The surreal feel of Murakami’s extensive novels that have been remarkably translated from Japanese to English and more than fifty other languages offer reading experiences from which you will be altered yourself by the closing of each story.
Born in Kyoto in 1949, Haruki Murakami lives near Tokyo. His translators have worked with him and his publishers’ editors to create books in English that they feel fit the American and British reading public. This outstanding team approach that lasts for months and months has resulted in wonderfully written language that is inspiring for readers and other writers.
I am writing this article with pleasure to elaborate on many remarkable books that take us on very different ventures with Murakami as our guide, yet also have common themes with various characters’ voices.
Table of Contents
- 1. A Wild Sheep Chase
- 2. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World
- 3. Sputnik Sweetheart
- Short Stories
As the U.S. became more welcoming to Japanese literature, readers were exposed to an engaging gripping plot reviewed as a trans-Pacific novel that takes on aspects of a detective story with themes about consciousness, silence, and mediocrity.
Collaboration Between Translator and Editor
The translator works exceedingly hard for American audiences, along with the editor revising and revising. Initially published in Japan in 1982, the translator works hard to make the book more contemporary in an effort to expand the readership for Marakumi’s debut in English.
The Dazzling Character-Driven Plot
How can it be that a not-so-hard-working young advertising executive who drinks alcohol quite a bit has his life upended after receiving a postcard from a friend with a bewildering photo of a most unusual sheep in the countryside of a remote area of Japan?
Is there really a mutant sheep to be found with a star on its back?
Do sheep actually inhabit human’s bodies including their brains?
Could these startling ‘facts’ unfold in an elaborate quest and search that will take you, an American reader, into the isolation of remote mountains of northern Japan?
Are you ready for the transformation of your self as you are beguiled and bewildered by the transformation of the protagonist’s self? Unusual possibilities present themselves as the main character speaks in the first person on his journey into the unknown.
The Boss sends our searching main character on a quest for a sheep. He is forced to question all he knows about his regular life, mediocrity, his love life, and a threatening time limit for his peculiar journey. His friend, the Rat, sends him on this quest, and his girlfriend, who insists on joining him, later vanishes. But I won’t go any further hopefully having already captured your imagination.
The Language that Evokes Themes about Silence, Consciousness, Immortality, Comedy, and a Sheep Professor
Here are a few excerpts to tantalize your knowledge about the preponderance of metaphoric passages that evoke intrigue with the characters and within the reader.
“A weighty silence ensued” (p. 139).
“Through the receiver, a silence stole into the room. There wasn’t a breath to be heard. It was a silence strong enough to make your ears hurt” (p. `162).
“The chauffeur fell silent. Only this time he didn’t stay silent for very long” (p. 182).
“Particles of silence floated about the room for the longest time. The solid double-hung window shut out the city noise; only the sputter of the old lamp punctuated the silence” (p. 219).
“Once again, silence shrouded the room” (p.225).
“This may have been the longest we two had ever not spoken” (p. 246).
“…a profound hush drifted in like mist. A hush I could do nothing to deny” (p. 317).
Consciousness and Immortality
“…the attempt to expand consciousness alone, without any quantitative or qualitative change in the individual, was ultimately doomed” (p. 142).
“Well,’ said I, ‘suppose I utterly obliterated my consciousness and became totally fixed, would I merit a fancy name?” (p. 182).
“Say I froze in place, or something. Like Sleeping Beauty” (p. 182).
“The sheep that enters a body is thought to be immortal. And so too the person who hosts the sheep is thought to become immortal. However, should the sheep escape, the immortality goes” (p. 222).
“Such bliss. Better that the sheepless be without this shell of half-consciousness” (p. 224).
“I can’t tell how much is really me and how much the shadow of the sheep” (p.225).
“I couldn’t help thinking what perfect timing it would be if at that instant a Cuckoo started to sing. But, of course, no cuckoo was to be heard. Cukoos don’t sing in the evenings” (p. 128)
“C’ mere, Kipper,’ said the chauffeur, picking up the cat. The cat got frightened, bit the chauffeur’s thumb, then farted” (p. 179).
“‘ No, time does not expand,’ I answered.
I had spoken, but why didn’t it sound like my voice? I coughed and drank my coffee.
“Time does not expand” But time is actually increasing, isn’t it? You yourself said that time adds up.’
‘That’s only because the time needed for transit has decreased. The sum total of time doesn’t change. It’s only that you can see more movies.’
‘If you wanted to see movies,’ she added” (p. 184)
The Sheep Professor
“It was as if the weight of forty-two years had infiltrated the furthest reaches of his body…The sheep goes away leaving only an idea. But without the sheep there is no expelling that idea. That is what it is to be ‘sheepless'” (p. 223).
“But there wasn’t any Sheep Man in the mirror!…In the mirror world, I was alone. Terror shot through my spine” (p. 322).
So as a reader you are given the unique opportunity to be a pioneer in an alternate universe with a different atmospheric layer where silence tingles on your skin, birds look vacantly at the sky with nothing to say, light gray skies weary of their fickle subtleties, all on a journey—a quest—to find a special sheep.
You will question if even you might live in two separate worlds and have an alternative or another me somewhere until you refind the real me, making a former me, not real at all!
In this thrilling book you will discover alternate realities and coexisting parallel worlds you can drop through! With its deceptively lively light-handed writing style you discover classic tragedy unfolds.
Collaboration Between Translator and Editor
The collaboration between translator and editor who also sought Murakami’s point of view on changes they made in tone, voice, and plot driven choices brings us stunning language that is accessible to an American readership.
There were debates about how and when to include the Japanese erotic passages that are playful in English and warmly entertaining. Of interest, some thought the American readers were more “prudish” and less patient than the Japanese readers.
With regard to patient reading, it is believed that the American reader who builds trust with Murakami is more than willing to go with this author’s pace. I found that clearly was true for me.
At times when the descriptions and story might have seemed slow moving I became more than able to wait out the story as it unfolded as Murakami wanted me to. He was leading me to gradually experience phantasmagorical shifts and a moving ending that made me gasp out loud.
Alternating Plot Sections
There are two alternating sections—the Hard-Boiled chapters and the End of World chapters. The two sections are differentiated using different tenses.
The Hard-Boiled Wonderland is in the past tense, while the End of the World chapters that are so dreamy are in the present tense with a timeless quality. In each section, each character has their own distinct words, tone, and voice. The translator worked hard to maintain contemporary prose even while you read about old dreams sealed inside unicorn skulls!
Short, pithy sentences in each section combine well with wit, strange events, illogical timeless worlds that are created with both a dream world self and a severed shadow self.
Like many other of his books, I’ll discuss Murakami is deeply interested in the nature of consciousness and therefore, so are his suspense-filled odd and unexpected characters whom you’ll meet.
The Hard-Boiled Wonderland: The Characters Who Drive the Plot
Early on the first-person narrator speaking in the past tense meets up with a woman who speaks with no sound coming out. “It was as if she were talking to me from the far side of a thick sheet of glass” (p.9).
Venturing forward, the protagonist learns about golden beasts herded by a Gatekeeper of the Town. (The beasts are outside the town.) We quickly learn there is the inside of Town and the outside.
Once inside, the surreal takes over as the protagonist learns of his peculiar job of reading dreams from unicorn skulls. He becomes a Calcutec opposed by Semiotecs. If this doesn’t sound strange enough, beware of the Inklings lying in wait in the town!
Once a Calcutec, always a Calcutec. Working in darkness because light hurts his eyes, the protagonist ventures forth in a unique library to do his dreamwork for the Old Man doing his research on consciousness for the Official System. He warns the researcher to be very much on time with his work or something like the world falling apart could result.
We learn that the opposition called Semiotecs traffic illegally obtained data on the black market for profit. They come to threaten our researcher in time. Their organization is called the Factors.
So, the System and Factory are at aggressive odds. This is the threatening environment the Dreamreader lives in working at this unusual Library in The Town surrounded by the Wall.
The Librarian, an endless eater, forms a close relationship with the Dreamreader, spending much time with him at his apartment.
Another fascinating character is the Old Man’s granddaughter, all in pink with whom our researcher forms an unusual relationship, as well as the researcher’s Shadow whose very existence is threatened.
The End of the World: The Characters Who Drive the Plot
With the present tense we meet other characters such as the neighboring Colonel who informs the Dreamreader that one of the conditions of The Town is that he cannot possess a shadow. The other condition is that he cannot leave as long as the Wall surrounds The Town.
The Gatekeeper takes on increasing significance along with the Shadow of the Dreamreader as he gives more and more detail about the potential loss not only of his Shadow but of his memory.
Without giving away too much of the plot, it becomes apparent that the Dreamreader is going to be faced with very difficult decisions about his strange life as it evolves that won’t be known completely until the book’s surprising ending.
Murakami is not only the master of a fascinating character-driven surreal story that raises the specter of discovering the ins and outs of consciousness and fantasy, but also a grandmaster of language especially the landscape that vividly comes alive.
The River “murmurs” at the Dreamreader’s feet (p. 109) and “The evening sky turns the River a leaden hue” (p. 117).
“Dense undergrowth closes in on the road where the River has carved the Gorge in the west slope of the Western Hill” (p. 121).
“It is unearthly, resembling nothing that I know. Different from the thundering of a waterfall, different from the howl of the wind, different from the rumble of a tremor…..The surface may seem calm, but below is a whirlpool…” (p. 122).
“The scene is a picture of deceptive repose. The meadow is embroidered in autumn flowers, the trees brilliant with crimson leaves, the Pool a mirror” (p. 123).
The Weather and the Seasons
“We got some strange weather blowing up. The Factory has sniffed something in the wind and made a move” (p. 139).
“In due time, autumn too vanishes. One morning I awake, and from a glance at the sky I know winter is near. Gone are the high, sprightly autumn clouds; in their place a heavy cloud bank glowers over the Northern Ridge, like a messenger bearing ill tidings.
Autumn had been welcomed as a cheerful and comely visitor; its stay was too brief, its departure too abrupt. The passing of autumn leaves a temporary blank, an empty hole in the year that is not of a season at all” (p. 143).
I just cannot give the distressing and scary and heartwarming story away any further except I must recommend this chrysalis of a novel for readers openminded enough to venture into unknown worlds with some unusual folks they will learn to love and admire as their futures unfold.
A beautiful romance novel that is part detective story involves a triangle of unrequited love. An irresistible love evolves from young female Sumire for older female Miu who has different feelings for her protégé.
But Sumire is loved by K, yes, madly in love for that matter, but he fondly becomes devoted to her anyway as he is drawn into her world of ominous visions.
Your heart and soul will feast on this profound indelible mirror of human longings.
A shorter book than those above with a less complicated but no less deep plot, Sputnik Sweetheart, lives in your mind as you read and like the characters, you feel ways of loving never before expressed.
The Characters who Drive the Plot
A twenty-two-year-old young writer, simply dressed, loses her mother at a young age, a phantom barely spoken about. Her stepmother encourages Sumire to follow her career dreams and two years after dropping out of college she meets her Sputnik Sweetheart, a fashionable older woman with a successful career.
What kind of writer could Sumire become?
“Her mind was as clear as the winter night sky, the Big Dipper and North Star in place, twinkling brightly. She had so many things she had to write so many stories to tell” (p. 12).
“My head is like some ridiculous barn packed full of stuff I want to write about. ‘Images, scenes, snatches of words…in my mind they’re all glowing, all alive. Write! They shout at me. A great new story is about to be born…It’ll transport me to some brand-new place. The problem is, once I sit at my desk…something vital is missing. It doesn’t crystallize—no crystals, just pebbles. And I’m not transported anywhere” (p. 15).
When she couldn’t move forward Miu encourages her to do other work, gain new experiences in life that can transport her into her world of writing.
How does she see herself? Is this the most intriguing coming of age novel you’ll ever read?
“A delayed adolescence…When I get up in the morning and see my face in the mirror, it looks like someone else’s. If I’m not careful, I might end up left behind….if I lost myself, where could I go?…Where in the world could I be heading?” (p. 61).
“I’m left to drift in outer space. With no idea where I’m headed.
“Like a little lost Sputnik?’” (p. 63).
Sumire struggles with her identity, a world that surrounds her starts to look unreal, and her love for Miu grows as she feels “these thoughts gradually pushing me to some other place” (p. 73).
Miu, Sumire’s Sputnik Sweetheart
When Sumire meets up with Miu we see her falling into a deep and profound love.
“Sumire felt the air around her suddenly grow thin. Her nipples tightened under her dress…I must be in love with this woman…No mistake about it… I’m in love. And this love is about to carry me off somewhere. The current’s too overpowering; I don’t have a choice…Even if it means I’ll be burned up, gone forever” (p. 25).
In love with Sumire, K becomes her devoted friend with whom she shares her deepest secrets and confusions at odd hours of the night from a payphone and at his apartment. As the first-person narrator he fills the reader’s heart as he thinks of his loving feelings.
“I pictured her hanging up the receiver, walking out of the telephone booth…drew the curtain aside, and there was the moon, floating in the sky like some pale clever orphan” (p. 53).
“It was hard to accept that she had almost no feelings, maybe none at all, for me as a man. This hurt so bad at times that it felt like someone was gouging out my guts with a knife” (p. 59)
When Sumire reveals her love for Miu, K listens.
“My penis still maintained its overpowering rigidity, and I prayed that Sumire wouldn’t notice…I imagined her hand stroking my rock-hard penis. I tried not to think that but couldn’t help it. I imagined…Spreading her legs wide, entering that wetness. Slowly, into the deep darkness within” (p. 67).
He faces her departure to Europe, and later another departure I’ll keep from you at this time that you will discover throws you a profound curve much later on in the book.
In a totally different way from the books above the reader still struggles to understand different senses of reality, not alternative universes this time but alternative selves or senses of the world.
When K leaves his teaching job for a time to locate Sumire his world “had lost all sense of reality. Colors were unnatural… The background was papier-mâché, the stars made out of aluminum foil…In the midst of this illogical dream—or uncertain wakefulness—I thought about Sumire” (p. 84).
During his travels, “I was starving. A feeling of such extreme hunger I felt sure you could see through me” (pp. 88, 89).
Miu, too, mystified by Sumire gets to know her.
“There we were, sitting quietly on the edge of the world, and no one could see us. That’s the way it felt…I knew that was impossible—our life here was just a momentary illusion, and someday reality would yank us back to the world we came from” (p. 100).
When K and Miu meet to figure out where Sumire has gone, Miu ponders.
“I couldn’t separate the boundary between what was real and what only seemed real…and Sumire had exited stage right” (p. 112).
“Miu gave a sigh like the wind at the edge of the world…How can you explain the inexplicable?” (p. 124). “If only we could have a happy ending…’ But her eyes told another story” (p. 126).
K holds on to missing Sumire’s writings.
“She was stuck inside a Ferris wheel overnight in an amusement park in a small Swiss town, and looking through binoculars at her room she saw a second self there” (p. 164).
Maybe the ending will surprise you. Maybe it won’t. But it will certainly deepen your knowledge of the characters and yourself. Profound emotions, intimate relations, and love of various kinds will draw you in, compel you to think of your own loves, and stir your world.
Article Epilogue to These Novels
As you see, Murakami’s philosophies, enriching ideas, and varying stories cannot be spoken of quickly or lightly. His own words speak best for any review of his works.
Read on as I share further his broad range of stories that continue to propel the reader to think of consciousness, alternative worlds and selves, men and women, and challenges of the mind.
Reference pertaining to translations: Karashiuma, David, (2020), Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami, Soft Skull Press, NY, NY.
The Characters that Drive Unlikely Plots of Love or Unrequited Love
1. Drive My Car
Actor, Kafuku and his Driver, Misaki and a Close Friend of Kafuku, Actor, Takatsuki
Kafuku is the male protagonist who falls for Misaki. Par for the course for our author, Marukawi, his description of Misaki, in particular, is filled with his wonderful descriptive language. The reader easily visualizes her.
“No matter how you looked at her she was hardly a beauty, and there was something off-putting about her face…The remnants of teenage acne dotted her cheeks. She had big, strikingly clear eyes that looked out suspiciously on the world, their dark brown irises all the more striking because of their size. Her large protruding ears were like satellite dishes placed in some remote landscape” (p.8).
Kafuku has a blind spot, so he needs a driver and likes to practice his lines in the car. His wife, who slept with several of his fellow actors, died after twenty years together, during which time he only slept with her. “The images whittled away at him like a sharp knife steady and unrelenting” (p. 17).
However, he kept her secret “Smiling when his heart was torn and insides bleeding…This was not something a normal person could pull off. But Kafuku was a professional actor. Shedding his self, his flesh and blood, in order to inhabit a role was his calling” (p. 17).
Kafuku befriends one of his wife’s lovers, Takatsuki, an older unskilled actor after his wife dies so he can talk with someone who knew her. Takatsuki, a veteran alcoholic, was the last of Kafuku’s wife’s lovers and still deeply attached to her.
As he drives with Misaki, they confide in each other as Murakawi sets the stage for something foreboding.
“In the adjacent lane, the tractor-trailer moved ahead and fell behind, like the shadow cast by some enormous fate” (p. 22).
The dual meaning of Kafuku’s blind spot emerges as we learn he didn’t feel he understood his wife.
“Like a small, locked safe lying at the bottom of the ocean …there was something inside her, something important, that I must have missed“ (p. 33).
Takatsuki advises him to look inside his own heart for an answer.
This unlikely most unusual male friendship grows on the reader at the same time that Kafuku deepens his connection with Misaki, who pulls out the theme of being an actor for us to see.
Are we all actors?
The Narrator, Mr. Tanimura and Akiyoshi Kitaru, Two Male Confidants and their Shared Girlfriend, Erika Kuritani
Kitaru proposes that Tanimura go out with his girlfriend, Erika Kuritani, an unlikely match typical of this author.
Erika agrees. They meet. When Kitaru quits his job and vanishes, Tanimura is surprised.
Sixteen years pass when Tanimua meets up again with Erika, learns that their mutual friend became a sushi chef, never ending up going to college. As they catch up Erika tells Tanimura after their one date, she dated a guy she slept with, but it didn’t work out and she never reunited with Kitaru, her childhood sweetheart.
She raises the theme of the story, “That’s what we all do: endlessly take the long way around” (p. 73).
At this point it’s clear none of the three were married, nor had either guy made love with Erika through these years.
This is a story where I can tell you the last line, without giving away the whole story yet offer it as an invitation to read the full story:
“For no one knows what kind of dreams tomorrow will bring” (p. 76).
3. An Independent Organ
The Narrator, Mr. Tanimura and Dr. Tokai
“I have no way of knowing what darkness lay in his subconscious, or what sins he may have carried with him” (p. 78)
Tokai was a single, unmarried 52-year-old man who never lived with a woman. Believing he couldn’t be a married type he dated women who were connected to another with whom they also made love but would never want to marry Tokai.
Over thirty years he had intimacies with these women, but sex wasn’t the ultimate goal though it was enjoyed. He sought intimate, intellectual connections with attractive quick-witted women with whom he always broke up with as they wanted to marry another. About one third of these women divorced and came back to see him again, the others he wished well.
Tokai was friends with the narrator who learned that Tokai never found it odd that he dated several women at once. He saw it as natural, not being an infidel.
These women’s other lovers never new about Tokai and when he advised them to lie simply and be discreet they listened. Sometimes they slipped but he smartly avoided collisions of any kind believing “quickness trumps politeness.”
For thirty years he felt he lived a “lucky life” (p.87) as a man who only thought of himself.
But as one might venture to expect, he falls for one married woman in his older years and asks, “Who in the world am I?” (p. 93). He felt love for this woman “Like we’re two boats tied together with a rope” (p. 97). When he didn’t see her for a while he felt unmistakable but never understood rage. He feared he might hurt someone though would have preferred to hurt himself.
I cannot tell you what the unexpected was that occurred without taking away your surprise. So, I’ll just close by mentioning that Dr. Tokai believed:
“Women are all born with a special independent organ that allows them to lie…And when they do, most women’s expressions and voices don’t change at all, since it’s not them lying, but this independent organ their equipped with that’s acting on its own” (p. 111).
The narrator came to believe Dr. Tokai had two lives. This I leave up to you to decide!
Conclusion to the Short Stories
In this small volume you discover Murakami’s penchant for creating unlikely matches between men and women. As the stories evolve the unexpected happens as the reader feels a growing connection with each narrator and each man he gets to know and tells you all about.
You, too, will feel connected with both narrator and protagonist. A must read!