Two elements of Murakami Haruki’s work make him an attractive Nobel candidate: the translational nature of his prose and the liberalism of his non-fiction projects. Both rely on credulity toward his veneer of multiculturalism and political relevance, and a willingness to refrain from comparing him to the handful of less famous Japanese authors who exceed him in both respects. His success, in fact, does not mark the triumph of transnational aesthetics, but rather the continued hegemony of American publishing interests who understand that English readers have little tolerance for the foreign.
Many of Murakami’s detractors, however, offer only the stodgy nationalism that Murakami isn’t a demonstrably “Japanese” writer. This critique, once directed at Kenzaburo Oe, is wrongheaded. But Oe’s and Murakami’s fiction are not commensurate in ethical density, nor do their novels produce the same effect in readers. Oe’s moralism is empowering and emancipatory. Murakami, rightly dubbed “a pornographer of depression,” produces stylized stultifications of the spirit, as rich in lassitude as they are in quaffable prose. Many of Japan’s foremost literary critics (Kojin Karatani and Yoichi Komori included) have faulted Murakami’s writing for its shallow, self-indulgent gloss on history and trauma.
Murakami’s sanctimony toward the favored writers of American publishing’s pyramid scheme (wherein aspiring authors outnumber casual readers) has endeared him to English professors and other mid-level tastemakers. But he has avoided the difficult, unrewarding work that surmounting cultural barriers demands: writing multilingual texts that defy commercial literary paradigms. This has been left to Yoko Tawada, Hideo Levy, Minae Mizumura and Lee Yangji, among others, all of whom have labored under the sign of Japan’s last Nobel caliber author, the late Kenji Nakagami.
Comparison with Levy offers the starkest illustration. Much of Levy’s work is set in China’s Henan province, where he has pursued what little humanity remains in a nation beaten senseless by a cruel march toward prosperity. Levy’s China writing includes its share of trilingual moments and several critics have suggested that the multilingual wrinkles in his short story, "Ten-an-mon" (Tiananmen) may have cost him the Akutagawa Prize.
When Senkaku tensions overflowed, a much-anticipated public dialogue between Levy and Yan Lianke was cancelled. Levy thereafter gave an expansive, vulnerable interview to the Tokyo Shimbun about the future of Japan-China relations. The interview matters because Levy has dedicated a decade of literary yeoman’s work to examining the fragile pith of Chinese culture.
When Murakami weighed in on the Senkaku dispute via the Asahi Shimbun, it was to warn against imbibing the “cheap liquor of nationalism.” However compelling the sentiment, it amounted to a truism from an author who has sacrificed little for the sake of Japan-China understanding. He has made a habit of such gestures, having ridden to the rescue after the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the Aum attacks, thereby claiming – almost exclusively – whatever goodwill such catastrophes generate for savvily-marketed writers.
Murakami’s pronouncements matter because he’s Murakami, “one of the world’s foremost novelists,” as AFP put it. But if this is why the English language press latched onto Murakami’s comments while overlooking Levy’s interview, then we’ve arrived at the sad intersection of literary authorship and Oprah-ism, wherein the media’s limited attention span necessitates the selection of a single, self-perpetuating fame figure for whom publicly-disseminated thoughtfulness is reserved.
Credit The New Yorker and other well-moneyed American publishing interests. Murakami – as English readers (including the Swedish Academy) know him – is their fabrication. Translator Stephen Snyder’s work traces the shaping of Murakami’s brand by Robert Gottlieb and examines how Gottlieb’s successor, Deborah Treisman, has fixated on conjuring ‘the next Murakami.’ To the credulous, this is an effort to keep Japanese literature in The New Yorker’s tent; to the observant, it’s an attempt to construct an exotic, saleable façade for American fiction’s tired idioms (the lack of a viable American Nobel candidate is an exhausted topic). As Snyder has noted, Murakami’s American investors set out to turn him into a “literary version of the Sony Walkman and the Honda Civic.”
This would be fine if it resulted in the publication of more Japanese literature. But Gottlieb and Treisman haven’t given us Japanese literature. They have given us Treisman and Gottlieb. Their fingerprints are omnipresent in the New Yorker versions. Alterations are not necessarily wrongful; both previous Nobel laureates from Japan were rendered by activist translators (Edward Seidensticker and John Nathan). But Nathan translated Oe with autonomy and was published by the insurgent Barney Rosset. Now comes the age of pander, where authors provide the raw cultural and biographical materials necessary to make the publishing industry’s pet aesthetics marketable. Treisman – who "made" Yoko Ogawa – withdrew The New Yorker’s interest in one of Ogawa’s stories after the author declined to rewrite the ending.
Awarding Murakami the Nobel Prize therefore wouldn’t amount to a recognition of Japanese literature’s continued vitality, but to a vindication of American publishing’s marketing apparatus, not only as chief arbiter of which Japanese authors are read outside Japan, but as the world’s dominant literary and cultural tastemaker, capable of dressing its imperialism in increasingly ridiculous costumes – a New Yorker writer translated by a Harvard professor as paragon of contemporary Japanese literature.
See more stories by Dreux Richard.
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