Image by Society for Culture, Art and International Cooperation Adligat, via Wikimedia Commons
You could say that Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer. And given that he was born in Japan to Japanese parents, raised in Japan, and still lives in Japan today, you’d have geography, culture, and biology on your side. Yet Alfred Birnbaum, one of Murakami’s own English translators, called him “an American writer who writes in Japanese”. To understand how that might be, one must consider not only Murakami’s writing, but also the writers whose books inspired him. Take the tough-guy novelist Raymond Chandler, whose The long goodbye appears on Murakami’s list of five favorite books that was just published on Literary Hub.
“I’ve translated all of Raymond Chandler’s novels,” Murakami once said. “I love his style so much. I read The long goodbye five or six times. He must have read it for the first time in Kobe, where he grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and whose bookstores offered an abundance of pulp fiction left over from the departure of the American military. Chandler is said to have been one of the literary voices he internalized before he sat down to write his own first novel, Listen to the wind sing, using the very unusual method of beginning the story in English, or what English he ordered. He then translated this Philip Marlovian experience into Japanese, beginning a literary career spanning four decades and counting.
A translator when not writing his own fiction, Murakami has also interpreted into his native language F. Scott Fitzgerald Gatsby the magnificent, perhaps the most symbolically American novel of all. Literary Hub quotes him as saying that “without Fitzgerald’s novel, I wouldn’t write the kind of literature I am today (indeed, I may not write at all, although it’s not neither here nor there).” His prose is also the medium through which many Japanese readers have experienced JD Salinger. The Heart Catcher“I loved it when I was seventeen, so I decided to translate it. I remembered it as funny, but it’s dark and strong. I must have been disturbed when I was young.
None of Murakami’s top five books are Japanese, but not all of them are American. The list also includes that of Franz KafkaThe castle, another book he encountered as a teenager from Kobe: “It gave me a huge shock. The world described by Kafka in this book was so real and so unreal at the same time that my heart and my soul seemed to be torn in two. Although the two writers have their stylistic differences, “so real and so unreal at the same time” could equally well describe any genre that Murakami invented and continues to advance today. “Most writers get weaker and weaker as they get older,” he once said, “but not Dostoyevsky. He kept getting bigger and bigger. He wrote The Karamazov brothers in his late fifties. Murakami is now in his seventies, but who, even among those who know his inspirations, would dare to predict what kind of novel he will deliver next?
via the Literary Hub
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcaststs about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter city books, the book The City Without a State: A Walk through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.