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Hope for a better ending

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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).

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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.

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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.”

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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.

“Ten years ago they didn’t pay royalties; it was all pirating,” Murakami says. “I heard -- I heard -- my book ‘Norwegian Wood’ sold 5 million copies in China. I got $2,000, $3,000 for it. But these days I’m getting royalties from Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. If China decides to pay royalties to authors, this will be a fantastic market.”

His relationship with Japan is more complicated. Wildly successful with readers, he remains an irritant to critics who accuse him of murdering Japanese literature by straying from traditional styles.

But Japan’s old establishment has lost some of its bite. In “Kafka,” Murakami takes the reader through a landscape where certainties have been shattered and lives cast loose among the wreckage.

“That’s what I have wanted to write for many years -- the state of chaos,” Murakami says. He does not mourn the stultifying postwar Japan he grew up in, where large corporations and conformity ruled. “When I graduated from university in 1972, these companies were solid, like shrines,” he says. “If you didn’t go to work for a big company, you were nothing.”

So, he says, “I was nothing.”

The collapse of Japan’s bubble economy and the failure of Japan, Inc. to save the country from the subsequent economic stagnation has exposed once-formidable companies as houses of corporate cards. Their fall has been a national humiliation for a country that once seemed poised to buy up America. But it has liberated the Japanese to dip their toes into a more individualist culture.

The power void has contributed to the rise of right-wing nationalism, with many Japanese insisting they want to live in a “normal” country, with its accompanying trappings of a normal army and normal ambitions on the global stage.

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“The most important thing in the Japanese culture is the absence of idealism at the moment,” Murakami says, lamenting the end of the consensus where the Japanese were “proud that we had abandoned arms and armies and the right to go to war. Things are getting more and more dangerous as people get more nationalistic.”

The lack of a charismatic leader who can get Japan’s various right-wing clubs to fall in line keeps a lid on any explosion for now, he says. The most obvious candidate to do so is Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a novelist who became a popular politician with his knack for pushing nationalist buttons.

In “Kafka,” Murakami mocks an off-stage character called the Governor, who is revered by Nakata because he believes the Governor personally sends him his state disability checks (his “sub city”) every month. Hoshino tries to disabuse him of the notion, calling the Governor a “dog” and a “pawn of the capitalists.”

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A turning point

Right-wingers are hardly a comedic presence in early 21st century Japan. Roused to action, they can show up in convoys of black vans at the homes and offices of those they consider enemies and berate them for hours through loudspeakers. “If I wrote something [bad] about the Emperor, they could come to this office tomorrow,” Murakami says. “It’s scary sometimes.”

Yet as Murakami ages, he says he has surprised himself with a late-in-life conversion to optimism -- or at least not such suffocating pessimism. The swing started after Murakami interviewed dozens of average Japanese citizens for “Underground,” his 1998 nonfiction look at the social forces that led to the Aum cult’s 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

Murakami says he once mocked Japan’s “salaryman” culture, with its soul-deadening commutes from outside Tokyo to endure daily abuse at the office.

But after listening to their stories for a year, Murakami says he came away believing “I could trust those people. Like it or not, I said, those are my people, and I have to accept them. My stories and characters changed a lot after that book.”

Murakami says he noticed an even more radical change while writing a series of five short stories last December. In a real world where tsunamis wipe out whole villages, nationalist passions are stirring and Tokyo is still awaiting the Big One, the surrealist has discovered the attraction of hope?

“It’s very strange. I wondered: What’s happened to me. I must be getting old,” he says with a faint smile. “My characters are much the same as they were 10 years ago, but where they end up is different. Before, they were left alone, in a nowhere place. There was no exit.

“These days, my endings have a kind of possibility,” he says. “Even if they are left alone, the characters at least have an exit.”


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