May 31, 2015

Haruki Murakami on the uneven parallel bars at AWF15


It was full superstar mode for Haruki Murakami: a stern no-photos-no-tweeting message to set the tone, followed by catcalls and yelps as he emerged from the wings with John Freeman and settled into his chair, the stage itself seeming suddenly vast and, well, stagy, as all molecular activity rushed to concentrate itself in the immediate space around that one compact body in pink pants, sneakers, jacket and t-shirt reading "Keep Calm and Read Murakami", those bright eyes alert and attuned.

It was much talked about how Murakami flew in the day of his session, was brought straight to the conference, and flew out again immediately afterwards. No book signing! No signing! Dieharders could purchase pre-signed copies; it hardly seemed the same. An architect friend of mine told me that Japanese superstar architects do exactly the same at their conferences. I put it down to an amusing cultural quirk.  But last night, following a trail about smiles through the internet, as you do, I came across a video clip of Rumanian gymnast Nadia Comeneci getting her perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. "The little unsmiling girl" was the title, which is how my search had brought it up. I watched it; she wasn't smiling, it's true, in the sense that she didn't have one of those forced smiles a la synchronised swimmers. But she wasn't grim or unsmiling either. She was simply at a higher level of focus than most of us will ever attain. She came out, did her extraordinary routine, and went off. Haruki Murakami was like that.

A word here for John Freeman's interviewing skills. Had someone warned him about how Murakami answers questions in bursts of concentrated thought, with the pauses between them up to two or three times longer than the spoken parts? Each burst is accompanied by a gesture, and during the long pauses, his hands remain in the position of the last gesture, moving only to match the new thought when it arrives. It's breath-taking, or perhaps breath-holding is more accurate. His jacket being black, like the black backdrop of the stage, his hands stand out like the white-gloved hands of mimes, accompanying his thoughts like a musical score.

Every time, Freeman manages to wait out every pause without the slightest sign of nerves. Lesser interviewers would be biting their tongues to keep from suggesting a word, or treading on the thought process with a new question. Freeman doesn't even fiddle with his pen. He waits. Murakami, to his credit, seems to be aware of his idiosyncratic style. Often, when he's finished, he says cheerfully "That's all!".

How did he become a writer? was the first question, which fit well with a phenomenon I particularly noticed this year -- it seems to be positively snowballing: Festival attendees who, while doubtlessly enjoying the personal encounter aspect, appear particularly, let's say drivingly, avid to learn from the authors the secret of how to tip themselves over into the "Writers" camp, from "Readers" that they are. (Did the Festival's decision last year to rename itself Writers Festival, from the Writers and Readers which it had been, subliminally encourage this, I wondered?)

It was at a baseball game, we learn. An almost empty ballpark, a team of winners, rich and famous, playing a team of underdogs, Murakami's team. "My team are the losers. I like losers." And then Dave Hilton hit a high one, and everyone's looking up into the hazy sky, searching for the ball against the sun.

"Something fell from the sky and I caught it."

Did it really happen or was it a metaphor? Was the something the ball? I didn't quite understand. I could check -- apparently he tells the story in his memoir What I talk about when I talk about running -- but it isn't important. What's important is the epiphany.  "I was so happy. I can still feel the feeling." He decided then and there to become a writer. "I went to the stationery shop and bought paper and pen."

Surely he had some writing equipment at home? But again, the important thing was that it was the beginning. A beginning which recurs with each new book:

"When I write fiction, I can be anyone. Every time I start to write fiction I think, so who am I going to be? That is great."

All his answers are so wonderful, so idiosyncratic, that I am going to give them to you as I heard them. They most often come in three bursts. You need to remember to include a long pause after each full stop. A very long pause. And then when you think you're there, give it a second more.

On his idealism:

"It was a good time to be young, in the 1960s.  We believed the world is getting better. The world didn't get better, unfortunately."

"Not many people in Japan think the world is getting better. I am still holding my idealism. It is warmth. Is that okay?"

Did that mean was it okay as an answer, or was it okay as a way to feel? In the spirit of the hour, it didn't need to be pinned down. It was okay.

On his literary inspirations:

"My parents were teachers of Japanese literature. So naturally I hated Japanese literature. I read Brautigan, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Raymond Chandler."

On growing up:

"I had my books. I had my music. I had my cat. I was an only child. Cat was my only friend."

For a while, he was a cult author. But all of a sudden:

"Norwegian Wood sold 2,000,000 copies. I was hated by so many people in Japan in those days. Japanese people feel intelligent people don't read bestsellers. So I left."

On going home a decade or more later:

"After the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo subway gas attack, this was the time for me to go back to my country. I had to do something for my people.”

The something was a book, Underground, a compilation of hundreds of interviews with victims of the gas attack, but also with members of the cults responsible for the attack, in the hope they could explain their reasons.

Writing about evil:

"I go into the darkness of my mind. Everyone has a basement beneath the ground. Some people have a basement in their basement. It’s easy to go into the darkness, sometimes it isn’t easy to come back."

His writing style:

"My long novels are complicated. My mid-size novels are more authentic, realistic. My short stories are very experimental."

His favourite music, what he would save if his house caught on fire?

"I have 11,000 records. How can I choose. I don't know. I let them burn!"

On outlook:

"The strange things that have happened in my life are happy things -- to me. So it seems someone's helping me -- I don't know who it is. I am optimistic."

On endings:

"I am always looking for the bright side of things. But most of my fiction are not happy endings. I don't know why. He is looking for something, finds it, but it's not what he expected."

The Q and A with the public brought, as I was saying, a request for tips for beginning writers ("Hang on!"); followed by a two-parter wanting, first, to know about Murakami's own sad experiences, and secondly, about his favourite foods. Murakami happily named his favourite foods (donuts and tofu) and readied himself for the next question, necessitating a reminder from John Freeman ("Sadness!") which was appropriately surreal coming as it did on the tail of donuts. And finally, we had everyone's favourite:

"Do cats have a spirituality for you?"

"No, just a cat!"

I give him a perfect 10.

-- Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 20:34


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