The first time I mentioned the Nobel Prize to Haruki Murakami, he winced. “I don’t really care about prizes,” he said. “What matters to me are my readers. That’s all. Once you have your readers, you don’t need to worry about anything else.”
That was a decade ago. Murakami has been a perennial Nobel candidate for a long time. He has also treated his readers very well, delivering novels of varying length, short stories and personal essays at a steady clip, appearing in person on university campuses, at literary festivals and in bookstores, and occasionally corresponding directly with lonely souls via the Internet.
More recently, he has been awarded a clutch of literary honors frequently pitched as harbingers of the Nobel: the Kafka Prize in 2006, the Jerusalem Prize in 2009, and this past summer, Spain’s International Catalunya Prize. Each time, the Japanese media wondered aloud whether the allegedly ‘reclusive’ author would appear to accept his prizes in person. (More than a few reporters contacted me for an answer. I never knew.) And each time, Murakami did, giving speeches in English and suffering the clucking flashes of paparazzi.
In Israel, he braved political antipathy by speaking on behalf of the Palestinians. In Spain, he criticized his nation’s naïve faith in nuclear power.
Postwar Japan has garnered a reputation for docility, especially after the largely forgotten student uprisings of the late 60s and early 70s were effectively stamped out by the Japanese government abetted by the US CIA. Murakami was a student protester back then (“I battled the police,” he once proudly conceded), and has remained a proverbial outsider in Japan long after his generation’s dissidence died. While his fellow protesters donned suits and joined Japan Inc, Murakami opened a jazz bar with his wife. “I felt betrayed,” he says, suggesting roots for his avocation as a novelist.
Since then, Murakami has published 15 books in English (many more in his native Japanese), the latest of which, 1Q84 (partly a nod to Orwell, with the 'q' being both a homonym for the Japanese word for '9' and also denoting a question) is out in the US on October 25. In keeping with his more recent novels, it’s a sprawling canvas focused on close-ups: a lonely middle-aged male writer whose professional fecklessness and dying father forces him to confront his perilous state, and a lonely female assassin, whose steely professionalism and success threaten to destroy her soul. Both inhabit a world riddled with trap-doors of corruption, violence and everyday uncertainty.
Murakami is a seasoned pro: He has been publishing novels since 1979. But part of his allure is that he rarely feels like one. Brilliant narrative exposition and set pieces are wedged between amateurish snatches of dialog that go nowhere. Characters digress carelessly, and their author often indulges them.
This is clearly essential to Murakami’s appeal. He is a genius who seems just like the rest of us. The most common reaction to his work I have heard from readers on both sides of the world is: He knows my dreams.
We’ll know Thursday if the Nobel committee feels the same way.