>an excerpt from my interview w/Haruki for A Public Space.
Haruki Murakami’s translations include: Raymond Carver’s short stories, Truman Capote’s short stories; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart, John Irving’s Setting Free the Bears, Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age, Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; and Mark Strand’s Mr. and Mrs. Baby and Other Stories.
ROLAND KELTS You and I once discussed how difficult it is to be an individual in Japan, how lonely.
HARUKI MURAKAMI It’s still very difficult, but things have changed drastically in Japan over the last ten years. You know, when I was young, we were supposed to join a company, join the office or the academy. It was a very tight society. You had to belong to someplace. I didn’t want to do that, so I became independent as soon as I left college. And it was lonely.
But not these days. People graduate and immediately become freelancers. There’s a good and bad side, but I look at the good side. It’s a chance to be free.
RK Do people need to look to America today-—or can they stay at home?
HM These days, young Japanese are also looking to Asia and Europe. America isn’t the only one any more. When I was in my teens in the sixties, America was so big—everything was shiny and bright. When I was fifteen years old, I went to see Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, in Kobe. That was my first encounter with jazz; I was so impressed. Those were very good days for American culture.
RK So other people in Japan were attracted to American culture then?
HM It was overwhelming! No one could stop it. I think before 1962 or 1963, no one in Japan knew what a grapefruit was. The other day I was reading an old translation of American fiction and there was a footnote explaining what one is. And there was no pizza then, no hamburger. When I was at university, around 1970, McDonald’s came to Japan and we went to try what kind of thing a hamburger is.
RK Were those positive experiences?
HM Of course. We are not French. They were very exciting experiences for us. I remember going to see Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 in 1970. That was quite an experience. I think that’s the peak of American culture.
RK But the image has changed, hasn’t it?
HM Well, in those days, America had two sides: the strong side, and the youthful, countercultural side. We criticized the Vietnam war, but we were still listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. America had a sense of balance in those days that we admired.
RK And now?
HM I feel like that balance was lost somehow. I think most Japanese feel that way. You know, people don’t drink Coca-Cola anymore. In fact, the most popular drink in Japan these days is ocha [traditional Japanese green tea].
RK Are Japanese taking more pride in Japan?
HM I don’t know if the Japanese are proud of Japan, but they don’t admire American imports. Most American rock is boring these days—too commercial, too dull. Just like Hollywood movies. Young people are starting to get interested in Japanese films, just like they’re listening to J-Pop [Japanese pop music].
Personally, I think most of J-Pop is garbage, just like anime. But some of it is good, and if it’s good, I feel closer to it because it’s Japanese.
RK What about American fiction?
HM Oh, it’s popular now. It’s strange. I think American writers have been very good over the past twenty years or so. When I was in my twenties, we had two camps—Barthelme and other postmodern writers; and the realists, like Updike. But starting in the eighties, we had a third stream—writers like John Irving, Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien. When I read Carver’s stories, I was stunned.
RK What stunned you about Carver?
HM Nobody wrote stories like those. They went beyond common sense. He always chose a simple vocabulary. He wrote straightforward stories, with a sense of humor, a crispness, and an unpredictable story line and very bleak endings. His stories are about everyday life. I learned something from Raymond Carver about writing short stories.
RK What do you think you learned from Carver?
HM What he was saying with his short stories is that you have to be intellectual when you write, but the subject matter doesn’t have to be intellectual.
RK What about the other authors you’ve translated. Irving, for example. What did you learn from him?
HM I learned something from John Irving about writing novels—that kind of powerful storytelling voice. When I say I learn something from translation, it’s not a small, practical thing. It’s a big thing. The author’s breathing, his perspective, his sensations. I can feel those things when I translate.
You know, in the old days, people would trace the writing in good books. Japanese people used to trace the pages of The Tale of Genji, for example. You can learn so many things from tracing. It’s just like putting your feet into other people’s shoes. Translation is the same thing.
RK Do you learn from other translators, too? Do you read Shibata’s translations?
HM Oh yes. I love his translations. But we have different tastes. Paul Auster, Steve Erickson, Stuart Dybek, and Steven Millhauser—they’re great writers, but I wouldn’t translate their work. Which is good, because we have no conflicts.
I think Shibata likes more balanced fiction. It’s not easy to explain. But whenever I read his translations, I find a very well-balanced literary world—symmetrical. Auster is a good example: It’s like the music of J. S. Bach. It’s kind of mathematical. You could say the same thing about Erickson or Millhauser. Those are wonderful worlds they’re producing, but they are very rational. Sometimes things get crazy and chaotic, but seen from a distance, everything is rational and even stoic. I’m saying that in a complimentary way.
But with Carver and O’Brien, things get irrational sometimes. I guess I feel more comfortable when things are messy. I prefer that kind of world. But you know, when I translated The Nuclear Age by Tim O’Brien, every American I met said that’s his worst book. But I just loved it. I told O’Brien when I met him, and he was so suspicious. He said: “You did? You really did?”
RK As if you were the only one.
HM That’s right. But in Japan, many readers loved it. Sometimes I think American readers are missing something.
RK With Nuclear Age, what specifically do you think Americans missed?
HM You know, it’s not a profitable book. It doesn’t have balance. It’s very rambling, and it’s incomplete. But still, it has something very important to tell you. People don’t appreciate those incomplete books, I guess. But I could feel the heat in that book.
RK Do you think Americans are more conservative in their expectations?
HM I think American readers are sometimes too much, you know, New York Times Book Review.
RK Are there any younger authors you’re interested in translating?
HM You know, after those writers I mentioned—Carver, O’Brien, Irving —I haven’t found a good new book I want to translate. I’m wondering if it’s because I got old. I’m not a professional translator; I’m a writer, and I want to learn something from the work of translation. When you reach a certain point, it gets harder to learn from reading other writers’ work. I’d rather learn from the classics these days, books like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.
RK When you first talked to me about translating The Catcher in the Rye, one of the things you mentioned was a tension in the book, between an open world—democratic and free and pluralistic—and a closed world, controlled and manipulated and oppressive.
HM Yes. And these days, the closed worlds are getting stronger in many places. You have fundamentalists, cults, and militaries. But you can’t destroy closed worlds with arms. Their systems will still survive. For example, you could kill all the al Qaeda soldiers, but the closed system itself, the ideas, would survive. They’ll just move it somewhere else.
The best thing you can do is just show and tell: Show the good side of the open world. It takes a long time, but in the long term, those open circuits of the open world will outlast the closed worlds.
RK Why do you think closed worlds are acquiring strength now?
HM That’s very easy to answer. The world is very chaotic today. You have to think about so many things—your stock options, the it industry, which computer you should buy. You have fifty-four channels on dtv. You can know anything you want on the Internet. It’s all very complicated, and you can get lost.
But if you enter a small, closed world, you don’t have to think about anything. The guru or dictator will tell you what to do and think. It’s so simple and easy and seductive. Even to intelligent people, like the ones who entered Aum Shinrikyo [the cult that poisoned the Tokyo subways in 1995]. But it’s a trick. Once you enter the closed world, you can’t escape. The door is closed.
RK You’ve said elsewhere that the tension between those two worlds was part of what drove you to translate The Catcher in the Rye.
HM That’s right. The last time I read that book was in high school, thirty-nine years ago. I almost forgot the actual story, but when I translated it, I realized that it’s really about a disease of the mind, a kind of diseased American psyche. America’s social maladies. It’s a very short odyssey through the mind of the author; but it’s not just about him.
You know, his book has inspired some assassins—the man who killed John Lennon, and the man who tried to kill Ronald Reagan. His book has some connection to the darkness in people’s minds, and that’s very important. It’s a great book, but Salinger was very close to that closed world in himself. He’s in the open world as a novelist, of course, but I think his mind was getting closer to the closed world, and the book is ultimately ambivalent about the two worlds. Most people, in Japan and elsewhere, think the book is about a child against society. But it’s not that simple. He’s really judging the very values of life, weighing them in his right and left hands. And his judgment changes all the time. That’s what makes the book so thrilling.
RK After translating the novel, do you still feel that way?
HM Yes. Salinger was going down to the bottom of a dark obsession.
RK Like a well?
HM Yes. When I translated that book, I had to go down into the darkness with him. And sometimes it was kind of suffocating. But now I think it was a good experience for me.
RK What about translating Gatsby? What did you learn from Fitzgerald?
HM You know, I waited for twenty-five years to do this. In the early eighties. Hemingway was so popular in Japan, but very few people read Fitzgerald. I thought it wasn’t fair. I just wanted to translate this book, but I felt I wasn’t qualified yet to do it.
RK How do you feel about the book today?
HM Before I started translating it, I had felt that The Great Gatsby was a perfect novel. As I worked on it line by line, though, I began to feel that the magic of this novel lay in fact in its imperfection: long sentences without much consistency, certain excesses in setting, occasional lack of consistency in the way characters conduct themselves. The beauty this novel possesses is supported by the accumulation of all these imperfections. I might go so far as to say that it is a special kind of beauty which could only have been expressed by being imperfect. This is probably something I would never have realized if I hadn’t actually translated it into Japanese.
RK A few years ago, you compared your decision to return to Japan in 1995—after the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway poisonings—to Fitzgerald’s decision to return to the U.S. from Paris in 1930.
HM I think Japan’s bubble economy can be compared to the 1920s in America. In that sense I believe that Japan’s “lost decade”—from 1995 to 2005—was a crucial period for the country. We have yet to see what significance the period had for us, but I personally feel that in that decade I did my best as a Japanese novelist. My great theme during those ten years—and probably our theme—was to lay the groundwork for a way to coexist with everyday chaos. Now it’s time to see how good I was—to put my attempt to the test.