An Evening with Haruki Murakami

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Every so often, you pick up a book that is exactly what you need at that point in your life. So it was befitting that I first picked up Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood as I grappled with  loss of life and love. As a late bloomer to grief, the unfamiliar sense of being filled with emptiness was unsettling.

It could be argued that the western world has an unhealthy attitude towards death, be it of a life or of a relationship, as it is rarely spoken about in real terms. Rather, it is easier to deny or hide the existence of it.  Murakami acted as a counterpoint to this in Norwegian Wood. With a straightforward lyricism to his prose, he outlined simple truths about loss, grief, and the importance of recognising the impact of it on one’s mind. As a writer and as a human being, it was a pivotal read.

Although he has been writing for 35 years, Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s first internationally successful novel. Since its 1987 release, over twenty have followed includingThe Wind up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84, and recently Colourless Tsukuru and his Years of Pilgrimage. He is also the recipient of the Kafta Prize and Jerusalem Prize for his distinctive writing, which walks the tightrope between reality and dreams, the whimsical and the brutal.

It was with great fan-fare then, that Murakami was announced as the headlining speaker for the 2015 Auckland Writer’s Festival, and the event quickly sold out, with a single ticket that was originally purchased for $35.00 being snapped up on TradeMe for $200.00. In literary circles, Murakami generates as much buzz as The Beatles.

When the night came, it was fitting that I was greeted with a surreally banal stage set up for An Evening with Haruki Murakami. Sleek armchairs and a coffee table sat atop a Turkish rug, this oddly intimate mis-en-scene was framed by large palm trees on either side of the stage. The talk was chaired by US editor and writer John Freeman, whose meticulously thought out questions were expertly tempered with ad-libbed witticisms. Aside from the usual literary questions, topics meandered onto included his collection of 11,000 vinyl records, tofu doughnuts,  cats , evilness, translation, and rebelling against his parents. Murakami carefully considered each question put to him. In many ways, he writes how he speaks and vice-versa. When he first began writing he would translate his novels from English to Japanese, and this was how he found his “simple, clear and very easy to read” voice, after making the decision to write while watching a baseball game aged 29.

Murakami himself was surprising. If those present were expecting a melancholic man, they got the opposite. Warmly wise and humorous, he clearly relishes the opportunity to “be anyone in fiction” and tell their stories.” Each story is “unpredictable” even to him, which is perhaps what gives his tales their organic quality.  However they all usually requires him to go down into “the basement, the darkness of people’s minds.” From an outsider’s perspective, he approaches writing in a very disciplined manner, rising at 4am and writing for 4-5 hours before breakfast, then exerting some energy on his much publicised daily runs, and returning to translate authors, which is his “pastime” before winding down in the evening by watching baseball.

As the evening drew to a close, audience members were given the opportunity to ask Murakami their questions. A woman who had flown from Sydney to see him asked if he had“any tips for aspiring writers in a conservative publishing environment” to which he responded with typical honesty “I have no idea…I found my own style, so that is important…to write a good story is not easy. It’s a tough life. Hang on.”

While it’s hard to give An Evening with Haruki Murakami a conventional review, what it did highlight is that New Zealand audiences are desperate for the calibre of events on offer at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Featuring over 150 panels, talks and workshops, there was bound to be something for everyone during this five-day festival. Writers are such a vital part of society, because they allow us to understand the world on a deeper level. With the unfortunate cancelation of New Zealand’s Book Month (again) we need to encourage writers and readers now more than ever. Also, in case you were wondering if cats were imbued with a spirituality for Murakami, the answer is no. “It’s just a cat.”

This article was first published in Rip It Up magazine on May 18th 2015.

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