The Week In Books: Aspiration, inspiration, perspiration

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The Independent Culture

Enough of the tawdry showbiz of triumph. Let's strike up an anthem to the subtler art of trying. The shower of British gold in Beijing has shown that the trumpeting of victory is a short story that burns out fast. By contrast, the anguish of Paula Radcliffe in the marathon had all the ingredients of a tragic novel in which the true opponent resides within. With uncannily good timing, the most intriguing book in half a century about the loneliness of the long-distance runner has just appeared in English.

Haruki Murakami started running seriously in 1982. At that time he also began, with a humbling degree of discipline, to re-make himself. Step by step, the night-owl boss of a small jazz bar in Tokyo became the early-bed, early-rise novelist whose singular, surreal fiction recruited a vast awkward squad of fans first across Japan, then around the world. Talent, as he says of running and writing alike, matters; but it gets all but the most freakish genius nowhere without "focus" and "endurance".

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (translated by Philip Gabriel; Harvill Secker, £9.99) wraps fragments of memoir and reflections on art, ageing and athletics around an account of his preparations, in Hawaii and Cambridge, Mass., for the New York marathon of 2005: his 24th. At his late-forties peak, he could hit three hours 30 minutes. Now, the almost-60 writer struggles to finish a marathon in four hours. Whatever our sport or skill, he hints, we all race against time.

As you might expect, the author of Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore has plenty of neat analogies to suggest between the maturing craft of an idiosyncratic writer who knows that "you can't please everybody" and the runner who grasps that "the only opponent you have to beat is yourself". When Murakami faces the blank screen or open road, the only proper competition lies inside: "the point is whether or not I improved over yesterday".

At home, Murakami may count as an "oddball" – like those triathlon addicts whose company he joins. But he remains a very Japanese eccentric, whose near-joyful embrace of pain on the road has a distinctly Zen cast to it. "I run," as he writes, "in order to acquire a void." And this Western-oriented scourge of samurai-style kitsch even delivers a loving account of the 62-mile "ultramarathon" he ran in Hokkaido. At 47 miles, he entered "the realm of the metaphysical". At that price, he's welcome to it.

Murakami manages to set a course that takes in views of literature, sport and the uphill journey of ageing, all with a modesty and fluency that covers the ground without raising a sweat. Whatever happens in the men's marathon in Beijing on Sunday, runners, joggers and mere couch-potatoes can benefit from it long after the flags have come down and the steeper path of ordinary life rises ahead.