“From the beginning it was clear that two principal elements informed Murakami’s fiction: a focus on some internal being or consciousness that worked with the conscious self, sometimes in concert, other times antagonistically; and the nearly constant presence of a magical “other world” in which this internal being operated. As such, there was always a tension between the metaphysical—indeed, the magical—and the psychological in his work.”
When I first encountered the work of Haruki Murakami in 2012, I was drawn into his novels through my love of two of his primary tools: magic realism and parallel narratives. In The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami, Winona State University professor of Japanese literature Matthew Carl Strecher has turned his attention to examining these elements as manifested by Murakami’s use of the Other World within his narratives. Strecher’s exploration gives the reader a clear idea of how the Other World functions and evolves through Murakami’s body of work, including his most recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
Murakami is easily the most famous Japanese writer in North America, and probably the only Japanese writer many of his North American fans have read. As such, Strecher’s deeper knowledge of the culture and language proves invaluable, as he deftly contextualizes Murakami’s position within the larger Japanese literary world. Indeed, though he characterizes Murakami as a global writer, he is more concerned with how Murakami fits—or doesn’t—into the Japanese literary tradition, than with his place amongst other writers of magic realism. Strecher also highlights Japanese literary techniques at play in Murakami’s work that most Western readers will be unfamiliar with, such as michiyuki, a passage or transition in preparation for death. Similarly, the Japanese tradition of perceiving the presence of kami in the world through the sense of hearing can easily be confused for the madness associated with hearing voices by the Western reader.
In addition to acquainting the Western reader with Japanese literary conventions, Strecher also uses the familiar tools, drawing widely from literary theory, ranging from Baudrillard to Barthes to Derrida. Strecher utilizes the psychological theories of Freud and Jung to assist his interpretations, while acknowledging that they are over simple to explain Murakami’s fictions. The Other World is a manifestation of the metaphysical as well as the psychological, and to reduce it to either one is to strip the nuance from Murakami’s explorations of identity.
Given that this is a scholarly monograph and a work of academic criticism, Strecher is not concerned with spoilers, and ranges widely over Murakami’s body of published work. However, this range allows him to identify patterns and progressions in Murakami’s style and themes over the course of his career in a way that a more narrowly focused work would not. For example, Strecher is able to demonstrate how the Other World, an individual space in Murakami’s early works, begins to open up to the collective, and even have consequences for the real world, beginning with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (1994). For Strecher, this seems to be an outgrowth of Murakami’s development from an individualist in a collectivist society into someone who is increasingly concerned with the problems of the society that produced him.
Sweeping and insightful, and distinctly scholarly in tone, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami is most recommended for fans of Murakami who have read most of his work, and perhaps also have some background studying literature and literary theory.
By Haruki Murakami: