Last night I was in the same room as Haruki Murakami

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do. To dream, to live in the world of dreams. But it doesn’t last forever. Wakefulness always comes to take me back.” – Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

Reading is an intensely personal experience. You take a book to a quiet corner and lose yourself between the pages of a story. Thousands, if not millions, of people might read the same words, but at that moment, they are yours and yours only.

Authors tend to have a mystical presence. As you read, you fall in love with characters and places, only vaguely aware of the person who wrote the words. It’s not until you finish the story that you see the puppet strings.

Occasionally, an author becomes a celebrated character in his or her own right. They transition from being mystical to being master, master of words and stories. You tentatively hang on to their every word, intrigued and in awe, but also ever-so-slightly mistrusting, as if with one admission they could crumble your interpretation of their works.

After all, the relationships you build with ‘their’ characters is intimate and personal. They provide the words, your imagination does the rest.

So what happens when you place a revered writer with a cult-like following in a room full of 2,000 avid readers?

Last night I was in the same room as Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most celebrated authors. The atmosphere was electric.

When Murakami walked on stage the crowd erupted in applause and wolf whistles. A few people raised from their seats in standing ovation. I had goosebumps and a goofy smile across my face. In that moment, I could feel what Murakami’s stories are to people: joy.

That was the feeling in the room. Joy. Along with admiration, respect, anticipation and all the rest. But joy was the feeling I felt most intensely throughout the 90 minutes Murakami spoke.

This experience solidified what I have always believed but struggled to put into words: stories bring so much happiness to people’s lives.

The applause lasted minutes, perhaps a few seconds longer than socially appropriate, and Murakami looked humbled, overwhelmed and also slightly amused. He sat down in a leather armchair, smiled patiently, and turned to his interviewer, John Freeman.

Freeman, a US author, editor & critic, did a masterful job of guiding the conversation. He was warm, funny and respectful, posing thoughtful questions to Murakami and giving him plenty of time and space to answer as he pleased.

I didn’t know what to expect – who can ever predict what turns a conversation is going to take? Murakami was sincere and generous in his answers, yet also incredibly funny and not the least bit shy of speaking his truth.

I could try to recap the entire conversation, but I know I wouldn’t do it justice. You really had to be there.

I walked away with more feelings than cold-hard-facts. I guess that’s what 90 minutes listening to a masterful storyteller leaves you with – a vague sense of direction and a few memorable one liners.

Here are three things I gleaned from A Conversation with Haruki Murakami:

Not everything requires an explanation

Although he was refreshingly candid and honest, Murakami did manage to maintain an air of mystery.

His books are notoriously left wide open to interpretation, leaving readers to speculate over the meaning of his every word. He gave nothing away, other to say that he doesn’t know what’s going to happen any more than the readers do (to which the crowd erupted in laughter).

He said he discovers his characters through writing. He is not one to map out every scene in detail and then put it into words. Instead, he goes on a journey with them, every day bringing forward a fresh revelation.

While it was clear many people in the audience were seeking some explanation (he is the King of cliffhangers), Murakami seemed content to leave his characters muddling their way through chaos. “That’s life,” he said.

I admired his refusal to give in to people’s pleas for clarification. I used to be one of them: when I finished Sputnik Sweetheart I wrote that I felt “disoriented and disappointed”. Next time, I am just going to enjoy the ride. Murakami’s fiction is not the place to search for concrete answers.

Stop Googling writing tips and just put pen to paper

As an aspiring writer, I thought I would feel intimidated by Murakami’s presence, but the opposite was true. If anything, I felt reassured.

Here is Murakami, a best-selling novelist with a God-like status in some literary circles, telling the audience that he’s just doing what he knows how to do. He climbed down from the pedestal people put him on and said, I can’t tell you how I do what I do. I just do.

Of course that question came: “What tips can you share with aspiring writers are trying to thrive in this hostile publishing environment? A mouthful to which he appeared to draw a blank.

I felt a little bit sorry for the girl in the audience who asked the question – she was obviously hoping for a more detailed response. But I admired the way he simplified the process. Just write. Just do what you know how to do, and see what happens.

There are no tips and tricks, no shortcuts to success, just you and your blank page.

Stories are stories: biography has little place in imagination

It is natural to speculate whether a writer’s stories are somewhat autobiographical. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. Murakami was rather cautious when it came to answering questions about his own background.

It was almost as if he was saying, “what does it matter?” Of course his experiences will shape his stories, but his imagination is what inspires him to write.

“I can be anybody,” he said. He can be a young conservative man or a lonely 20-year-old lesbian. He said he simply tried to see the world through other people’s eyes.

To try to glean biographical insight from his every word is to discredit the Murakami’s perception and imagination. Sometimes a story is just a story, and we should leave it at that.

Haruki Murakami came to New Zealand as part of the Auckland Writers Festival. You can read more about him here.

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart Haruki Murakami review

“And for a while I can’t work out what’s real and what isn’t…” – Sumire, Sputnik Sweetheart

The above quote is an excellent summary of my initial feelings about Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami.

When I finished this book I felt disoriented and disappointed. A significant storyline was left unresolved. My head was lost in metaphors, trying to interpret a sequence of events, but struggling to reach a place of understanding.

So I did what is now a natural reflex when I am confused: I consulted Google.

Hours of Goodreads reviews later and I was no more certain about the fate of the three protagonists, but I did discover that feelings of confusion were pretty standard symptoms for first-time Murakami readers

Yes, Sputnik Sweetheart is my first Haruki Murakami novel. The Japanese author has a strong loyal following and has written 13 novels to date, not counting his extensive bibliography of short stories and non-fiction essays.

In picking up Sputnik Sweetheart, I stumbled across one of this century’s most celebrated and revered writers.

Right, I thought, I either have to come up with an utterly profound review or pretend I haven’t read it all!

I always feel a slight tinge of self-consciousness when reviewing books that are written by such revered authors. What if I get it wrong? What if I completely miss the point of the plot and sound like an idiot?

I tried to push the book to the back of my mind, but for the past few weeks it has been staring at me from the bookshelf, its bright red cover standing out from the rest. Go on, it says, I dare you.

So, here goes, my interpretation of my first Murakami novel. Hold onto your seats!

Synopsis

Sputnik Sweetheart is set in Tokyo, Japan. The story is told through the eyes of K, a male primary school teacher in his mid-twenties, who is trying to find his place in the world.

“I’d stand at the front of the classroom, teaching my primary-school charges basic facts about language, life, the world, and I’d find that at the same time I was teaching myself these basic facts all over again – filtered through the eyes and minds of these children… Still, the basic questions tugged at me: Who am I? What am I searching for? Where am I going?”

K comes across as a gentle, relatively uninteresting, character. He has few friends and his life outside of work largely consists of reading, television, perhaps a few cold beers before bed. The most interesting thing in his life is Sumire.

Sumire is a young aspiring writer, a ‘lost artist’ type, who spends most of her time dedicated to her craft, rarely stopping to eat or sleep.

The pair met in college, K is two years Sumire’s senior. Both loners, not people to surround themselves with a large group of friends, they found comfort and companionship in each other.

[K]: “We used to spend hours talking. We never got tired of talking, never ran out of topics – novels, the world, scenery, language. Our conversations were more open and intimate than any lovers’.”

However it is clear from the get-go that K wants something more from Sumire. She is the light in his life, the person he gravitates towards, the main character in his personal story.

The novel starts with the revelation – by K – that Sumire has fallen in love, only not with him.

“In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains – flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits.”

This is K’s opening statement: an acknowledgement of the love of his life’s love for someone else. And an acknowledgement of the violent impact of this love, not just on Sumire, but on K’s world too.

K then works backwards, informing the reader of how Sumire met and fell in love with Miu, a woman 17 years her senior.

He writes with a sort of ‘crazed detachment’, from a necessity to put Sumire’s story on paper but also as if he is convincing himself this is actually happening – that this change is really rocketing through his life.

Then the story takes on an unexpected twist. Sumire vanishes without a trace from a small Greek island, where there are literally no hiding places. She was in Europe with Miu on a business trip.

K flies to Greece and forms an unlikely friendship with Miu, as the two try to find their lost friend. But is everything as it seems? What is real, and what isn’t?

My thoughts

I wish I knew more about Murakami’s reputation before I started reading Sputnik Sweetheart. I interpreted this book too literally, when in hindsight I realise I should have been questioning every word.

K is an unreliable narrator. I think my initial disappointment at the end of the book was a reflection of the misplaced faith I put in K. I wanted to believe every word he wrote was true – that he was painting an authentic picture for me, his reader – but I don’t believe this was the case.

Through K, Murakami deliberately blurred the lines between fact and fiction, injecting just enough plausibility into a scenario to keep you guessing.

There are many theories circulating on the internet about what actually happened to Sumire, but no one will ever know the ‘truth’. Murakami left the storyline open for interpretation. All we have is K’s word – what we take from that is up to us.

This type of writing style is clever and poetical, but so different from ‘mainstream’ novels, where plotlines are neatly wrapped up and explained.

Murakami caught me off-guard, a sly reminder that a writer is not a slave to a reader’s expectations. Next time, I’ll be ready.

Bookmarked quotes

[Sumire]: “Sometimes I get so frightened, like everything I’ve done up till now is wrong. I have these realistic dreams and snap wide awake in the middle of the night. And for a while I can’t work out what’s real and what isn’t… That kind of feeling. Do you have any idea what I’m saying?”

[K]: “I think right now it’s like you’re positioning yourself in a new fictional framework. You’re preoccupied with that, so there’s no need to put your feelings into writing. Besides, you’re too busy.”

[Sumire]: “Do you do that? Put yourself inside a fictional framework?”

[K]: “I think most people live in a fiction. I’m no exception. Think of it in terms of a car’s transmission. It’s like a transmission that stands between you and the harsh realities of life. You take the raw power from outside and use gears to adjust it so everything’s all nicely in sync. That’s how you keep your fragile body intact. Does this make any sense?”

[Sumire]: “And I’m still not completely adjusted to that new framework. That’s what you’re saying?”

[Sumire]: “Understanding is but the sum of our misunderstandings. Just between us, that’s my way of comprehending the world. In a nutshell.”

[K] “When dawn comes, the person I am won’t be here any more. Someone else will occupy this body. Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the Earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”