An Interview with Haruki Murakami
What made you want to retell the Oedipus myth? Did you have a
plan to do this when you started Kafka On The Shore or did it come about
during the writing?
The Oedipus myth is just one of several motifs and isn't necessarily the central element in the novel. From the start I planned to write about about a fifteen-year-old boy who runs away from his sinister father and sets off on a journey in search of his mother. This naturally linked up with the Oedipus myth. But as I recall, I didn't have that myth in mind at the beginning. Myths are the prototype for all stories. When we write a story on our own it can't help but link up with all sorts of myths. Myths are like a reservoir containing every story there is.
With the exception of Norwegian Wood, your novels, especially this new one, have a very dreamlike fantasy element to them. What is it that drives you into this realm?
Norwegian Wood is, as you've said, the only one written in a realistic style. I did this intentionally, of course. I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a 100% realistic novel. And I think this experiment proved helpful later on. I gained the confidence I could write this way; otherwise it would have been pretty hard to complete the work that came afterwards. For me, writing a novel is like having a dream. Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I'm still awake. I can continue yesterday's dream today, something you can't normally do in everyday life. It's also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it's not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.
A quick Google search shows off the many fans you have in America, all eagerly awaiting your next novel. As a Japanese novelist, why do you think your fiction resonates so strongly with this audience?
I think people who share my dreams can enjoy reading my novels. And that's a wonderful thing. I said that myths are like a reservoir of stories, and if I can act as a similar kind of "reservoir," albeit a modest one, that would make me very happy.
What are some aspects of Japanese culture that you think a reader can glean from your novels? Are there other characteristics that you wish we Americans understood before we even picked up the books?
When I write a novel I put into play all the information inside me. It might be Japanese information or it might be Western; I don't draw a distinction between the two. I can't imagine how American readers will react to this, but in a novel if the story is appealing it doesn't matter much if you don't catch all the detail. I'm not too familiar with the geography of nineteenth century London, for instance, but I still enjoy reading Dickens.
Before "postmodernism" became a buzzword, Franz Kafka explored that particular condition of isolation associated with a post-nuclear, new-millennium world. Did you name your protagonist after him to draw out these themes, or were there other reasons?
It goes without saying that Kafka is one of my very favorite writers. But I don't think my novels or characters are directly influenced by him. What I mean is, Kafka's fictional world is already so complete that trying to follow in his steps is not just pointless, but quite risky, too. What I see myself doing, rather, is writing novels where, in my own way, I dismantle the fictional world of Kafka that itself dismantled the existing novelistic system. One could view this as a kind of homage to Kafka, I suppose. To tell the truth, I don't really have a firm grasp of what's meant by postmodernism, but I do have the sense that what I'm trying to do is slightly different. At any rate, what I'd like to be is a unique writer who's different from everybody else. I want to be a writer who tells stories unlike other writers'.
Throughout this book, you reference the "Rice Bowl Hill incident," in which a group of children lost consciousness during a school outing in the hills. Do the fictional investigations of this incident have a basis in real historical events or news stories? Did your experience as a journalist inform this part of the novel?
I'd rather not go into that.
Nakata, the other main character, is a lovable victim of the school disaster who is unlike everyone around him. What led you to create this sort of character?
I'm always interested in people who've dropped out of society, those who've withdrawn from it. Most of the people in Kafka on the Shore are, in one sense or another, outside the mainstream. Nakata is most definitely one of them. Why did I create a character like him? It must be because I like him. It's a long novel, and the author has to have at least one character he loves unconditionally.
Cats appear frequently in your fiction, and in this book they play a particularly memorable role, what with the detailed description of how a deranged sculptor preys on cats. Why are cats so important to your characters and your stories?
It must be because I'm personally fond of cats. I've always had them around since I was little. But I don't know whether they have any other significance.
Your protagonist Kafka discovers a song, "Kafka on the Shore," and wonders if the woman who wrote it knew what the lyrics meant. Another character says, "Not necessarily. Symbolism and meaning are two separate things." Since your novel and the song share a title, how much does this statement say about the the novel itself? Do its symbols point to a larger meaning?
I don't know a whole lot about symbolism. There seems to me to be a potential danger in symbolism. I feel more comfortable with metaphors and similes. I don't really know what the lyrics of the song mean, or whether they even have any meaning in the first place. It might be much easier to understand if someone set the lyrics to music and sang it.
We hear that your Japanese publisher has actually produced a website to help readers understand the meaning of this book. Since we won't be able to read the site, can you tell us in your own words what some of the "secrets" of the book are?
On this website in the space of three months I received over 8,000 questions from readers, and personally responded to over 1,200 of them. It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed it. What I concluded from this exchange was that the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. This may sound self-serving, but it's true. I know people are busy and it depends, too, on whether they feel like doing it, but if you have the time, I suggest reading the novel more than once. Things should be clearer the second time around. I've read it, of course, dozens of times as I rewrote it, and each time I did, slowly but surely the whole started to come into sharper focus.
Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It's hard to explain, but that's the kind of novel I set out to write.
All of your characters, both in this book and in previous novels, display a really interesting appreciation for jazz, classical, and rock music. What musical pieces would you include on a Murakami playlist of sorts that would represent the range of music in your books?
Music is an indispensable part of my life. Whenever I write a novel, music just sort of naturally slips in (much like cats do, I suppose.) When I was writing my newest novel, After Dark, the melody of Curtis Fuller's "Five Spot After Dark" kept running through my head. Music always stimulates my imagination. When I'm writing I usually have some Baroque music on low in the background chamber music by Bach, Telemann, and the like.
Being an author who is read in translation, could you talk a little bit about what you think makes a good translation?
I've translated a lot of American literature into Japanese, and I think that what makes a good translator is, above all, a feel for language (a pretty obvious point) and also a great affection for the work you're translating. If one of those elements is missing the translation won't be worth much. Unless I have to for some reason, I seldom reread my previous books (in Japanese), but I do sometimes reread the English translations. I find it enjoyable precisely because of the distance from the original text. In most cases I really enjoy reading these.
What's next for you?
In the fall of 2004 I brought out a new novel, After Dark. And in the U.S. in 2006 we'll publish my second short story collection in English, my first since The Elephant Vanishes. So in anticipation of that, I'll be working on some new short stories this fall and winter. On the translation side, I'm presently translating a collection of Grace Paley's short stories. I really like her work. Translating her stories is very difficult, but I always do my very best.
Interview originally published at HarukiMurakami.com, and reproduced at BookBrowse by permission of the Knopf Publishing.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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