75 at 75: Elif Batuman on Haruki Murakami
A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Elif Batuman writes about a reading of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Murakami reads in Japanese and English, with other English excerpts read by Jonathan Levi. It was recorded live at 92Y on October 26, 1998.
Posted on Jan 31, 2014
I first discovered Haruki Murakami in 1994, when I was in high school. In those days, there was no internet, and people often learned about new writers by going to bookstores. I lived in New Jersey, with no bookstore in walking distance and no public transport. But every Saturday, before she headed to her lab in Brooklyn, my mother would drop me off for a day of classes at the Manhattan School of Music. During breaks I would stash my violin under a chair and go out to walk among the tiny little Upper West Side dogs in their tiny little sweaters, so different from the dogs in New Jersey, which were so frequently golden retrievers.
The Barnard College bookstore, a couple of blocks down on Broadway, was my first university bookstore, full of books the likes of which I had never imagined, with titles like S/Z and Signsponge. I always ended up in the fiction section, drawn to the handful of fateful writers I happened to know as a teenager and with whom I am therefore stuck for life—what Mandelstam called the “irremediable” authors of youth. There was Iris Murdoch, in orange-spined Penguin editions and Vladimir Nabokov in the recently redesigned Vintage International paperbacks, with the titles printed in compact, minimalist block caps. Few objects looked cooler to me than the Vintage Lolita, a book I couldn’t buy because my mother had a 1980s copy at home. It’s hard to remember now how much cooler the 1990s seemed than the 1980s, how much more global.
I noticed Murakami because he was proximate to Murdoch and looked similar to Nabokov, in the same Vintage International bindings. The titles—A Wild Sheep Chase, Dance Dance Dance, The Elephant Vanishes —didn’t look the least bit whimsical because of the hardboiled woodblocky typeface. I opened Dance Dance Dance at random, expecting to be disappointed, but after just a few sentences I was in love with the tone, which was matter-of-fact, even-tempered, but still humorous in the alienated way I valued above all things. You don’t hear Murakami described as a humorist, but I honestly think he’s one of the funniest novelists working today.
When The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle came out in English, I was in college—at Harvard, where the novel had actually been completed some years earlier. Suddenly Murakami was famous in America. I was happy, though also slightly irritated: why did people take him seriously only after he wrote a thick novel set partly during the Second World War? Couldn’t you be a great writer writing odd novels about sheep?
When I myself started to get serious about writing, Murakami was the author I reread the most, especially Wind-Up Bird. The style counteracted certain tendencies I wanted to get rid of in my own and always put me in a calm, interested mood. I felt very lucky when I received this recording from 1998, of Murakami himself reading from his novel, which had just been published.
I listened to it on headphones, early in the New Year, while walking up Second Avenue through some particularly wet snow—I’m back in New York again for the first time in many years. From his first words, a four-syllable “Good evening,” I was unable to hold back a demented smile. It was crazy weather. Giant snowflakes seemed to flop against my face like wet moths. Murakami’s voice was deeper and more nasal than I had imagined (maybe he had a cold), his English less assured, though there was a quality of resignation that seemed somehow characteristic. “It is almost important—almost impossible to explain,” he said, having momentarily confused “important” and “impossible.” He was right: it was important and impossible. He read the same short excerpt, first in Japanese, then in English. It was wonderful to hear him in Japanese, like watching a penguin dive into the water. I recognized only the characters’ names, “spaghetti” and “moshi moshi.” Furthermore, it occurred to me that, although I knew Japanese people said “moshi moshi” when they answered the phone, I didn’t know what the phrase meant. From Google I learned that Japanese folklore holds the word moshi to be unpronounceable by foxes. Therefore the otherwise meaningless phrase moshi moshi coming over the telephone lets you know that, whatever other problems the call might hold in store for you, at least you aren’t dealing with a spirit-fox.
As soon as Murakami began to read in English, I felt myself slip into the special atmosphere of the first part of the novel, the atmosphere of being at home in the daytime, fielding mysterious phone calls—the kind of calls that only came on home landlines during the daytime, the kind of calls nobody gets anymore—and making sandwiches (“cutlery drawer”: six syllables). There were a few sentences I remembered by heart—“‘I see,’ she said, without a hint of envy”; “‘Right again,’ I said, with admirable patience”; “I knew the names of all the brothers Karamazov”—and so, because it’s OK now to walk around talking to yourself with headphones on, I just went ahead and said them aloud.
At a certain point, Murakami abruptly stopped reading, the way a cat abruptly stops what it’s doing and goes off to do something else, and an American took over. The American read with more ease and more distance. “This meaningless response hovered in the air over the table like the island in Gulliver’s Travels,” I recited under my breath, in synchrony with my countryman. What an amazing sentence.
To my surprise, the reading ended right there. It just stopped. That’s not the end of the chapter!, I thought, like a kid on whom somebody had pulled a fast one. But when I thought about it, the unexpected ending seemed appropriate. It fit with the theme of disappearances.
Elif Batuman is author of The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.