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Literature Reading: Murakami Delights Large Audience in Rare Reading

Cambridge Police Foiled by Throngs of Adoring Fans

By Benjamin P. Gleitzman

Haruki Murakami

Sponsored by Program in Writing
And Humanistic Studies

Thursday, Oct. 6, 2005

10-250, 7 p.m.

Last Thursday night, in the blazing heat of MIT’s 10-250 lecture hall, world-renowned novelist, essayist, translator, and nonfiction writer Haruki Murakami addressed an adoring crowd, whose members had come from as far as Virginia to hear him speak. The turnout for the lecture was astonishing, boasting enough warm bodies to fill the hall twice over. Eventually, the MIT Police had to be called in to remove the throngs who had gathered in the hallways, aisles, and waiting rooms surrounding 10-250, refusing to leave after being denied a seat. While introducing Murakami and referring to the forced removal of some audience members from the lecture hall, Professor Junot Diaz from the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies commented, “That’s some cold shit, right?”

Murakami, born in Kyoto in 1949, is not known for giving many public readings. Had it not been for the thunderous applause, few would have thought of the small, quiet man clad in a green t-shirt with a pickle on the front, khaki pants, New Balance shoes, and a light sports jacket as one of the most praised living authors of our day. Taking his place at the podium, Murakami banished any tensions caused by the police removals by offering, “We should have used Fenway Park.”

Murakami, in true form, was both amicable and entertaining. Through a stiff Japanese accent, he spoke of his life in Japan both before and after being placed in the limelight as an accomplished writer. “I didn’t think I had a gift for writing,” Murakami said of his earlier years. After working in a record store and later running a jazz bar in Tokyo for a number of years, Murakami published his first book, “Hear the Wind Sing,” at the age of 30. “One day, at a baseball park in Tokyo, I knew I could write,” he said.

This publication was followed by “Pinball 1973,” “A Wild Sheep Chase,” the story of a detective who follows a man through 1980s Tokyo, and “Hardboiled Wonderland,” which presents a futuristic world where information is controlled by the Calcutecs and the Semiotecs. Murakami finally achieved breakout success with “Norwegian Wood,” a story of sexuality and loss that sold millions of copies in Japan.

Murakami shunned the spotlight, leaving Japan for the United States in 1986. He continued to write, publishing “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “South of the Border, West of the Sun,” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” arguably his greatest work, which earned him the coveted Yomiyuri Literary Award.

Murakami then tried his hand at nonfiction, publishing “Underground,” a nonfiction story recalling the events following the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack, and “After the Quake,” a collection of stories inspired by the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995. His newest book, “Kafka on the Shore,” splits many of his previous themes, mystical events, and fantastic stories between the two main characters, Kafka Tamura, whose story is told in the odd-numbered chapters, and Satoru Nakata, an old man whose story unfolds in the even-numbered chapters.

Murakami’s work is often characterized by tragedy, centering on main characters who do not fit into the mold of everyday life and are forced to look outside their ordinary existence. Recurring themes are present throughout all of Murakami’s work, including subterranean settings, wells, cats, and mysticism that often blurs into science fiction.

Continuing with his lecture, Murakami read a selection from “After the Quake” entitled “Superfrog Saves Tokyo.” He began with a small section in rapid-fire Japanese before starting over in English. After a few pages, he stopped reading and another man took over to finish the piece. The audience was captivated throughout the tale involving a six-foot, Joseph Conrad-quoting, highly articulate frog who visits a security trust officer of a Shinjuku bank to inform him that he will be the one to fight Worm and save Tokyo from a major earthquake.

Murakami’s work has been described as accessible, but foreign readers may feel hampered by editions that have been translated into English, as well as Chinese, Korean, Hindi, Thai, French, and German, to name a few. When asked about his translated editions, Murakami said, “I enjoy them very much. I don’t reread my [Japanese] stories. When I read the English, it is exciting.”

Throughout his talk, Murakami exuded a palpable air of confidence. “This is my world. It’s unpredictable,” said Murakami against those who call his stories outlandish. Despite his critics, who have followed Murakami since his earlier days of writing, the author remains confident in his work. “If you don’t like my books, you don’t have to feel guilty,” he said with a smile. “You just have a brain disease.”

Murakami finished his address with a short question and answer period, during which the audience remained seated to hear the final remarks. “I write books. Some like it, some don’t like it. Some don’t care. That mantra helps. I don’t mind.” A man propelled by his own beliefs and ideals, Murakami has proven himself as a truly unique Japanese writer.