Haruki Murakami has been accused of being little more than a popular writer. The Existentialist Vision of Haruki Murakami disproves this notion, showing the philosophical underpinnings of the Japanese writer’s fiction. In this excerpt, Professor Michael Ackland discusses how Murakami’s typical protagonists find themselves at a “developmental crossroad.”
The novelist’s typical protagonist finds himself at a developmental crossroad. Essentially directionless, he could set out on new, self-emancipatory paths; however, the kind of work he has chosen to date, although avoiding the precise salaryman model, is not far removed from it. Take Boku’s profession of translation in Pinball, 1973. Customers furnish texts on any subject, and he dutifully translates them. Though translation can be validated as an “indispensable process…through which imported cultural products pass when entering a new cultural discourse,” Murakami is exclusively concerned with its dull, replicating aspects. Apart from issues of accuracy, the act need not involve either personal responsibility or belief. “In the old days we did work we believed in, and we took pride in it. There’s none of that now. We’re just tossing out fluff.” Innovation is not required; the sum of knowledge is affirmed rather than added to or amended. The translator’s thoughts in Pinball, 1973 about his own work, when asked what he habitually deals with, are blunt and to the point: “Scum. I scoop it from one ditch and dump it into another one, that’s all.” It is a routine and unproductive activity, like shoveling snow, something that needs to be done to ensure life goes on in its accustomed form. Substantive changes, initiative, or imaginative involvement are not part of the task.
This belief is magnified in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World through its dual narratives. The Dreamreader, despite the intense concentration he brings to his work, is engaged in futile, unproductive labor. For the dream fragments he traces in skulls “never merge into a sensate picture,” but spill like water to the ground. “My dreamreading is an endless repetition of this,” or a variant on shoveling snow. At first sight, however, the Calcutec (or data encrypter) in the main narrative may seem an exception to Murakami’s previous underachievers. Though modest in his pursuits and desires, this highly specialized operative has neurological capacities that set him apart from others in his profession. Yet his work, data encryption, amounts to another form of translation. Significantly both roles require of the protagonist a general willingness to follow dictated behavioral codes, to observe set times and conditions, and to perform day in, day out a given task whose sense and ultimate purpose escape him. These requisites bear important resemblances to he demands made of the stereotypical salaryman. And perhaps most damningly of all, the Calcutec is obliged to confess: “I’d never decided to do a single thing of my own free will.”Michael Ackland
The Existentialist Vision of Haruki Murakami is available in hardcover, paperback, and digital editions.