Best-selling Japanese author Haruki Murakami spoke recently with Kyodo News about his latest novel "The City and Its Uncertain Walls" and his pursuit of expressing to his satisfaction motifs of the self, shadows and walls prevalent in his works.
The novel's English translation is planned to be released in 2024.
(The interviewers are culture critic Yutaka Yukawa and Kyodo News senior feature writer Tetsuro Koyama.)
Q: Four years ago, after ending our interview marking your 40 years as a novelist, you mentioned to us that you were satisfied with most of your works but that you wanted to rewrite your 1985 novel "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World."
Murakami: Yes, certainly.
Q: I was very surprised.
Murakami: For me, the motif of "the self in a walled city and the shadow" is extremely important. In "The End of the World," I was not able to fully express that motif.
Q: There are many readers who like "The End of the World."
Murakami: There is some "sense of skipping" because I wrote it when I was young. Whether it is good or bad, I cannot write like that anymore. It's nice if readers can enjoy that sense, but the author cannot accept it if he doesn't feel that it has been expressed fully.
Q: In the 1980 novella "The City, and Its Uncertain Walls," which formed the basis of the two novels, the main character and his shadow escape from the walled city. In "The End of the World," the shadow escapes but the main character remains in the Town. It is the same as with your new novel "The City and Its Uncertain Walls" but there, the main protagonist who remains in the walled city is moving toward the real world, and his shadow, who could have separated, is with him.
Murakami: The biggest difference this time is that they -- the shadow and the main body -- don't know who is actually whom. The point is that their roles are reversed. So that is a very important finding.
Q: The narrator does not recognize that he is alive but Koyasu advises him that "It is unnecessary to think about whether you are a shadow or the main body."
Murakami: That's because Koyasu is a kind of ghost and as such, is unable to distinguish between life and death. For that type of entity, the shadow and the main body are two sides of the same coin.
Q: A young boy wearing a green parka with a drawing of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine has a special gift of knowing the day of the week when given a person's birthdate and year.
Murakami: Koyasu is a kind of ghost and the boy is in a slightly different world. It's a story where these two entities, who are far from reality, guide the main protagonist who is unable to have a strong sense of being alive.
Q: I see.
Murakami: The main protagonist is someone who, however old he gets, carries some hesitation within him. Koyasu tries to give him wisdom, and the boy, innocence. Equipped with wisdom and innocence, the main character should be able to start perceiving where his ego would become defined.
Q: A scene that made a big impression on me was when the main character has his ear near the boy who says "more," "more" and gets it bitten.
Murakami: The boy biting the ear is clearly a "handover ceremony." It's one where the boy recognizes the main protagonist's raison d'etre, absorbs it, and both become united.
Q: The boy is 16 years old, around the same age as the teenage narrator who appears at the book's beginning. Additionally, the adult narrator becomes the head of the library in the city located in Fukushima Prefecture at 45, the same age as the previous head, Koyasu, when he lost his child and wife.
Murakami: Meaning that a part of Koyasu was handed over to the adult narrator, and a part of the adult narrator was handed over to the boy. It's a story of succession across three generations.
Q: There are other interesting lines. The boy tells the main protagonist that it is important to believe that "someone on the ground catches" when being "dropped from high above."
Murakami: That trust was not in "The End of the World." "The End of the World" ended up like some sort of landscape. For "The City and Its Uncertain Walls" I wanted to write a clear exit.
Q: The female coffee shop owner who appears in Part 2 is also an attractive character.
Murakami: I think that the main protagonist is gradually saved with the help of the woman from the coffee shop, Koyasu and the young boy. That's why the shadow can catch the main body, and they become one.
Q: So that's how the main protagonist and his shadow become one.
Murakami: I didn't want to end the book by shoving away the reader as in "The End of the World," but instead provide a premonition of some sort of answer, a sort of logic to the story. That shows my growth as a writer, I think.
Murakami sees writing style evolved to touch both real, unreal world
Murakami speaks to Kyodo News about his realistic writing style and creating worlds that combine the real and the unreal.
Q: The second part of your three-part novel, "The City and Its Uncertain Walls," is placed in a city in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture, which is written very realistically as if it actually exists.
Murakami: I have never been to the Aizu region so I wrote it using my imagination. In "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World," I wasn't yet able to write in that realistic style.
Q: You wrote the 1987 novel "Norwegian Wood" using realism.
Murakami: With "Norwegian Wood," I was able to write for the first time in a realistic style. And I have brought that style into Part 2 of the novel. That is also one of the differences with "The End of the World."
Q: I see.
Murakami: If one pursues writing everything realistically, the details of the city are firmly created. This was a pleasure I took when writing this book, and if I hadn't been able to describe in a realistic way, then this book would never have been made, so I think that it also reflects the abilities I gained as I built my career.
Q: In the book, there is a female coffee shop owner who reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "Love in the Time of Cholera." Her impression is that "His story combines reality and unreality, the living and the dead into one." Koyasu in "The City and Its Uncertain Walls" is exactly that type.
Murakami: In my case, I don't know why but from my first short story, elements nonexistent in the real world appear more and more as I work on a story. I know that in order to write realistically, you also have to include unreality. But writing it in an obvious fashion -- "This is unreality" -- is not good, and the real and unreal must be treated as equivalent.
Q: I see.
Murakami: As I pursued it, I came to understand that if one's writing style cannot capture reality completely, then one cannot write about unreality.
I had been writing in a "pop" style until "The End of the World," but with "Norwegian Wood" I was able to switch to writing with realism, and from there with "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," "Kafka on the Shore," and "1Q84," I was able to write even more meticulously and even more densely. That is something unrelated to Marquez' magic realism, and it was instinctive.
Q: And that is being read throughout the world.
Murakami: In Marquez' case, I think that indigenousness is a big element, but in my case there is hardly any. We're in a period where indigenousness is fading away. Maybe that makes my stories easier for current readers to accept.
Q: In this case, it is not in "the time of cholera," but written in "the time of the coronavirus pandemic." There was a page with the words "A never ending plague" in Gothic font. I thought that it was about COVID-19 but it turned out to be a plague of the soul.
Murakami: That's right. A plague that affects the physical body might eventually end, but a plague of the soul is hard to cure. That type of thing builds up a "wall," I think.
Q: You're talking about the ego that expands. The main protagonist's job in the walled city is to read "old dreams."
Murakami: I think depending on the reader there could be various interpretations of that job. My interpretation is that the egg-shaped "old dreams" are entities that absorb egos. Someone reading those dreams allows old egos to be released.
Q: So this is one interpretation of the author as a reader.
Murakami: In this society, people are full of ego but have no place to take it. Every piece of information has been siphoned in, and there are many who desire to deposit their egos on the other side of the wall. The world inside the wall is a place where all those things gather, and if they are not released, then more and more of the old dreams gather, and there is a strong sense of danger that this will trigger an explosion.
Nature is important in works, keep controversial Tokyo park: Murakami
Here, Murakami speaks about the importance of nature in his stories, his love for Truman Capote's writings and the controversial redevelopment of Meiji Jingu Gaien in Tokyo.
Q: Each part of "The City and Its Uncertain Walls" starts with a river.
Murakami: That's right.
Q: The first scene in the book where the teenage girl and boy are walking by a river made an impression on me. Part 2 occurs at a river town in Fukushima Prefecture. There is a lovely scene of the woman from the coffee shop and the main protagonist walking along that river. Rivers in your creations are always depicted positively and I can feel the life shine.
Murakami: Yes, the rivers in the Hanshinkan area where I grew up flowed down directly from Mt. Rokko so it is very beautiful. The rivers that have the largest imprint in my mind are the Ashiya and Shuku rivers in Hyogo Prefecture. The river that flows through the city surrounded by walls is also a similarly beautiful river.
Q: I see.
Murakami: Because I grew up in the Hanshinkan area in western Japan, rivers, seas and mountains are extremely important elements to me. The novel's city in Fukushima Prefecture's Aizu region is in the mountains. Since I used to go to the mountains often as a child, that type of ambiance is very important to me. But when you go all the way to the riverhead, it feels creepy. I wanted to bring out that type of fear.
Q: This is also the case with "The City and Its Uncertain Walls" but you have a lot of stories where libraries appear. "The Strange Library," "Kafka on the Shore"...
Murakami: For me, libraries are crucial places. I went to different libraries.
Q: The boy with the Yellow Submarine on a green parka is also someone who reads a book from a library. His name is "M......" which could perhaps also be read as "Murakami"...
Murakami: As a child, I used to ride my bike to Nishinomiya's city library quite a lot. There was a room for children and I read almost all of the books for youngsters.
Q: This summer your Japanese translation of Truman Capote's "Other Voices, Other Rooms" was published. I want to hear more about Capote.
Murakami: I fell in love with Capote's writing in high school and read his books in English all the time. I was a child who loved reading books but because his writings were so wonderful I thought I would never be able to write. I didn't have the desire to become a novelist until I started writing at age 29.
Q: Even your debut novel "Hear the Wind Sing" reflects your love.
Murakami: Yes. It's from the last line of "Shut A Final Door." He's my teacher. I loved the writing style and I enjoyed translating it into Japanese. But Capote's writing style and mine are completely different, strange to say. Translation means turning the original text into easy-to-understand Japanese but I think that by doing translations, I learned a lot about sentences.
Q: The last question I have is on the controversial redevelopment of the historical Meiji Jingu Gaien park area in Tokyo. The single-horned beasts in "The City and Its Uncertain Walls" are also inspired by the unicorn statues at the Gaien, aren't they?
Murakami: Yes. As are the unicorns featured in "A Poor-Aunt Story."
Q: There was a jazz cafe which you ran near Meiji Jingu Gaien, which is also a course for people to walk or train for marathons. You used to go often to the stadium as a fan of the professional baseball team Tokyo Yakult Swallows. It was while you were watching their season's opening game that you thought "I think I can write a novel too." The area will undergo redevelopment and some people are concerned about the felling of hundreds of nearby trees.
Murakami: It's true that cities rapidly transform but some areas should be left alone, for example New York's Central Park or London's Hyde Park. They're kind of spiritual areas and the Meiji Jingu Gaien area is also like that for Tokyo. So we should reject the capitalist argument, and keep it exactly as is.
Q: Also, congratulations on your 2023 Princess of Asturias award for literature.
Murakami: The award ceremony was on Oct. 20. I was able to have a friendly chat with co-winners Eliud Kipchoge (Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo Olympic gold medalist in marathon) and actress Meryl Streep, and that was so much fun.
Haruki Murakami's biography
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, western Japan, in 1949 and moved to Tokyo to attend Waseda University. He embarked on his career with his first novel "Hear the Wind Sing," which won the Gunzo Award for New Writers in 1979. He has won other Japanese prizes including the Tanizaki Junichiro Prize for "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World."
A popular author, both domestically and abroad, he shot to fame after writing the best-selling novel "Norwegian Wood."
His other novels include "A Wild Sheep Chase," "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," "Kafka on the Shore," "1Q84," and "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage."
His latest, "The City and Its Uncertain Walls" which came out in April, is his first novel in six years, after "Killing Commendatore."
Murakami has also authored several works of nonfiction including "Underground" which is based on a collection of interviews he did with the victims of the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system.
Murakami is the recipient of multiple international awards including the Franz Kafka Award, the Jerusalem Prize, the Catalonia International Prize, the Welt Literature Prize and the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award.