As superfans go, I’d be a bit of a disappointment. I keep meaning to buy my favourite band’s latest album. Oh, and the one before that. I tell all my friends about how excited I am about a new play opening, without having the foresight to actually buy an advance ticket. And I STILL can’t get past episode three of Breaking Bad.
So no one was as surprised as I was to find myself, a couple of weeks ago, jostling in a queue to be among the first to purchase a book. The tills were opening at midnight and it had seemed imperative that I be at them as soon as possible – this could not wait until morning. More surprising again, I find myself mulling over the benefits of camping out all night, pen in hand, for a glimpse of the author as he visits London for a book signing next week.
I hasten to mention at this point that I am not a closet Twilight fan, I do not play Dungeons and Dragons in my spare time and I am not 12. I do not know the difference between Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. And the author is not a perma-tanned reality star who has penned their seventh tell-all autobiography.
The author is Haruki Murakami, an offbeat Japanese writer who has struck an unlikely chord internationally, not least in the UK. For many years now, he has been my favourite writer, another fact that has taken me a little by surprise.
Murakami has some common themes running through his books. Jazz music, isolation, and urban ennui. Precocious teenagers, mysterious women and ear lobes. Cats, wells and alternate universes. That sort of thing. Not normally what I tend to look for in a relaxing read.
I do admit that in the past I have indulged in the odd fantasy book. I read and reread Lord of the Rings several times in my teens, drinking in the descriptions and languages of Middle Earth. I worked my way through quite a few Terry Pratchetts. I even, ahem, may have been quite the Buffy the Vampire Slayer aficionado.
But then… well, maybe I grew up. I lasted through one series of Game of Thrones before the silliness and gratuitous nudity got to me. I was bored by Harry Potter, enraged by Twilight. But, after a friend insisted that I try Murakami, I was hooked, buying two or three books at a time and greedily delving into them.
So is this just a Harry Potter for grown-ups? Well, not quite, but perhaps it is not too dissimilar. Murakami’s main characters are often loners; navel-gazers trying to live a simple, blameless life but finding themselves swept into a mystical world and almost passively going along with this new life direction.
In 1Q84, quiet bachelor Tengo doesn’t exactly fall over in shock when he learns about the existence of fairies. Apathetic Toru in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle seems to easily accept the disappearance of his cat – and wife – before retreating to live in a well. And poor Harry Potter is more than happy to escape the (forced) solitude of his cupboard under the stairs when a giant bearded man arrives to tell him that he’s actually a wizard.
I started, at my friend’s direction, with the more “normal” of Murakami’s novels before graduating to his more surreal works. Norwegian Wood, which was his breakthrough work, was the first one I read. A nostalgic romance, it revisits the main protagonist’s life and loves in 1960s Tokyo against the backdrop of civil unrest. It is beautiful – slow-moving, contemplative and bittersweet.
But for me, my real passion for Murakami came with the more outlandish tales – the more bonkers the better. I loved the escapism of Murakami’s novels straight away. In the menacing tale After Dark, set in the course of one night, a sleeping woman disappears into her television set. In Kafka on the Shore, Nakata’s job is to find lost cats (and chat with them), but danger lies with Johnnie Walker, a cat killer who makes flutes out of the animals’ souls. My favourite by far is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which in my mind melded the banal and the bizarre perfectly. Oh, and was also about cats.
If talking cats and vanishing women aren’t your cup of tea, I might avoid Murakami, truth be told – chances are one or the other will pop up in his books. If not those, then most definitely a beautifully shaped ear or breast. There are plenty of sniggers at Murakami’s lavish descriptions of everything from what vegetables the main character stir-fried for dinner to how another perfected his swimming stroke. And his attempts at eroticism, even I have to admit, are far too cringeworthy to even quote here.
The internationally hyped 1Q84 made the shortlist for the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award in 2011, and perhaps deserved to win the accolade. The New York Times also took umbrage with 1Q84, calling it at once “numbing” and “stupefying”: “We learn about Tengo’s pyjamas, and we learn what Aomame eats to prevent constipation. We learn about goldfish and a rubber plant. We learn that the second moon, when it starts appearing in the novel, looks mossy and green.”
I, however, love this tendency of Murakami to focus as much on the mundane as the mystical. I sink into his books when I read, enjoying the familiarity and even intimacy with the main character – you know how they live privately, what they eat, the fact that they agonise over whether to tip a cabbie. Knowing that the characters have insecurities and idiosyncrasies makes them real, and helps to bridge the culture gap – and also accept whatever strange spanner Murakami is about the throw into the works of this ordinary life.
The latest book, the whimsically titled Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is actually one of Murakami’s more “normal” offerings, which was a welcome relief for me after my head exploded reading 1Q84, where parallel worlds, female assassins and, er, Sonny and Cher, are par for the course. Tsukuru Tazaki is another loner who has lost his four childhood friends – who had all been named after colours – and now is colourless in both name and personality. His is an uncomplicated life – he rarely drinks, swims for half an hour twice a week, and visits train stations for entertainment. But, like so many of Murakami’s protagonists, he is forced out of his comfort zone.
Isolation is by far the overriding theme in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. “He was sitting alone in a huge, old vacant house, listening as a massive grandfather clock hollowly ticked away time. His mouth was closed, his eyes fixed on the clock as he watched the hands move forward. His feelings were wrapped in layer upon layer of thin membrane and his heart was still as a blank, as he aged, one hour at a time.”
It is this isolation, the characters’ ability to navel-gaze, that really touches me. I don’t think I have ever heard loneliness described so honestly and accurately. If any theme is universal, surely this must be one, as it touches on something most people have experienced at some point in their lives.
And the cats and the seductive earlobes? I’m with the rest of the superfans on this, and I choose to embrace their fondness and good humour. The website Buzzfeed has a “Which Type of Haruki Murakami Character are You” quiz – with some of the possible results being “A Sexually Compelling Ear” or “Mysterious Artist Who Disappears”. I got “Talking Animal Who Tells Strangers That Their Mothers Don’t Love Them”, which is think cements my status as a superfan. I’ll get my camping gear.