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Murakami’s Works Challenge in the Best Ways

by Andrew Kleidon-Linstrom, [email protected]

When I dig into a new piece of fiction, I’m always excited to enter a new world. I’m a big sci-fi and fantasy buff because I love taking an epic journey, getting attached to a cast of characters and turning my brain off by indulging in action and mystery. 

As a writer, I also love reading works that play with literary tropes or create experiences that can be achieved only through the written medium. The one author I know who can give me both, while straight up challenging me as a reader, is Haruki Murakami. My introduction to his vast library of work was 1985’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

One of Japan’s most celebrated authors, Murakami has written several international bestsellers during his long career. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World reads like two separate narratives interwoven in alternating chapters. One story, Hard-Boiled Wonderland, told in the odd-numbered chapters, follows a “calcutec” through a cyberpunk-esque world where time is of the essence as his consciousness is literally about to fade away, transporting him to a dreamlike world of his own creation that will last an eternity. 

In the even-numbered chapters, the narrator arrives in a new town within a fantasy world and learns to read dreams from the skulls of long-dead animals while searching for his severed shadow before it can waste away.

If that seems like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. Murakami is known for investigating challenging themes such as consciousness and identity, but beyond that, he’s also a Japanese author operating under completely different cultural standards than we’re used to in America. 

Japanese literature has a canon all its own, and on top of different cultural touchstones, his works are translated into English and are therefore subject to the interpretation of the translator. Japanese is a complicated language, and translation often alters the specific nuances of words. The best translations stick closer to the original text, sacrificing fluid readability to stay closer to the original intent rather than making concessions for an easier reading experience for an American audience.

Hard-Boiled rides that line by creating something that isn’t completely foreign in voice, yet still manages to catch the reader off guard when its sentences zig and zag unexpectedly.

All that is to say that reading Murakami’s work can be exhausting in the best ways. Every time I’d put this book down, I could feel my brain relaxing back into shape like my legs after a run. Every chapter is an exercise – in comprehension, yes – but also in recognizing that the things I prickle up against aren’t always due to “universal” norms, but rather, my own cultural viewpoint. 

Japan is a very different place from America, and Japanese literature can be very different, too. It can be uncomfortable to read, but only in the same way that trying a new food can be uncomfortable before it’s ultimately rewarding. Like the first time I tried calamari. I didn’t think people should eat squid, but then I learned that squid is pretty good! 

I read two and a half Murakami books before I was ultimately unable to turn another page – not out of boredom or dislike for what I was reading, but because I was exhausted. His work has that effect, and it’s unlike anything else I’ve picked up before or since.