Haruki Murakami: Reality or Fantasy?

Artist 이보름

What distinguishes the dimensions of reality and fantasy? When it comes to Haruki Murakami, it can be hard to tell since they are intertwined so closely with each other in his writing, creating literature like none other.

Haruki Murakami is a beloved Japanese writer born in the city of Kyoto in 1949. Over the years, his novels and collections of short stories have gathered immense popularity and are recognized as bestsellers globally. His fiction commonly captures a “sense of disillusionment, disconnection, and confusion that linger[s] close to a placid surface even during halcyon days.” (Patrica Welch) These themes are not only mentioned but heavily ingrained in his stories as Murakami seeks to understand their origins in his commonly passive characters. From what I have read, his characters seem to all be ordinary people who are limited by their own self-imposed solitary. There is never anything particularly wrong at first. Still, something is amiss that is sought to be corrected on a personal account through routine activities, as most of them have been taught to operate within the organized Japanese social order. They are later put into situations that challenge their complacence, behavior and prompt question towards their holistic identity. Though critics have dismissed Murakami’s work as “faddish, uninspired, or lacking political heft,” all his writing that I have analyzed is carefully crafted and influenced by how contemporary society can dehumanize an individual. He writes elegant and beautiful sentences that explain complex issues through great depths of vividness and unique imagery. But if one can not learn to appreciate the ambiguity his stories have to offer, it is inevitable to be led astray. As Murakami told an interviewer about his writing mysteries, “If the very important secret is not solved, then readers will be frustrated. That is not what I want. But if a certain kind of secret stays secret, it’s a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it.” The thing is, you may drive yourself crazy in an attempt to try to figure out what each story means entirely. In reality, Murakami is not that kind of writer; so when looking at his writing, one can find meaning in the patterns he makes palatable for an audience instead of the entirety of a story full of magical realism.

For me reading Murakami has been a great pleasure overall. At first, all I could pick up on was his Western ‘pop-culture’ references, a couple of dreamlike symbols, and an obvious encumbering in psychological fiction categorical-wise. Everything else seemed stale, like a piece of bread that had been forgotten in someone’s pantry, but in that same house, there was no butter, jam, cream cheese, or any condiments you can eat with bread. It even seemed like there was no real reason to have bread in that house, and because of its inutility, it was subject to rot alone, forgotten with time. Elements of his stories seemed to have no real purpose of being mentioned. But, as I read other stories and researched, I noticed that they did have significance as motifs or related to thematic national/global issues. I have to preface that I think all the stories were excellent in their own way, but my personal favorites while reading had to be “Sleep” or “The Second Bakery Attack.” In “Sleep,” The longing for freedom in a domestic setting as a mother and wife, which eventually led to some dissociation of reality was a fascinating process to wrap my head around. The dynamic between the husband and wife in “The Second Bakery Attack” was utterly absurd and enjoyable for me as well; it was like a breath of fresh air after thinking tirelessly to interpret our other stories assigned individually and accumulatively. Now that I have finished my pre-reading research and lengthy annotations, I have come to notice various patterns in Murakami’s writing.

One of the patterns I noticed was the repetition of ideas constructed in his stories regarding gender roles in Japanese society. This can most notably be seen in “Sleep,” where the protagonist seeks liberty from her responsibilities as a housewife to enjoy her pastimes like she used to. Her goal to break free from routine reflects an oppressive patriarchal structure of power in Japanese culture on married women. The responsibilities that she learns to despise are reflected on page 89, where she uses anaphoras to concretize her point, “Now I am a wife. A mother. I have responsibilities, I have to make my husband’s lunches and take care of my son.” This pattern invites readers to understand the sacrifices one must make when committing themselves to a relationship as a woman, which can also be seen with the protagonist in “The Little Green Monster.” Here the protagonist has grown a dependence on her husband to the point she has absolutely nothing to do in his absence. On page 152, she states in the short stories opening sentence, “My husband left for work as usual, and I couldn’t think of anything to do.” Later describing that when she was younger, she planted an oak tree that had grown over time. We as readers can infer that perhaps gardening was one of her many hobbies she used to love and later left behind because of her new overriding responsibilities as a wife.

Consequently, neither of these women is given the luxury of an independent identity from their families. I believe both stories reveal the repercussions of neglecting a marriage on behalf of a husband because of the typical Japanese salaryman lifestyle. But surprisingly, in “The Wind-up Bird and Tuesdays Women,” we see these gender roles previously mentioned defied. Its protagonist is a man who is recently unemployed and does cooking, ironing, grocery shopping, and other forms of housework that are stereotypically associated with females. At the same time, his wife does office work at a design school. On page 11, he describes his discontent with his chores by saying, “Here I am, thirty years old, and what am I doing? Washing clothes, planning dinner menus, chasing after cats.” His dissatisfaction with this lifestyle relates to that of our other two female protagonists. These feelings can help us conclude that forced domestic settings on individuals, especially women in Japan, lead to restrictions on liberty and individual identity. This often makes protagonists feel trapped in routine; this imprisonment is a theme Murakami frequents in his work to criticize society.

Another pattern I noticed is the usage of time when structuring almost all of his stories. One might question the relevance of always including the hour in a short story, but its purpose can be interpreted in various ways when it comes to Murakami. As humans, we use time to help organize our lives and add structure to our daily activities. By using it correctly, we can bring order to our existence. Like how in the story “Sleep,” the protagonist knows precisely at what time her husband goes to work and drops off their son a school (8:15 AM), at what time her son comes back (6:00 PM), at what time her husband comes back somedays of the week (before 7:00 PM), and when to put her son to bed (8:30 PM). Even when her sleepless nights started, she always kept track of what time it was in her free time (between 10:00 PM-6:00 AM).

Similarly, Murakami uses the time to illustrate where characters are located and brings order to their strange reality. The purpose could be to help the reader follow along, but more so to show the inevitable routine life takes that none of us can truly escape, not even the protagonist of “Sleep” despite her attempts to do so. Especially when it comes to the average Japanese citizen, routine absorbed individuals use time to keep track of one’s reality. In an attempt to escape the numbing effects of contemporary life, the protagonist of “The Elephant Vanishes” general unease leads to his strange interest in the intimate and balanced bond between the town’s elephant and its keeper. Even in unusual situations, characters always refer back to the routine time provides, like seen on page 308, where the protagonist states, “My alarm clock woke me that day, as always, at 6:13.” No matter what internal conflicts one may face or conflicts with society, life always moves forward unmercifully. In the end, time itself can be categorized as a tool the human mind needs on a biological, cognitive, and social level, most notably for characters as ordinary as presented by Murakami.

Haruki Murakami has not been an author I have understood with a facility like others in the literature world, nor do I think I will ever fully understand what he tries to communicate, but is that such a bad thing? The various directions his writing takes can be disorienting initially, but the complexity and uniqueness it provides make it worth reading. You can tell both naturally peripheral and carefully considered elements are included in his writing. My favorite part about him as an author is his imagery that has no other parallel I have come across yet. His sentences and metaphors have a surreal aspect I can’t quite compare to anything else I have read before. This is precisely why I want to continue working to understand his writing and him as an author. I will first start with his book “Kafka on the Shore” that I found an English copy of this evening which guarantees I will be back with more commentary. For now, if you feel like life has been a little bland recently, and you need some peculiarity as we all do once in a while, I definitely recommend picking up one of his short stories.

Research on Haruki Murakami

The crevices of my mind