Thu, Jun 25, 2009
The Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network
Haruki Murakami: In pursuit of new realism

The following is the first of two installments of excerpts from an interview with author Haruki Murakami. The interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Mariko Ozaki.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: "1Q84" (ichi-kew-hachi-yon), your full-length novel that crowns your 30-year career as a novelist, depicts another world that is slightly detached from reality as we know it. How did you think up this plot? What kinds of themes are in this novel?

Haruki Murakami: I had long wanted to write a near-past novel similar to George Orwell's futuristic novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four." Another motive for this book was incidents involving Aum Supreme Truth cult members. I wrote "Underground" [published in 1997] after interviewing more than 60 victims of Aum's sarin gas attack [in 1995] on the Tokyo subway system and "The Place That Was Promised" [published in 2001] after interviewing eight Aum followers. Even after that, I attended as many hearings at the Tokyo district and high courts as I could.

My indignation against the incident remains undiminished. But my interest was piqued by Yasuo Hayashi, who is on death row. He fled after killing eight people, the biggest number, in the Tokyo subway attack. Hayashi joined Aum without knowing exactly what he was getting into and committed murder after being brainwashed.

I think capital punishment is the reasonable decision when we consider Japan's penalty system and bereaved families' anger and sorrow. But I fundamentally oppose capital punishment, and I felt a heavy sense of gloom when the death sentence was given.

At that time I imagined the terror of being left alone on the other side of the moon where a Joe Blow unwittingly commits a felonious crime and ends up becoming a death row convict. I considered for years the meaning of this. This served as a starting point for my story.

Q: The novel makes the reader contemplate the loftiness and awfulness of mankind. With the lay judge system having just started, people are considering once again the significance of trying other people in a court.

A: The series of incidents involving Aum followers made us seriously question just what the definition of "ethical" should be in contemporary society. I started following Aum matters so I could reassess the current situation from the viewpoints of both good and evil.

We live in an era in which it is extremely difficult to have a one-sided socioethical judgment on what is an absolutely right opinion or action. The wall separating people who would commit crime from those who wouldn't is flimsier than you might think. Reality exists in the hypothetical and vice versa. There is antiestablishment within establishment and vice versa.

I wanted to write a novel encompassing this contemporary social system in its entirety. That's why I gave names to almost every person in the novel and fleshed out their characters in detail, so that it couldn't be unnatural for any of us to be one of them.

Q: All the characters suffer emotional scars and have shadowy backgrounds, but they also have their charms. Two moons and two surrealistic characters--little people and air chrysalis--appear in the novel, but contemporary people, who are accustomed to computer graphics through motion pictures and computer games, can be easily drawn into it.

A: A common state of mind among people in the contemporary world is that they become unsure about whether the world they see is actually real. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York in scenes that seemed to be unreal.

As video footage of the towers collapsing were shown over and over again, some people might unwittingly and momentarily have felt they were straying into an odd world where no such towering buildings existed. They possibly think there could be a world where U.S. President George W. Bush was not reelected and the Iraq war did not break out.

I think the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995 and the Aum sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March that year made many Japanese experience a sense of dissociation from reality before people of other countries.

They asked themselves, "What we are here for?" My novels, except for "Norwegian Wood," do not represent what we call realism, but seem to have started being accepted the world over as works representing new realism--especially after 9/11.

At the same time, I like secular novels like those written by Honore de Balzac [1799-1850]. I wanted to write a "comprehensive novel" in my own style describing present-day social conditions from a three-dimensional standpoint.

I tried to embed human life in the contemporary social climate by going beyond the genre of pure literature and by tapping various approaches that each offered something different.

Q: In "1Q84," a group deriving from a student movement split into a political group and a group seeking a self-sufficient lifestyle. The latter transforms into a religious cult group. Reading this novel brings to mind actual events of recent times.

A: I thought it necessary to ponder what path our generation has followed since the latter half of the 1960s. Our generation, after all, had to create a new story when Marxism lost its vigor and currency as an antithesis [of capitalism].

What can replace Marxism as an effective tenet of thought? In their pursuit of an answer, they became interested in religious cults that are more like something new-age. "Little people" is one result of this.

Q: Who are the "little people" the cult leader's daughter sees in a forest in Yamanashi Prefecture? This is perhaps the biggest riddle to readers of your novel.

A: [Little people] have existed since olden times as mystic icons but they cannot be verbalized. Perhaps they can be considered as an imaginary existence. Myths build up through history or in individual people's collective memory, and they unleash their power all of a sudden in a certain situation.

A myth, for example, is invoked under a peculiar condition such as an outbreak of avian influenza. It also is an invisible factor. It might be something that exists within ourselves.

It's also concerned with the issue of fundamentalism. As the world becomes increasingly chaotic, simplified fundamentalism has been steadily gaining traction. It requires considerable effort to think by oneself in such a complicated situation. Therefore, most people borrow ready-made or off-the-cuff quotes made by others and pretend as if they are of their own making.

This way of thinking tends to be connected with fundamentalism--all the more so when it is simplified. Such thinking isn't healthy--it's like junk food that gives you a quick burst of energy but isn't good for your health. In these times, it's difficult to enhance one's spirituality by yourself.

Q: The advent of market fundamentalism and globalization has advanced along with information technology. We have access to so much information on the Internet, but this also leaves us vulnerable to being manipulated by this information.

A: That is true. The world today is completely different from that of 1984. There were word processors then, but no one had a personal computer at home. We had to go to a library to find information we needed. Mobile phones weren't available so we had to wait our turn to use public phones.

We listened to long-playing records that played at 33-1/3 rpm. Things have changed dramatically. Today, anyone can express their opinion--no matter how immoral--on a blog and anonymous malicious messages are posted all over the Net. Information and opinions can be easily copied and pasted and regurgitated over and over. Speed and easiness are prized above all else.

When I was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in February this year, there apparently was a storm on the Web as people argued over whether I would refuse to accept the prize. Unfortunately, the debate stopped short of delving into what I could do by attending the award ceremony.

Q: In your speech at the award ceremony, in which you used the metaphor about "an egg and a wall," you stated that you write novels to "bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it."

A: The role of writers, I believe, should be to create a story that can counter fundamentalism and certain kinds of mystique. A story stays forever--if it is good and finds a place in the hearts of the right people.

No matter how much my "egg and wall" metaphor was lauded, such a raw message will gradually lose its impact as it is passed around. But a story enters one's heart in its entirety.

It can't bring about an immediate effect, but it can survive for a long time and it can even develop with the passage of time. A "story" needs to be powerful all the more at a time when the Net is being drowned in "opinions."

A thesis or a message attempts to put hard-to-express sentiments regarding one's soul into simple words so that they instantly touch someone's heart.

Novelists, on the other hand, create a story through words that are as close to the core concept as possible and convey hard-to-express messages in great detail. I think that's the difference between them.

Novelists derive immense pleasure when a reader discovers a truth wrapped up in the words of a novel. What counts isn't the number of copies a book sells but how the novelist's messages can reach the readers.

Haruki Murakami profile

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto Prefecture in 1949. After graduating from Waseda University, he published his first novel, "Hear the Wind Sing," in 1979. His full-length novels include "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World," which was awarded the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize, "Norwegian Wood," and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," which was awarded the Yomiuri Literature Prize. He received the Franz Kafka Prize in 2006 and the Jerusalem Prize in 2009.

This article was first published in The Yomiuri Shimbun.

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