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Hope for a better ending

The chaotic, dreamlike qualities remain, but writer Haruki Murakami's work has a new touch of optimism.

February 25, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has never witnessed a tsunami. But he has imagined one.

In his 1988 short story "The Seventh Man," Murakami's narrator is a man damaged by the childhood memory of watching his best friend sucked away by a killer wave, the furious sea retreating, he wrote, as if "a gigantic rug had been yanked by someone at the other end of the earth." A stream of fiction has come from Murakami since that story. But its theme of inconsolable loss came back to the author while watching images of Southeast Asia's recent calamity, where anguish endures long after the calamity passes.

"The narrator in my story did not die but he did not escape the wave either," says the 55-year-old Murakami. "He is now 60 years old and has not been able to go close to any body of water -- not a river, not a lake -- for almost 50 years."

Murakami is speaking from his sparsely furnished office perched over the urban sheen of the fashionable Aoyama district. It is his working oasis but it also sits atop some of the shakiest ground on Earth, capable of shifting and swallowing up all those hip apartments and boutiques outside his window without notice or emotion.

"I wrote about the tsunami because it is an unreasonable catastrophe," Murakami says in his soft-spoken, carefully plotted English. "It comes literally out of the blue. And it has unreasonable power to take away our most precious something.

"It is," he adds with a smile, "a metaphor, of course."

Murakami has created a canon from the metaphors offered by giant waves and wars, terrorist gases and earthquakes. His disasters creep out of seemingly benign worlds to strike and traumatize us. Describing them has taken him into frightening and surreal fictional pastures. A Japanese soldier is skinned alive in 1930s Mongolia in "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." A frog superhero battles a worm to save Tokyo from destruction in the short story collection "After the Quake." And in "A Wild Sheep Chase," the devil is a sheep needing a new human host now that a right-wing gangster businessman lies dying.

This dreaminess continues -- with fish falling from the sky at opportune times, among other weirdness -- in "Kafka on the Shore," Murakami's latest novel that has just been published in English. Reviews have been excellent, following bestselling runs in Germany and across Asia that reaffirmed Murakami's status as Japan's most bankable literary export. (It's currently on the bestseller lists in Los Angeles and New York).

The story follows 15-year-old Kafka Tamura's flight from his hometown, from the father he despises, and from an appalling oedipal prophecy. It tracks him into a disorienting retreat in a library in rural Japan, where he finds himself sifting through the entrails of an old tragic love story.

Meanwhile, Murakami weaves in the story of elderly Nakata, whose life was altered by a mysterious event while on a childhood school field trip during the late stages of World War II when American planes were beginning to apply their chokehold on imperial Japan. Nakata seems willing to take people's word that he is "dumb," content to indulge his talent for speaking to cats and earn a bit of money rounding up the neighborhood strays. One of those searches leads him to a sadistic cat decapitator named Johnnie Walker, and Nakata faces a terrible choice in trying to do the right thing by the cats and his own moral code.

Nakata, too, takes to the highway, hooking up with Hoshino, a cheerful truck driver for whom history is a long story he doesn't have time for ("Come on, Japan was never occupied by America," he insists to Nakata). The rest is a bit of a buddy adventure, that includes numerous turns and a cameo by Colonel Sanders as a pimp.

*

A mutable reality

It's a tale that dances to Murakami's well-honed surreal beat. "People are getting used to my style, in which you can never tell what is good and what is bad, what is real and what is not," he says. "That is my story."

Murakami acknowledges that "Kafka" is not an easy plot to follow. But he says readers generally liked it. "Some readers are very smart and they understood almost everything," he says. "Some got it almost all wrong. But as a whole they accepted my story and had a good time reading the book.

"That's a great thing," he says. "To be understood is not the issue."

Asian audiences seem to sweat the plot details less than Westerners. "In Europe and America they say I am surreal and unrealistic and postmodern and I'm happy to hear it," Murakami laughs. "But in Korea or China or Taiwan nobody says these things. They just enjoy the stories." Their enjoyment matters more and more to Murakami, since the East Asia audience now matters more and more to writers. He describes East Asia as a "second hub" after New York for his books, and getting better all the time now that Asian countries are taking steps to curb piracy and pay royalties.

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