Book Excerpt: The Existentialist Vision of Haruki Murakami

The Existentialist Vision of Haruki Murakami by Michael Ackland

Haruki Murakami has often been accused of being a feckless, merely popular writer, but in this study Michael Ackland demonstrates that this is not the case, arguing that Murakami has not only assimilated the existentialist heritage but innovatively changed and revitalized it, thereby placing exciting personal possibilities within the reach of his worldwide readership. The bulk of this monograph focuses on the place of existentialism in Murakami’s major novels. It argues that much-maligned “Murakami man” actually represents a carefully calculated case of failed or partial socialization, which leaves him ripe for unconventional personal developments, and eventually to become an exemplary existentialist figure. In Japan, according to Murakami, the individual typically becomes a regimented, exhaustively worked foot-soldier of contemporary capitalism, or archetypal salaryman, with the potential for terrible excesses underscored by telling allusions to war atrocities and the holocaust. Or the individual can become a free-thinking agent and vibrant alternative to the Japanese consensual norm. Independent decision-making and action are all important, for as Sartre famously stated, “human freedom precedes essence.”

Below is an excerpt from The Existentialist Vision of Haruki Murakami :

Murakami speaks of various characters or scenes in his work as being metaphors, and that seems to be the most sensible way to view “Nausea 1979.” The date suggests strongly that this story is closely related to his career. Murakami and the illustrator are artists of sorts, so that it is highly likely that the latter’s friends are similarly inclined. And what does every creative spirit need traditionally? A muse, usually presented as female. The character named Murakami is little more than a cipher, but the author has painted “mon sembable,—mon frѐre,” (“my fellow man,—my brother,” to quote T.S. Eliot quoting Baudelaire) or a kindred spirit, in the illustrator, whose happiness and fulfillment are dependent on thefts, or more charitably borrowings, from his friends. That is, clandestine couplings are silently likened to literary appropriations, with the adventurous girlfriend or wife standing in for the alluring muse present in another’s household or work. Murakami’s oeuvre, of course, testifies to a multitude of sources of literary inspiration, and no one to date has formally complained about his adaptations. Next there is the distinctive vomiting of the illustrator, which even Sartre’s Roquentin did not manage, but which might humorously signal a debt to Sartre. Finally, the coincidence of the phone calls and the vomiting suggests a specific link between them. At the metaphoric level of illicit intimacies, the repeated calls lead to speculation about their authorship, or the possible involvement of a jilted male partner in the illustrator’s intestinal indisposition. And which author, given the story’s title and recurring bouts of nausea, comes to mind? A famous French existentialist.

The issue of authorship is explicitly raised by the last phone call which, like a classical koan or riddle, challenges the reader to find a solution. The anonymous male says, as usual, the illustrator’s name, but then adds unexpectedly: “Do you know who I am?” Although the illustrator does not have a clue, the extreme, existentially free behavior of the illustrator (who, like a biographer, is not the originator of the material worked on), the foregrounding of nausea, and the theme of theft or appropriation all point to Jean-Paul Sartre (though instructively the Sartrean material—not for the last time—is freely reconfigured and almost unrecognizable). His fictional and theoretical examinations of the self, autonomy, freedom, and much else were hotly debated topics during the Japanese student protest movement. It is also likely that Murakami, while an undergraduate at Waseda University, might even have seen Sartre on television in the late 1960s, addressing long-haired protestors in Paris, or trading ideological blows with Communist apparatchiks, always defending the right of the individual to choose freely rather than to follow tamely, obediently, and blindly hard-line, quasi-Stalinist directives.

The Existentialist Vision of Haruki Murakami by Michael Ackland is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook formats.

Michael Ackland holds the Colin and Margaret Roderick Chair of English at James Cook University, Townsville, Australia, and is Executive Director of the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies. He holds a PhD from the Australian National University and a BA from Monash University. He has been Chair of Australian Studies at Tokyo University, a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, and a Fulbright Fellow at Louisiana State University. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a Senior Fellow of the Cairns Institute. His previous publications include The Penguin Book of Nineteenth Century Australian Literature (1993), That Shining Band: A Study of Australian Colonial Verse Tradition (1994), Henry Kendall: The Man and the Myths (1995), Damaged Men: The Precarious Lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart (2001), and Henry Handel Richardson: A Life (2004), The Experimental Fiction of Murray Bail (2012), and Christina Stead and the Socialist Heritage (2016).

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