrealism throughout the text, leading readers to question just how much of his story is literal, and how much is figurative. His penmanship, markedly unique from any postmodern writers of both Asia or the West, show his personal individuality as both a writer and a person.
Which leads me to the fifth, and final charm of Mr. Murakami—himself. No, I’m not talking about Mr. Murakami as a writer, but Mr. Murakami as a person. In reading his novels and short stories, it is apparent that his main characters all share similar traits—inquisitive, reflective, passive, observant, romantic, and yes, of course, somewhat endearingly grumpy (Burkeman). Mr. Murakami’s characters are a reflection of himself, a reflection of an absolutely inspiring man with an extraordinarily uncommon outlook on life. He writes characters who epitomize his growth at the various stages of his history, and who experience the world in ways that he would also like to. That is why, without knowing a book is written by him, I can easily sense that it is his by all of its distinctive aspects and its intense “Murakami feel”. Mr. Murakami gives something of himself into all of his books, unabashedly sharing both light and dark parts of his soul, and it is something I admire deeply.
Now, without further ado, I welcome Mr. Murakami, the only true contender for tonight’s award. His remarkable work is a harrowing truth, a perfect rendition of the expansive existence and sordid tendencies of human emotion. Yet within the shadows, there always lies the character whom we have much to learn from—one of a passive tranquility and unperturbed acceptance. Just as many of Mr. Murakami’s characters set out on a journey of self discovery in a world of surrealism, we continue to strive towards self-betterment in an arid and depthless society.
Burkeman, Oliver. “Haruki Murakami: 'You Have to Go through the Darkness before You Get to the Light'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Oct. 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/oct/11/haruki-murakami-interview-killing-commendatore.
Büttner, Mirjam. A Sartrean Perspective on Inertia and Alienation in The Silent Cry by Kenzaburo Oe and TheWind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Utrecht University, 2012, https://studenttheses.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/20.500.12932/19800/M.F.%20Buttner%20-%20A%20Sartrean%20Perspective%20on%20Inertia%20and%20Alienation%20in%20The%20Silent%20Cry%20by%20Kenzaburo%20Oe%20and%20The%20Wind-up%20Bird%20Chronicle%20by%20Haruki%20Murakami.pdf?sequence=1. Accessed 7 Apr. 2022.
Means, David. “Eight Ways of Looking at Haruki Murakami.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Apr. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/06/books/review/haruki-murakami-first-person-singular.html.
Murakami, Haruki. “Barn Burning.” The Elephant Vanishes, Random House, 2011.
Murakami, Haruki. Sputnik Sweetheart. Vintage, 2002.
Murakami, Haruki. “The Silence.” The Elephant Vanishes, Random House, 2011.
Popelka, Madeline. “How Burning's Literary Influences Explain Its Ending.” Essays on Pop Culture, Wordpress, 22 Jan. 2019, https://madelinewatches.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/understanding-burnings-ending-through-the-lens-of-its-literary-influences/#:~:text=In%20Murakami%2C%20'barn%20burning',it%20be%20arson%20or%20murder.
Silva, Daniel. “Haruki Murakami, The Genius of the Eternal Candidate for The Nobel Prize of Literature.” Medium, The Startup, 19 Dec. 2020, https://medium.com/swlh/haruki-murakami-the-genius-of-the-eternal-candidate-for-the-nobel-prize-of-literature-a7f39876b602.
Treisman, Deborah, et al. “The Underground Worlds of Haruki Murakami.” The New Yorker, 7 Feb. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/the-underground-worlds-of-haruki-murakami.
Image Credit to The New Yorker, Penguin Books, and Bookazine