Best-selling Japanese author Haruki Murakami recently sat down for an interview with Kyodo News in April on the 40th anniversary of his debut novel "Hear the Wind Sing." This is Part 2 of the three-part interview, in which he speaks about his latest work "Killing Commendatore," the evolution of his writing style, and the growing presence of violence in social media.
Q: As the title states, the Commendatore is killed in this novel. The Commendatore is killed at the beginning of the opera "Don Giovanni" and murdered again in your novel.
Murakami: I think it is the first time the word "kill" appears in the title of one of my books. "Norwegian Wood," for example, has a few characters who commit suicide, but these are people killing themselves. In that story, death, actual killing, has a very important meaning.
Entering "the end of the world" in "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" is the same thing as death. When the protagonist in "Kafka on the Shore" walks into the deep forest, he is walking into the world of death.
Q: In "1Q84", the leader of a cult convinces the female protagonist Aomame to kill him. He tells her that she must do so in order to keep her love Tengo alive. In "Killing Commendatore," the Commendatore himself tells the protagonist to kill him in order to save Mariye, a girl who goes missing. And the protagonist sticks a kitchen knife into his little heart.
Murakami: Obviously I'm referring to stories, but the physical sensations that arise during a murder are important. In "Kafka on the Shore," Johnnie Walker kills cats with a scalpel. The physical sensation of slashing is crucial as if it's actually tangible.
Q: Could you go into more detail?
Murakami: The act of killing is rebirth in a mythological sense. Something is killed, and something is reborn. There are the mythological stories of patricide. A new being is born by killing something. That is a story that appears often in mythology. For example, a new bud grows out of a dead body. There are stories like that in Japan's "Kojiki" ("Records of Ancient Matters)".
Q: It's about death and rebirth.
Murakami: In the real world, we cannot kill flesh and blood people but people can experience "killing" vicariously through stories like "Killing Commendatore." This is a crucial role of a story, and in this particular story, "killing" the Commendatore that embodies the "Idea" is a necessary symbolic act.
Q: Is this common in your other stories?
Murakami: Ever since I started writing my novels, I have strongly aspired to trigger physical responses in my readers through my words. For example, many people said they really wanted to drink beer after finishing "Hear the Wind Sing." As its author, that made me very happy.
Q: Was that also the case with "Norwegian Wood"?
Murakami: In "Norwegian Wood" I wrote about physical sensations that occur during sex as realistically and straightforwardly as possible. I was disliked and criticized a lot because of that but realism that is tangible to the readers is extremely important to me. I couldn't write a story without it. Generally speaking, I feel that there are fewer modern Japanese novels that realistically describe physical sensations, unlike Raymond Carver's stories, all of which I translated. I have learned little by little from such writings.
Q: In "Killing Commendatore," the knife pierces the Commendatore's thin body until it comes out through his back. His white clothes and the protagonist's hands are soaked in blood.
Murakami: I think it is important that the physical sensation of holding the knife, stabbing the other person, and feeling the splatter of blood can be conveyed to the readers directly through the story--only as a simulation, of course. Some things can only be brought to life through descriptions of physical matters.
Q: The protagonist of this novel is an artist who paints oil portraits.
Murakami: As I had never done an oil painting, I wrote the novel by reading about painting in books. A few painters later told me when I asked that there were no mistakes in the novel. Paintings and stories both have the same basic principle of creating something from zero.
Q: The protagonist lives in a house belonging to famous Japanese-style painter Tomohiko Amada. During his studies in Vienna, Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. Around the same time, Amada's younger brother Tsuguhiko served in the military during the Sino-Japanese war for the fall of Nanjing. Those two experiences are written about in the novel.
Murakami: The plot moves forward greatly when the Commendatore is unearthed from the property where the protagonist lives. It's a story about excavating and resurrecting the past.
Q: You said that the Commandatore may be "a historical link", "a messenger from the past."
Murakami: However deep you dig a hole to try to hide something, there's always a time when that something comes out. We live shouldering history and however hard we try to hide it, it will come out in the open. History, I believe, is a collective memory that we must bear.
Q: Mr. Murakami, you were born after the war in 1949.
Murakami: It was a period when people still held vivid memories of killing each other, led by their national logic. I continue to be acutely conscious of the fact that, even now, war is not something far and remote. When people believe they are standing on firm ground today, they may find it is only soft mud.
Q: Do you think the capacity for violence that people had during the war still exists in modern society?
Murakami: I believe that a world of mysterious creatures in the deepest recesses of our minds, which I have gingerly and carefully treated in my writings, is gradually and quietly working its way through the internet, via social media, into the open.
One cannot help noticing in our daily lives, some indications of violence that lurk in the deepest, darkest recesses of our minds. Sometimes I fear that something from the past is resurrecting.
Q: What role should an author take upon himself in such a society?
Murakami: We novelists craft our stories freely. But the principle of natural ethics must exist within that freedom. It is the responsibility of novelists to provide concepts that will become basic standards, however weird and cruel the description of evil is.
Q: "Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche" is a collection of interviews with victims of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system perpetrated by the AUM Shinrikyo cult.
Murakami: When I was writing it, I felt that I must as a novelist create a story that would defeat the one that Shoko Asahara (leader of AUM Shinrikyo) told his followers. At the time when AUM was active, religion was powerful. But I believe that nowadays, social media rather than religion has a greater power to diffuse ideas and concepts more directly and strongly. I'm not saying that social media itself is evil, but we must not forget that this type of power still exists.
Q: Might you say Killing Commendatore is a story about fighting against that type of power?
Murakami: The violence in social media appears as fragmented pieces, lacking connectivity to each other. I personally believe that a story is better the longer it is. That's because at least it is not fragmented. There must be an axis of value consistent throughout. And it must stand the test of time.
Q: That's the power of stories.
Murakami: Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold.
(The interviewers are critic Yutaka Yukawa and Kyodo News senior feature writer Tetsuro Koyama)
Part 3: Forgiveness comes only after you go through a dark place: Haruki Murakami