Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, by Jay Rubin

Behind the gags of the world's coolest novelist, James Urquhart finds a serious soul
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The Independent Culture

When he wrote his first novel, Haruki Murakami confessed in a lecture, friends called to complain because the book made them want to drink beer. "With nothing but my writing, I had succeeded in making a number of human beings want to drink beer. You have no idea how happy this made me."

This wry modesty is typical of Murakami's desire to entertain, irrespective of what substance may be attached to his writing. Jay Rubin, Harvard's professor of Japanese literature, uses a similar flippancy when he characterises Murakami as "a refreshing taste of Proust Lite". Rubin is applauding his subject's agility in dealing with "the Big Questions – the meaning of life and of death, the nature of reality, the relationship of mind to time and memory and the physical world, the search for identity, the meaning of love". But he is also acknowledging that these Proustian themes are offered "in an easily digestible form".

Rubin carefully uses relatively little biographical information to demonstrate how far from the fold of Japanese society Murakami is, as a person and a writer. Murakami married Yoko Takahashi when both were still at university, borrowed cash from her father and set up a jazz bar, which allowed him to write in the small hours. His meandering early career was based on his own priorities: a love of jazz, a conviction that stories were lodged within him, and a rejection of the "normal" trajectories towards unfulfilling salaryman jobs.

Rubin notes that Murakami uses the first-person boku for his many narrators, suggesting a laid-back persona with "a cool, detached, bemused acceptance of the inherent strangeness of life". Murakami's influences eschew the suffocating strictness of Japan's literary establishment in favour of the "fresh air" of American writers: Capote and Fitzgerald, Irving and Carver.

Rubin's great achievement is in demonstrating how the complexities of memory and meaning surface again and again in Murakami's oeuvre. His astute readings give sufficient insight to tease out the continuity that coheres this great writer's wackier extravagances.

Gradually, his narratives have come to bear political criticism. Researching his epic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami was stunned by the "dizzying tragedy" of lives sacrificed in this military débâcle by the Imperial command. An assumption of superiority among the authorities allowed no peer review.

But when Murakami explored Aum Shinrikyo's gas attack on the Tokyo subway, he detected these same "responsibility-evading ways of Japanese society". His analysis of this act of terrorism, published in Britain as Underground, condemned the surrender of responsibility encouraged by Japanese culture. "If you lose your ego," Murakami reflected, "you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self."

Rubin's chronology of a distinguished career is exciting and coherent, but he is at his best threading together the rich images in Murakami's prose. Birds, elephants, sheep and that "most consistent symbol of bottomless interiority, the well", are all illuminated with fluent intelligence. But Rubin is not above admitting to a friendly rebuke from the master storyteller: "You think too much." I'd like to think Murakami had a beer in one hand when he said that.