Boy in the Basement

Japan’s most celebrated novelist, now found in Canadian translation

Haruki Murakami has achieved international recognition never before accorded to a Japanese writer. His 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood, alone has sold more than 10 million copies in Japanese and 37 other languages worldwide. To say he is prolific is to understate matters. So far he has produced 14 book-length works of fiction, 15 anthologies of short stories, 20 collections of essays, and an astounding 23 volumes of translations of novels and short stories by Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, J.D. Salinger and about a dozen other lesser known American writers. Murakami also writes children’s stories, publishes collections of his own photographs, contributes to newspapers and magazines, runs marathons in far-flung cities such as New York, Athens and Honolulu, and writes essays about running and travel.

He also finds time to connect personally with readers. During the first four months of this year, 37,645 email messages arrived from around the world to a website titled “Murakami’s Place,” managed for him by a publisher. A student in Japan wrote about wanting to leave a second-tier university to try to enter one with better name recognition. A young woman from China asked how to handle a love affair. Murakami advised staying at the less prestigious university but leaving the lover.

It should be clear from the above that Murakami is more than a novelist: he is a social phenomenon. Murakami fans, known as murakamisuto (Murakamists) are so passionate in their devotion to their idol that they gather each year for all-night vigils in restaurants and coffee houses just before the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature to await the good news from Stockholm, which has yet to arrive. All the same, Murakami has picked up every major Japanese literary prize as well as a Kafka Award, a Jerusalem Prize, and the Order of Arts and Letters from the Spanish government.

The Strange Library, in a masterly translation by Ted Goossen, offers a sampling of Murakami both in style and content. Goossen, who teaches Japanese literature and film at York University, was the editor of The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, and is the founder and co-editor of Monkey Business International, a journal with the mission to publish translations of works by a new generation of Japanese writers.

First issued in 1982 under a slightly different title, this profusely illustrated short story sends a precocious boy from the book return section of his neighbourhood public library into a basement labyrinth in which he faces the prospect of a date in the morning with a brain-devouring ogre. The brilliance of the story lies in the characterization of the young protagonist who is so well brought up that even though he recognizes that he is in danger, he is unable to bring himself to walk away from a social situation because “that wasn’t the way I was raised.” At a later point, as he is about to descend into the dark maze, the boy asks, “Why do I act like this, agreeing when I really disagree, letting people force me to do things I don’t want to do?”

To suggest that the plot is neither original nor especially riveting would be to miss the point. It is through the use of non-Japanese, globally recognizable literary devices and allusions that Murakami succeeds in reaching readers both within and outside Japan. The parallels between Strange Library and Alice in Wonderland are obvious: both protagonists are middle class innocents who descend helplessly into danger, Alice through a rabbit hole and the well-behaved boy by opening a basement door marked 107, just as he is told to. In both stories, the protagonists find themselves at the mercy of cantankerous creatures. In Japanese, the link to Alice is more easily seen. The Japanese title of Strange Library is Fushigi na toshokan; of Alice in Wonderland, Fushigi no kuni no Arisu.

Does Murakami seek deliberately to appeal to foreign readers or do his references to Beatles songs and jazz compositions simply reflect the cosmopolitan life styles of contemporary Japanese? His short stories carry titles such as On a Slow Boat to China, Girl from Ipanema and Barn Burning, the last also the title of a Faulkner story. Whatever the reason, Murakami succeeds in lifting his characters out of the confines of a “national literature” and makes their frustrated loneliness and inner suffering accessible to people who might have little interest in Japan and might even be hostile to it. China and Korea, where 70 years after the end of World War Two school children are still taught to see Japan as the perpetrator of atrocities, are ironically the places where Murakami has attracted the largest number of fans outside Japan.

Readers might assume that an absence of Japanese cultural context would make the job of translating a Murakami work easier, but this is by no means the case. For example in Strange Library, as in the majority of Murakami stories, the narrator protagonist is identified only as boku, a noun that in Japanese performs in part the role of the first person pronoun “I” (the book is narrated in the first person). However, boku does things that the English “I” cannot. It identifies the speaker as male and middle class. Boku is the good student in high school. Greasers and jocks call themselves ore (pronounced “oreh”), demure girls or those who wish to be thought of as such use atashi, gang molls are atai, older males washi and on formal occasions everyone is watakushi. Since this aspect of Japanese cannot be rendered into English literally, the translator must seek a voice for Murakami’s protagonist that has a counterpart in an anglophone cultural context. Goossen has accomplished this by making the boku of The Strange Library express himself in “correct English” in a way that would be expected of the boy at the head of the class in a Canadian high school a generation ago—a clever solution. Goossen does this because Murakami’s boku for the first person identifies his protagonist as someone born in the 1960s, who came of age in the early 1980s, just about when Murakami began his writing career.

Goossen’s linguistic feat has eluded some of Murakami’s early translators. Boku is to Murakami what Rabbit Angstrom is to Updike. It has been identified by critics and fans alike as Murakami’s alter ego; a critic writing about the international appeal of Murakami’s works titled his essay collection “Border-Crossing Boku.”

For all his success, Murakami has not attracted unalloyed praise at home. Among his harshest critics has been Japanese Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe. An intellectual who believes that writers have a duty to make the world a better place, Oe campaigns against nuclear weapons and atomic reactors. He has said of Murakami, “I wish his characters would acquire the ability to overcome feelings of loneliness and despair as individuals and find meaning in life as members of society.” But if they did, would they be able to elicit empathy from millions of well brought up boys and girls who sit at desks of corporations around the world, asking themselves, “Why do I act like this, agreeing when I really disagree, letting people force me to do things I don’t want to do?”