Japan’s best-known novelist fails to deliver—again

By James Hadfield

Criticizing Haruki Murakami is a bit like kicking a puppy or farting on someone’s birthday cake. People look at you with a mixture of horror and outright disgust: the kind of look they’d normally save for child molesters or those people who have loud arguments with themselves while riding the Yamanote line. It’s a look that says, “Go and crawl back under the stone you came out from.”

The problem’s rendered all the more acute by the fact that it’s basically impossible to talk about Japanese literature without Murakami cropping up. He’s like the Akira Kurosawa of the book world: the only Japanese name that you can guarantee everyone will know. And, more often than not, those who do know him adore him with a slavish and unswerving devotion.

Now, I’m not going to deny that Murakami can be good. Damn good, in fact: "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" is a work of, if not genius, then at least a mighty fine writer.

But the more I read — and read about — him, the less convinced I become of the extent of his abilities. Everything points towards Murakami being a decent genre writer rather than a literary wunderkind: more Dan Brown than Dostoevsky. The same themes and imagery keep getting repeated (or should that be rehashed?) across multiple novels. His protagonists only convince when they’re patently extensions of the author himself. (There’s more to creating convincing female characters than having them fret about the size of their boobs, Haruki.) His much-hyped magic realism seems feeble in comparison to, say, the work of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. And, crucially, Garcia-Marquez actually has something to say: Murakami offers a lot of vaguely metaphysical chit-chat, but nothing much deeper. At the end of the day, his entire philosophy can pretty much be boiled down to “we’re all only human” and “it’s a funny old world, isn’t it?”

None of these are fatal criticisms, of course, but I still struggle to see how he merits the level of praise he’s currently afforded.

This is no more apparent than with his latest book, "After Dark," due out in paperback this month. More a novella than a novel, it’s set over the course of a single night in Tokyo. The nominal heroine is Mari Asai, a serious, bespectacled 19-year-old who’s pulling an all-nighter at Denny’s while her older, prettier sister is at home, trapped in a seemingly endless slumber. As the night goes on, Mari will be half-heartedly courted by an amateur jazz musician and meet a battered Chinese prostitute and a kindly female wrestler turned love hotel manager. Meanwhile, her sister gets sucked inside the TV set in her room, and the salaryman who beat the prostitute goes back to the office to put in some overtime.

And... well, that’s about it. Though it’s got plenty of atmosphere and a nice sideline in brooding menace, "After Dark" turns out to be all head, no beer. Murakami is every bit as ambulatory when he’s only got 200-odd pages to fill as when he’s got 600, resulting in a narrative that peters out, frustratingly and inconclusively, before it’s gathered any momentum. Even the dialogue lacks the author’s usual sparkle, too often feeling leaden and over-obvious.

So how have the critical fraternity responded to this trifle? It’s “a streamlined, hushed ensemble piece” (The New York Times), “perhaps the closest Murakami has yet come to composing a pure tone-poem” (The Guardian), “a bittersweet novel that will satisfy the most demanding literary taste” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “an intensely lyrical expression of the tenebrous, strange, and poignant Murakami universe” (The Australian). Excuse me while I pretend to clear my throat and spit out a few choice epithets of my own.

The effect is not unlike the characters in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of "The Emperor’s New Clothes," enthusiastically praising what simply isn’t there. Everybody seems so convinced of Murakami’s genius that they assume everything he writes must automatically be worthwhile. It’s not half-formed: it’s enigmatic. It’s not recycled: it’s classic Murakami. How did a talented genre writer get elevated to the level of literary sacred cow?

I don’t normally put much stock in the user reviews on Amazon, but in this case they’re quite telling. On both the American and Japanese versions of the site, "After Dark" is rated lower than any of Murakami’s other books — including the two early novellas, "Hear the Wind Sing" and "Pinball 73," that have never been widely available in English translation because the author himself didn’t think they merited it. I don’t think he would have done himself a disservice had he exercised the same restraint again with his latest book. Murakami’s legion of acolytes might do well to admit that even their master is capable of delivering the odd stinker.

Okay, you can stop looking at me like that now.

This article originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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Nice review.

"The same themes and imagery keep getting repeated (or should that be rehashed?) across multiple novels."

I agree with this 100%. I have read a few of Murakami's novels, partly as a way of improving my Japanese, and I found that many of the main characters of one novel could easily be replaced with those of other novels... Same thing for many themes he uses.

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Basically besides norwegian wood,read one read em all.

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I enjoyed Norwegian Wood. I picked up a few of his books in the bookstore but didn't buy any because, well, read the review above.

Oe Kenzaburo's novels are similar, I think. I read one. Liked it. Read another one and thought I had re-read the first novel but no, different title. And he got the Nobel Prize and Murakami is being touted for one, too. (At least Dan Brown isn't.)

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Criticizing literature in translation is like criticizing the writing of Ian Fleming based on Roger Moore's portrayal of the James Bond character.

Could it be that the shortcomings attributed to Murakami come through more acutely due to the fact that the books are translated into English for a "Western" consumer and in this a myth of Japan and/or Murakami may be created or perpetuated subconsciously by the translator.

His work reminds of Vonnegut's. I find the books entertaining, but I can never recall the exact details of any one specific book.

Consider too that Murakami himself is said to work with the translators and redact his own works when presenting them in translation (perhaps he is consciously creating his own image as a writer in translation).

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This entire comment is based on having read only translations of his novels, so the fault may lie with the translation but -

Murakami is a terrible writer. He's incapable of creating even remotely interesting characters, and his plots are meandering and pointless.

Having said that,

His much-hyped magic realism seems feeble in comparison to, say, the work of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. And, crucially, Garcia-Marquez actually has something to say

to compare him to Garcia Marquez is ludicrous. It's like comparing happoshu to a premium beer and being surprised the former cant equal the latter.

Somebody mentioned him as being touted for a Nobel Prize - I hope he doesn't win one, ever. He doesn't even try to make any meaningful statements about any important themes in life.

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I guess I'm the only one who is going to say something positive about Murakami's novel, "After Dark." I enjoyed it. It may not be his best book or terribly deep, but it still shows off Murikami's gift for writing interesting, realistic dialogue. It was good enough that I would offer it as a gift to someone I would want to introduce his writing to.

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Of course translating a novel means writing a new novel. But still the argument that it is because of a translation doesn't sound very convincing for me, since I read the novels in Japanese...

"Murikami's gift for writing interesting, realistic dialogue"

I haven't read "After Dark", but I have never heard any 16 yo speak the way his "Kafka" speaks in "Umibe no Kafka". And certainly not without any preparation. Interesting, maybe. Realistic... not to me at least. Not that it needs to be, of course.

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Sarc, my comments weren't really intended to defend Murakami as a writer. They were more or less a criticism of literary criticism which rarely addresses how the book may differ in translation or what effect the translator had on the story itself (or the simple fact that it is a translated work).

If I had been trying to defend Murakami, I agree that "because it's a translation" is not a satisfactory argument to make that point. I thought my tone was clear though--Vonnegut is not a literary genius either, even if entertaining.

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moobs, of course I agree with what you are saying about translations. I am sorry if I sounded harsh, I didn't mean to do so.

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I cant stand Haruki Murakamis books. And some think he should get a Nobel Prize for Literature...zzz....

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**Wow - it is really open season on Murakami here. I never had any idea of the revulsion he inspired.

However, it would be nice to have a character who did not listen to jazz for once - giving them the novelist's own musical taste is rather unimaginative, adds little, if anything, to the story lines, and is repetitive.

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Sorry folks. You all deserve the look.

This bashing session reminds me of the volume of Gary Larson toons that never got published because the "literati" weighed in (as above) ... one was a pic of a dad mosquito coming home and, while hanging up his jacket, said something about not finding anyone to bite that day at work to mom mosquito. The critics weighed in and said that male mosquitos don't bite (only females bite) and that the piece was therefore inaccurate, hollow etc. His response that mosquitos don't talk or wear jackets either, but none of the literary wizards picked that up.

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I liked that remark about farting on the birthday cake. This is sophisticated criticism and definitely deserves further scientific investigation. Would it blow out the candles, or set off an explosion?

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it is really open season on Murakami here.

OK, now it's time to pick on poor little Banana Yoshimoto, right?

My one complaint about Murakami is his love of jazz. Music for savages. What's wrong with the violin?

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Come on, people. You can like Murakami all you want, but have a look at this:

(translated by me) "Some day I want to go to Spain" "Why Spain?" "I want to join the Spanish war" "But the Spanish war ended years ago!" "I know. Lorca died and Hemingway survived" "But even I should have the right to join the Spanish war" "In a metaphorical way?" "Of course"

The conversation between a 15yo and a guy in his twenties in a restaurant while eating sea food people! And no, they are not trying to be funny. They talk like this ALL the time!! All I had to do is pick up one of Murakami's books and open it at any page and this came up. Is this his "realistic dialog"? Mind you, I have no problem with reading this kind of dialogs ones in a while. But I have a feeling they come up far too often, and in too many of his books.

That being said, I have read his books with pleasure. But dear god please don't give him a Nobel Price.

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Sarcasm, ouch! Hemmingway may have survived, but his prose didn't.

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No worries Sarc. I like your translation. It reminds me of the simpson's episode parodying Twin Peaks where Homer was watching a giant dance with a horse and is impressed by the genius of it all. Then laughs and says "Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what's going on."

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I haven't read a book in years. What a waste of time.

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Haven't read any of this novels after Norwegian Wood, got bored of the similar themes running through it.

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The concept of the novel is so 19th and 20th century. It is dying now. Made irrelevant by the technological changes we have seen in the last 15 years.

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Haruki Murakami, as everyone else, has to put food on the table. Unfortunately, not all the works of a person making a living from writing will be works of art; those are the product of time and inspiration, not of a pressing editor and bills chasing you.

No one should be a "professional writer." That defeats the purpose.

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I have read all of his books, albeit in translation, and as far as I am concerned they all stand up pretty well s he has improved as a writer. He has created his own mini-genre and he does what he does within it -love him or loathe him. The fact of the matter is that he doesn't really have to write any more books as with smart management he could live very comfortably from the income generated from his existing works. As a struggling writer I admire him as he has resisted, for the most part, the role of pop-writer which would ironically led him into some kind of TV media career presenting a cookery chat show with sexy co-presenters and an audience of giggling teenagers hanging on his every word. I am not even a bit jealous of course.

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Stick with "Prison Break."

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