Artwork by Sampada Inamdar
As an aspiring writer myself, Haruki Murakami features on my list of writers I look upto: his contributions are ever appreciated for creating fantastical worlds to get lost in and standards to achieve. For many years and across age groups, Murakami has been well known and more recently has become a household name. Being an international best-seller, his books have been translated in more than 40 languages. However, if you haven’t ventured into his weird fish falling from the sky kind of a world, let me enlighten you.
I was first introduced to the name Murakami through a book club, four years ago. Everyone there seemed to be his fan and of one book in particular: “1Q84”. In the beginning, before I fell into the Murakami world, I thought maybe he is an obscure writer or maybe a semi-obscure author but a quick surfing on the internet showed that he is quite famous and has a larger fan base than I would have liked to think.
“You are either going to love Murakami or hate him”, an article said about him and that made me very anxious. I wanted to like him because the other readers wouldn’t stop raving about him. I was very cautious regarding the first book I was going to read. Torn between 1Q84, Sputnik Sweetheart and Kafka On The Shore, I chose Kafka and boy, was I disappointed!
It started with a promising premise, retelling of Oedipus in an interesting postmodernist manner although the magical realism aspect fell flat for me. I struggled to understand why people would like it. It was plain in the areas where it could have been layered and it was detailed where it needn’t have been. I couldn’t care less about the detailed description of Kafka’s penis or the graphic scene where the cat is murdered (which I think was written just for the sake of writing something gruesome and bloody.) And honestly, I am not even sure I understood any of the characters or what they were doing in the book!
All the randomness in his writing made me wonder if people were just being ostentatious about liking him. “Oh Murakami is a genius” “Murakami is my favourite writer” “Every reader must read Murakami” and a whole lot of pretentious waffle. Sure, everybody has their cup of tea (or coffee) but I strongly began to feel that Murakami was just a name used by people to make themselves sound more interesting, and complexed, as if they grasped the depth of his work or just mistook his plainness for depth and applauded him for writing something “different.”
Surely, my reader and writer friends must know that he is not the first author to attempt magical realism. It has been done before, and it has been done with much more finesse. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children treads around reality and magical atmosphere in a delicate and terrific way. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was so good, almost a class apart from all the books I have read in that genre.
After I finished Kafka, very reluctantly that took every ounce of my being from setting it on fire from sheer exasperation, I told a fellow writer and reader, mind you, this fellow reads Camus and Sartre for breakfast, that I didn’t understand the hype around Murakami. He laughed. The kind of laugh that had written “that’s because you are stupid” all over it. He mocked at me saying, “Oh you should just stick to Chick-lits and YAs”. That infuriated me. I took offence and as an insult to my reading capabilities. Hence I decided to give Murakami one more chance, this time with Norwegian Wood.
Norwegian Wood, one of his most famous works, was a page-turner. I devoured it like a famished hyena ravaging its prey. It had a sense of melancholy permeating throughout but never overshadowing or overdoing it that could have turned the book into a depressing read. Initially I thought at its heart, Norwegian Wood is a love story, but it was much more than that. I noticed Murakami has a way of weaving complicated feelings into beautiful prose. It was poetic. It talked about music and The Beatles. It talked about the beauty of sunset and the smell of coffee, little things that can be seen in the writings of all modern poets, yet the way he wrote them was dreamy, it seemed worthy of my time and attention. There was even a point where I wondered if I could ever write like the way he does.
At this point, I have read at least 2 books of his and I still wasn't able to make up my mind about him. I took a break from Murakami, read some other fiction and came back to 1Q84, a decision consciously made despite knowing the length of it. Like Kafka, 1Q84 started out well but seemed to endlessly go nowhere for pages on end. As I read the novel, I struggled to imagine the characters as real, which is one of the things I noticed about Murakami’s writings. From hundreds of pages that are full of monotonous descriptions of the food they eat and the clothes they wear to going into ridiculous details about God knows how many unnecessary, weird sex scenes that disrupt the flow of the story. Amongst all these thoughts, one seemed to be the loudest: Why is it that Murakami portrays women as means of liberation for the men in his novels?
He creates women characters, who have no story of their own, so as to simply give weightage to the male characters. All the pointless talks about men’s genitalia and the pornographic details about their sex life made me reanalyse Norwegian Wood. I was indeed stupid, not because I couldn’t understand Murakami, but for misunderstanding the sexualization of women in a story wrapped in sentimental The Beatles songs as brilliant writing.
When looked at individually, the lengthy paragraphs on their sex life isn’t problematic, but when looked at it together, he has a pattern of representing relationships in a similar way. That pattern is troublesome. It’s like reading a frustrated teenager rant cluelessly about highly unlikely and far-fetched events with self-centred male characters until finally his imagination reaches saturation and he gives up, drawing an unsatisfactory conclusion to them.
Murakami knows what sells, interpretation of men and women’s bodies, their intimacy and their loneliness. He repeats his plots, he recycles them and churns out if not the same then similar content. This isn’t to say Murakami is not a compelling writer or that you shouldn’t read his books, but I personally would not recommend them because he creates a world for men, where women are made to validate the former’s existence. He certainly has the ability to evoke loneliness in his prose, but he has miles to go before he could understand women. Unlike his struggles with plotting good endings, I had mine ready to go ever since I began writing this piece —Haruki Murakami is outdated and overrated.