Murakami: a story watcher, not a storyteller

The UK Guardian had an important interview with the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami a while ago. See Of course, the article is mostly about Murakami’s writing regime, his personality, and his near-misses with the Nobels, because that’s what these type of articles are for and why non-Martians read them; but the reason you, as someone who cares about the mystery of writing, should print the interview out and stick it to your bedroom ceiling so that you can reread it every night before you fall asleep is that in it Murakami lets slip nothing less than the impossible origin of fiction. I mean, we all know it, of course, but nobody’s supposed to mention it.

If you don’t know them, Murakami’s books are sometimes thought of as a type of magical realism, the adult word for Harry Potter. This is a mistake: Rushdie and Marquez write tourists’ guide-books to a magical land they’ve never actually visited and that they don’t believe really exists, while Murakami writes like a local who knows every alleyway and hidden square and will show you where to get the town speciality at the non-tourist rate. In other words Murakami lives the magical – it’s not an ironic gimmick or metaphor, but the reality of his world. It’s the difference between reading the department of transport manual on driving and being able to drive. (Another writer often misunderstood to be merely magical realist is Peter Ackroyd).

Murakami’s books are also sometimes described as surreal, but they are much more disciplined then that – and no where near as aleatory. They’re not so much like a dream, but like your retelling of a dream to your lover a few seconds after waking – already starting to shape it into a coherent narrative, but still with plenty of gibberish. Murakami reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels, except that Murakami is by far the subtler writer. Most people either love him or can’t see what the fuss is about.

Here’s Murakami’s take on the fictive process from the interview:

However, you should not expect Murakami to tell you what any of the fantastical content in his work is supposed to mean. He operates from a bedrock trust in his subconscious: if an image arises from that dark inner well, he figures, it must be meaningful by definition – and his job is to record what arises, rather than to analyse it. (That’s a job for “intelligent people”, he says, his face crinkling into a smile. “And writers don’t have to be intelligent.”)

“And you know, if that’s what comes to me, maybe there’s something right about that – something from the deep subconscious [that resonates with] the reader. So now the reader and I have a secret meeting place underground, a secret place in the subconscious. And in that place, maybe it’s absolutely right that fish should fall from the sky. It’s the meeting place that matters, not analysing the symbolism or anything like that. I’ll leave that to the intellectuals.” Murakami’s sense of himself as a sort of pipeline – a conduit between his subconscious and that of his readers – is so pronounced that he even pauses, after referring to himself in passing as a “natural storyteller”, to issue a correction: “No, I’m not a storyteller. I’m a story watcher.” 

Murakami is a pipeline, a taker of dictation if you like. His only responsibilities are to listen carefully, keep his shorthand skills honed, and (above all) not to get above his station and imagine he himself deserves any credit for the work. Because that would lead to him trying to improve it, and then he might as well be any old writer.

Murakami (right) and unnamed human. Artwork by Riesmy Friestiwy

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