Halfway through Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, I began to wonder if it was worth getting to the other side. It’s not that the book was a significant departure from his earlier work: there are the same reclusive characters, dream-like happenings, alternating plotlines and pop-culture ephemera. I wearied at the flatness of the effects, as well as their repetition. As John Updike wrote in his New Yorker review, “it seems more gripping than it has a right to be and less moving, perhaps, than the author wanted it to be.”
This feeling was reinforced with two later novels, IQ84 and Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Earlier, I had been charmed – if that’s the right word – by A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and even the sentimental Norwegian Wood. Now, however, I found myself chuckling appreciatively at illustrator Grant Snyder’s ‘Murakami Bingo’, a poster that pointed out the many clichés that recur in his novels. Among them: mysterious women, ear fetishes, talking to cats, old jazz records and parallel worlds.
In a recent conversation, fellow Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami asked Murakami about his depiction of women, which has also irked some readers. “A common reading,” she perceptively observed, “is that your male characters are fighting their battles unconsciously, on the inside, leaving the women to do the fighting in the real world.”
Murakami’s reply was that this is coincidental. His writing doesn’t follow a clear-cut scheme: “I guess it’s possible for a story to work out that way, on a purely unconscious level.” Kawakami does go on to laud the female character in his short story, ‘Sleep’, and has elsewhere written about how much Murakami’s work has meant to her.
Another aspect of Murakami is the way his work has been translated and packaged for non-Japanese readers. This is what David Karashima sets out to examine in his recent Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami.
Karashima, himself a noted author and translator, takes great pains to track down the members of Team Murakami over the years. As he says, “it is easy to forget that the works that a great many of his readers—devotees, fans, critics, and detractors alike—have come to know are also creations of his translators, editors, and publishers around the world.”
Notable among these are Alfred Birnbaum, who first translated Murakami into English, and Elmer Luke, a former editor with Kodansha International, Murakami’s publishing house at the time.
Birnbaum says that he was immediately drawn to Murakami’s writing, especially its humour, which he found to be rare in Japanese literature. As soon as he finished reading his stories, he sat down at his typewriter and proceeded to translate several. For Luke, the basis of Murakami’s popularity is his narrative theme: “sensitive, un-macho, lonely, newly single male on a journey of (re)discovery.”
From the start, there was an effort to promote Murakami in America as a writer who was relatable and worthy of attention, in keeping with his own ambitions. Of A Wild Sheep Chase, Birnbaum says that it was very different from anything else in Japan, and definitely more akin to Western novelists, “which of course is why he was attacked by critics (in Japan).”
American promotions highlighted its “gripping plot,” calling it comic, fresh, and brave. Early reviews pointed out how it differed from the work of the Big Three: Kōbō Abe, Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata. Some mentioned the influence of the two Raymonds: Carver and Chandler.
Others who would have important roles to play in Murakami’s career include Robert Gottlieb and Linda Asher, then editor and fiction editor of the New Yorker, respectively. Many of his stories appeared in the magazine – but not before they underwent several cuts, edits and sanitisations in translation. The intent to make him presentable to an English-speaking audience seemed uppermost.
The New Yorker’s tastes apart, the same process occurred with his novels. Birnbaum suggests half-jokingly that it is possible that he and Luke spent more time translating and editing A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland than Murakami had spent writing them. There are a number of compressions, elisions and even minor character omissions.
Some of this, of course, is to do with the differences between Japanese and English in the first place. As scholar Roland Kelts has said: “The Japanese language acquires much of its beauty and strength from indirectness—or what English-speakers call vagueness, obscurity, or implied meaning.”
The shaping and clarifying continued with Jay Rubin, who took up the mantle of translating Murakami into English. Of the story ‘The Second Bakery Attack’, for example, Karashima notes that “the narrator’s internal monologues are trimmed down so that the English translation seems to move at a slightly faster pace than the original Japanese.”
In a New Yorker piece, Rubin commented: “When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five percent of the time.” This brings to mind the role of editor Gordon Lish in crafting the stories of Raymond Carver. In an interview, Lish once pompously said: “Had I not revised Carver, would he be paid the attention given him? Baloney!”
Afterwards, even when Murakami was more established abroad, Rubin submitted two versions of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to Knopf. The first was a complete translation; the second a version that, in Rubin’s estimation, was abridged by 25,000 words. The publisher went with the abridged version.
Karashima ends his book in 1998, so there is no mention of whether Murakami’s later work -- when he presumably had more say in the matter -- went through the same process. Perhaps not to the extent as in the past, which is why novels such as IQ84 and Killing Commendatore seem a trifle messier.
It is Pico Iyer’s considered assessment that strikes a chord. He tells Karashima that he understands how Murakami can be seen as a “rare contemporary master” who captures the sense of lost meaning and identity amidst the pleasures of hearing Coltrane and heating up pasta. But, he adds, “this is precisely the Japan that is least compelling and deep, even if it’s not illusory.”
What’s missing, Iyer continues, is Japan’s “stubborn ancientness”, its rites and values, “all the things that in fact make it sometimes painfully distant and different from everywhere else, and grounded to a fault.”
Writers, of course, are under no obligation to live up to anyone’s expectations but their own. One can’t help but wonder, though, whether in trying to make him palatable to the West, Murakami’s team of translators, editors and publishers have rendered him a bit too slick.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.