Friday, October 21, 2011

An Obsession with Haruki Murakami

Singaporean short-story writer O THIAM CHIN waits for October 25, 2011, with bated breath

ON OCTOBER 25, 2011, 1Q84, the highly anticipated novel by the great Japanese writer Haruki Murakami will be launched officially in English. It is one of the biggest highlights in the literary calendar this year, one that fans of the writer have been waiting eagerly for. This is his 12th novel, following After Dark, which was published in 2007.

1Q84 was published in Japan in May 2009 and was an immediate bestseller there. Its first print run sold out on the first day and it achieved sales of a million copies within a month. It has since sold over four million copies! With its phenomenal success, translation into various languages quickly went ahead, with the English-language publication rights secured by the US publishing giant, Knopf, and an October launch date was announced in January this year. Unlike the Chinese edition of the novel, which came out in 2010 in three separate volumes, the new novel is published in the US as a single volume, running to almost a thousand pages. (1Q84 is published by Harvill Secker in the UK.)

The title of the novel is a direct reference to George Orwell’s 1984, with a wordplay on the English letter ‘Q’ which is pronounced the same as the number nine (“kyuu”) in Japanese. To hasten the production of the English version, the publishers have resorted to two of his regular translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, to work simultaneously on the translation. This is the first full-length novel by Murakami that is written in the third-person.

The story of 1Q84 revolves around two main characters, Aomame (“green peas” in Japanese), a hired killer, and Tengo, a novelist and mathematics tutor, with the narrative moving between them in alternate chapters. Exploring an array of issues and themes that include family ties, religious cult, love and writing, it shows how their lives start to overlap with each other in a world that seems to get stranger and more surreal.

Already a huge buzz is generating among his fans, with the publication of an excerpt from the novel entitled “Town of Cats” in the September 5 issue of The New Yorker. In the story, Tengo visits his father at the hospice and confronts deep-seated issues from the past. In his interview with the magazine, Murakami said, “Whenever I write a novel, I have a strong sense that I am doing something I was unable to do before. With each new work, I move up a step and discover something new inside me. I don’t see this novel as a departure, but I do think it has been a major step in my career.”

I first got to know of Murakami when a fellow writer briefly mentioned him to me back in 2002. “What? You have never read him? You should,” he said with mock surprise. Being a slow, cautious reader, back then and even now, I chose one of the slimmest books in his oeuvre, South of the Border, West of the Sun.

The story, in which a man starts to question his life, after being reunited with his first love from high school, an enigmatic woman with a limp from polio in her childhood, has all the hallmarks of a Murakami novel: lonely, introverted characters struggling to keep their fragile individualism in the face of a suffocating, conformist society, and a strange, sometimes convoluted, plot that usually involves disappearance, death and disillusionment. In his hands, all things are possible. As his translator, Jay Rubin, once said, “It is not because he is writing about Japan that people love him … it’s about the moment to moment sensation of being in his world. Inside his head.”

Of course, Murakami isn’t the first Japanese writer I read when I first got interested in Japanese Literature—there was Yasunari Kawabata, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and Yukio Mishima—but somehow none of them came close to capturing my attention quite like him. The worlds he created, vastly different from the old masters of Japanese Literature, were darkly compelling, where hope and despair change like shifting elements of light and shadow, a world I could sink into, as an observer who kept his distance, much like his characters, living different, parallel lives very much like my own, yet so different in so many ways. The pleasure goes deep, like a drug, and perhaps, that’s why I keep going back to him.

And so began my love for his writings. There was a period in my life when my reading consisted solely of his works, as I slowly made my way through his oeuvre. When I began to write short stories in 2005, I held his short stories as a guide to show me what a truly great short story can do, to create an entire world, full and complete in itself. Even now, when I get stuck writing my stories, I’d pull out my dog-eared copy of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a collection of his best stories, from my bookshelf and read one of the stories, picking up an idea or two, and getting inspired all over again. His influence is all over my writing psyche, truth be told.

During the long wait, I have pre-ordered the book in early September (49 more days!), and started preparing the groundwork, to devote myself to the book. I’m slowly working through the pile of books on my writing table; I juggle about nine to twelve books at any one time; now, I’m down to two. With the release day approaching fast, and the anticipation building up to fever pitch, my hunger, and obsession, with Murakami, continues to grow and grow, as I wait to enter his head, into the strange world he has created in 1Q84.

O THIAM CHIN is a Singapore-born writer whose stories have appeared in several literary journals and anthologies, including World Literature Today, Asia Literary Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Kyoto Journal and the New Straits Times. His début collection of stories, Free-Falling Man, was published in 2006, followed by a second collection, Never Been Better, in 2009 (which was longlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award), and a third, Under the Sun. His new collection, The Rest of Your Life and Everything That Comes With It, has just been published.


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