Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words
by Jay Rubin
A review by Gerry Donaghy
The Japanese author Haruki Murakami once told his translator and biographer, Jay Rubin, "I strongly believe that if you take away my novels, there is no me." This is not a case of professional modesty. Murakami leads a life that resembles that of most of his readers. Sure, there are the periods of being an artist in residence at Princeton, jogging with John Irving through Central Park, and spending time visiting Raymond Carver. But other than that, Murakami is generally a relaxed guy who eschews the spotlight in a way that is frequently mistaken for arrogance. He avoids literary circles, rarely gives interviews, and although he travels frequently, he is hardly adventurous. No mountain climbing, no fighting the fascists in Spain, no trail of jilted lovers. He's just a guy who likes to stay at home and listen to his extensive collection of jazz records. Not exactly the lifestyle that lends itself to exciting literary biography.
What then to make of this biography written by a man who not only translates Murkami's works for the English speaking world, but is also an avowed fan? Is this a critical biography or a two hundred page fan letter? Can it be both without alienating Murakami's fans? The answer is yes, but it's far from perfect.
Rubin tackles his biographer duties with zeal, sometimes producing amazing nuggets of insight regarding Murakami's work. Early on, he states: "Murakami's greatest accomplishment is to have sensed the mystery and distance of an ordinary mind looking out at the world." This would be a wonderful closing piece, but it appears less than a third of the way through the book, a little too early into Murakami's career to be passing such pronouncements. Unfortunately, such insights are fleeting. Later on, Rubin, in discussing Murakami's references to Proust in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, writes: "Murakami is not boring. You can get all the way through his books. He's as easy and fun to read as Ellery Queen — a refreshing taste of Proust-Lite for our high-commercial, low-cholesterol times." Is Rubin writing about a respected master of the modern novel or a soft drink? Rubin's writing becomes considerably unpalatable when he resorts to such ad-agency hyperbole.
This is not to say that this book is not of considerable value. Rubin's analysis of Murakami's works that haven't been published in America (such as "Hear the Wind Sing" and "Pinball, 1973") is welcome to readers not familiar with the material. In addition, his bibliography is wonderful, allowing Murakami devotees to rush to their local library's periodical department in search of short stories to Xerox. In addition, while Rubin's explanation of translating Murakami's works borders on self-absorption, it nonetheless provides an interesting account of what subtleties can be lost in the process.
This book, while not at all a comprehensive critical portrait of Murakami or his works, is still a welcome reference. Perhaps it is the best we can hope for since, despite his fertile imagination, he leads such a normal, unremarkable life.