Things that you would find in Murakami’s Novels

There are two kinds of readers in this world – ones who have read Murakami, being transformed into his crazy fans and others who haven’t read Murakami, and don’t know what they have been missing. I have been transferred into the former recently; and it’s a deep love and admiration since then. Having read 11 books written by the maestro of despair, loneliness and magical realism fused into real life, I could see some recurring elements in most of his works. Mind you, I am only at the half way mark in reading through all that Haruki Murakami has written, but, I am sure that these elements would recur in those books as well.

What I present below are the things or elements you would find in Murakami’s books and my interpretation of their utility or what they symbolize (not signify: take this Murakami Fans!). I will edit this list post I read rest of the works as well. I welcome your own analysis or some of the elements that I may have missed.

#1. Cats

Murakami simply loves cats, wonderful creatures, aren’t they? Why is that all the protagonists either possess cats, talk about them or know some one who has them.

Why Cats?

  • Cats are the pin-up models for loneliness, and not exactly social creatures
  • Cats are selfish, so are most of the characters in Murakami’s stories
  • Cats are unpredictable, enigmatic and independent – virtues that are aplenty in Murakami prose

# 2. Metaphor / Allegory

There is a constant effort by the characters to use metaphors and allegories extensively, and sometimes they let you know, the reader, that “hey, in case you didn’t notice, I used a metaphor here”. I simply love the way metaphors / allegories are used in the stories, significantly enhancing the likeability of the prose, and keeps my mind on tenterhooks while reading. Be mindful of the minefield that he has laid, I tell myself.

Why Metaphor / Allegory?

We all have it with in our language arsenal and use them consciously or unconsciously, without branding them as such. We all think of situations, comparison and benchmarks while thinking or talking; most of the emotions that emanates from his prose, are like that.

# 3. Music (Esp. Jazz) and Book References

Doesn’t he love dropping references of American Jazz music of 50s-70s and American books of the same era that he has read? His books compulsorily have that US connection, with he himself having stayed in US at peak of his career. Be it Mozart, Bach, Beach Boys or Beatles, or writers like  Carver, Fitzgerald, pages of his books are replete with many artistes and authors that may have shaped Murakami’s life or influenced his writings.

Why Music and Books?

  • Books: Murakami has read and done translation of a number of American and European books into Japanese. Amongst these are Carver, Salinger, Kafka, Flaubert, Vonnegut, Dickens and so on. He definitely stands out among various Japanese authors for creating a sort of ‘pop culture’ in which his characters are shown reading or talking about these books. I guess it adds to his appeal internationally.
  • Music:  Murakami grew up on Jazz and classical music. He also had a coffeehouse and a jazz bar, called Peter Cat, while he was just getting into writing having written a couple of books. His range and knowledge of music comes out very strongly, with almost all characters in his books, major or minor listening to Jazz mostly, or playing piano / guitar.

#4. Death, Suicides and Disappearances

Most minor and some major characters in Murakami novels, do one or more of the following: they die (of natural causes), commit suicide or simply disappear. These characters are often disturbed, depressed or dejected in life, and somehow connected, engaged and share a special relationship to the central character or protagonist. Some of them who died were as young as 17. Some of them disappear without a trace and there is no further explanations on them.

Why Death, Suicide and Disappearance?

I guess this is a major motif to help symbolize vagaries of human nature, the sadness that envelopes them and showcases in general, futility of continuing life. Most of them who die / disappear are living in Tokyo, a fast paced city, which may not suit everyone’s sensibilities; as the pressure of expectations mounts, they cave in. This is also a constant reminder of city vs. town (or rural) life, the busy beings, each one in a race to achieve more and more.

I guess this is a comparison with the “American Dream” of making it big and living happily ever after. As it happened with American Dream, there may be a lot of people in Tokyo who could not catch up what they were chasing.  Suicide Rates (18.5/100000, 2015, rank #17) and happiness index (rank #46, 2015) also indicate that things may not be hunky-dory in one of the world’s developed nation.

#5 Beer 

Beer is the most favored alcoholic beverage in Murakami books, beating whiskey, wine and other poisons hands down. Even Sake, the Japanese rice wine, doesn’t seem to suit tastes of American Pop Culture influenced characters, much.  The characters bond over beer, be it set of friends or lovers. There is some minor usage of Coke / Pepsi as well, but the soda or sparkling water beats them hands down. I don’t recall any specific brands being mentioned in case of beer (I recall Chivas Regal though).

Why Beer?

I guess Beer is the quintessential social drink world over, especially with young drinkers. With most of Murakami characters below 30 years of age, they seem to prefer Beer. Most of the characters in Murakami books are from middle class background, with limited means, hence, inexpensive beer becomes the poison of choice. I am sure experience of seeing people drink (and sales) at his venture Peter Cat, would have influenced this choice as well.

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That’s The Way It Goes…

I don’t know if its just me or does everyone gets hassled by a small, inconsequential incident, worthy of 100% ignorance, as it plays havoc on the mind?

It just happened with me.

Just a couple of days back, I met this girl who was a colleague in an organization I worked sometime back. Not that we were thick friends or something, but meeting her has made a big impression in my mind and left me with questions that perhaps, I will not get answers to. I guess I don’t wish to try getting answers either.

This girl was (is?) academically intelligent and smart, but appeared recluse and socially awkward when we worked at this firm. She sported a couple of tattoos that showed and probably more that didn’t. In short, she was straight out of a Murakami story – unusual, aloof, and with a definite air of mystery surrounding her.  My team had a view that she is either an alcoholic or is high on some substance. I didn’t believe so, as I didn’t know how people are supposed to behave or look like when they are high. How naive, you’d say.

Anyway, I never had a real conversation with her (to form my opinion about her) and interactions were limited to work. She was just there, existing in her space and I was too busy minding my own work. Then I had to move on and join a different organization.

Then we met again, some 7 years later and she was completely transformed! She definitely didn’t look stoned – in fact, she has assumed this aura of intelligence and experience. I had hard time believing that she was indeed who she was. So, I went ahead and said hello, and made some small talk about past, present etc. The social awkwardness,  recluse nature is still there. She has changed jobs, a 180 degree shift I’d say, to a job that requires you to stay among people, behave much more socially than the previous role she was working in. The appearance has become what we assume or term as normal.

Since the meeting, I have two thoughts in my mind –

  1. I wish I could have known her better to register or recognize the personality change that has taken place.
  2. Is this life? Turning into what is acceptable or normal as per the set rules of society? From very far, I like her previous self better than the renewed, more acceptable self. I would have been much happier if she would have continued to remain the same.

But then who remains same? We all change, the moment changes and things that are today, will never be same in future. Why do I strive for normalcy, when I know its simply not possible.

Things will change. That’s the way it goes.

Can Optimism Tide Over Pessimism Forever?

Yes, I am a pessimist at the core.

I embrace what’s grim, seek out for the negative aspects and revel in sadness. But, that’s deep within me. The outer orbit around which my core revolves is all shiny, sunny with a positive view of life. I guess if you have to survive in this long journey called life, you need optimism. It seems so ironical, because life is not exactly a happy, fun-filled journey all the time. In fact, most of the time, it is not happy, if not sad. Let’s call that ordinary. Not happy, not sad. Right in the center.

I have heard people say that life is like a sine wave, with troughs and peaks. I guess, that is again an optimistic view, because from where I stand, the peaks are far and few. Life is ordinary to a great degree, followed by sadness with a sprinkle of happiness. What if the ordinary becomes your happiness, and you don’t really care about the real happiness, the peaks in the sine wave that our life is?

That’s grim, I’d say.

“Why must I live?” – quipped a friend. He didn’t say “why should I live?”. If you look closely, there isn’t much difference in the two. The existential dimension in the ‘must’ is hard to ignore for me. I guess ‘should’ is more selfish reason, more to do with failed relationships, career etc. and a micro view of one’s life. Pessimism at its peak, but then everyone around me is not dying or committing suicide. Why?

All thanks to the strong pull of the “orbit of optimism”. Pull that draws its energy from your mind, people around us (who are equally fucked, but appear happy), and the general guidelines of living in a civilized world, being handed over from generation to generation.

There is a continuous, never ending battle between pessimism and optimism everyday. With each morning as I wake up, pessimism loses, only to gear up to come back strongly in the evening or night.

I am closely watching the battle.