‘Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words’ by Jay Rubin (Review)

Jay Rubin is an American academic who is well known for his translations of Japanese literature, including works by Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Natsume Soseki.  However, he is undoubtedly best known in the west for his work on some of Haruki Murakami’s back catalogue, including Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and After Dark.  Not content with just translating Murakami’s fiction however, Rubin, who knows the writer quite well, decided to write a book about the man and his creations – and a good one it is too…

Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is the next logical step for Murakami fans to take when they’ve burned through all of his translated works.  It’s a book which gives an insight into the author’s life while also shedding some light on what it is he is actually trying to say in his writing (something which has puzzled me for a long time…).

We follow Murakami through his less-than-stellar school days and his riot-interrupted time at university, finding out about his early marriage and his years running a jazz club along the way.  He was never a typical Japanese writer, showing little interest in his native literature or culture, preferring instead to experience American novels and jazz (which will come as little surprise to anyone who has read any of his books).  Eventually though, he decided to try his hand at writing – and the rest, as they say, is history…

As interesting as Murakami’s life is though, what we’re really here for is the guided tour through his books, and Rubin is just the man for the job.  He carefully takes the reader through assorted novels, stories and non-fiction pieces in chronological order (which isn’t always the order, or the format, they appeared in overseas), explaining the thought processes behind the books and highlighting connections between the various works – some obvious, others not quite so easy to spot at first glance.

Rubin shows how Murakami was the first of a new breed of writers, one who (unlike his predecessors) was in tune with the new Japan:

“…Murakami has been called the first writer completely at home with the elements of American popular culture that permeate present-day Japan.  He has also been seen as the first genuinely “post-post-war writer”, the first to cast off the “dank, heavy atmosphere” of the post-war period and to capture in literature the new Americanised mood of lightness.” p.17 (Vintage Books, 2005)

As well as this difference in style, Murakami was also a literary outsider in other ways.  He was not a member of any literary group (very unusual for a Japanese author), and his books were initially frowned upon by such heavyweights as Kenzaburo Oe.

However, this difference was not quite as marked as first appears.  His stories, with their typical unresolved endings, are compared to traditional Japanese writers such as Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, and he is also the latest in a long line of writers to enrich Japanese literature through his work in translation (following in the footsteps of Tsubouchi and Futabatei!).  In fact, for those not overly familiar with Murakami, his work as a literary translator may come as a bit of a shock.  According to Rubin, he has translated dozens of American novels and short story collections and has been responsible for a resurgence in the popularity of American literature in Japan.

For me, the most useful part of the book though was the focus on themes in Murakami’s work.  Rubin concentrates very heavily on Murakami’s handling of the subject of memory and its unreliability, claiming that:

“Perhaps no other writer concerned with memory and the difficulty of reclaiming the past – not Kawabata, not even Proust – has succeeded as well as Murakami in capturing the immediacy of the experience of déjà vu.” p.60

While I’m a little dubious about that boast (and in certain blogs I frequent, I’m sure them’s fighting words…), it’s true that the writer is fascinated with the way we see the world and the impossibility of ever knowing the truth about the past and other people.

Rubin also devotes a lot of time to Murakami’s concept of ‘the other place’, the space occupied by the things that are not present in our current location.  Whether it refers to the psyche, an afterlife or another dimension, it’s ever-present in Murakami’s writing, and many of his protagonists are trying to bridge the gap between here and ‘the other place’.  How?  Well, some of you may have noticed that there are a fair few wells, tunnels and corridors in his books…

While I could misinterpret Rubin’s ideas all day, I think I’ll leave the analysis there.  Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words is an excellent book and one I enjoyed immensely.  Still, there are a few issues I’d like to quickly point out.  If you haven’t really read a lot of Murakami, I’m not sure that this is for you.  Part of the fun lies in recognising the stories Rubin is discussing – and there are a lot of them.  I was able to frequently refer to the many books on my Murakami shelf to jog my memory and spent a lot of time rereading certain short stories.  If all you’ve read is Norwegian Wood, leave this one for the future.

Another possible issue is that it doesn’t always pay to see your heroes up close, warts and all.  On the whole, Rubin (a close friend) paints a very favourable picture of the writer (and any mention of his wife Yoko verges on hagiography), but I was a little troubled by a couple of images.  For one thing, his style of writing appears a little haphazard, and he rarely seems to know where he’s going with the books he’s writing.  He could also be accused of writing for the sake of writing as his output is truly phenomenal (and covers all kinds of areas and genres).  For a fan of translated fiction like me though, perhaps the most worrying revelation is that he is comfortable with translations of translations, preferring his work to get to readers quickly, even if it isn’t quite what he wrote in the first place…

Still, nobody’s perfect, and anyone expecting perfection deserves all the disappointments they get.  Readers who set their bar a little lower will have great fun with this book – just don’t blame me if you get hooked on hunting down translated rarities of Murakami’s work…


…speaking of which, I have a little story to tell you 😉

I recently saw a comment on the January in Japan blog where someone signed up for the challenge, and (like a good host) I popped over to check out the blog.  The blogger was Carola of brilliant years, and she had just published a post – one in which a link was given to a translation of a rare Murakami work.  It’s called The Sheep Man’s Christmas, and while the quality of the translation (and the formatting) may leave a little to be desired, it’s still a fun piece of writing with that inimitable Murakami sense of humour.

I was very happy with my unexpected Christmas present, and I’d urge you all to have a look too 🙂


27 thoughts on “‘Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words’ by Jay Rubin (Review)

  1. Alex – I definitely think that you need to know the books Rubin is talking about if you're going to get the most out of this – otherwise, it's just somebody talking about books you haven't read…


  2. Matt – Murakami is a cultural product, and in a way his writings are a combined effort of the original text plus creative translating and editing (which then make a new text). Interestingly, '1Q84' (which got a fairly lukewarm appraisal in the west) was the only one of Murakami's long books which was translated without major cuts…

    I'm not as gushingly admiring of Murakami's writing as I used to be, but every time I read one of his books, I'm reminded about why I've got a whole shelf full of them 🙂

    Thanks for the link – I had heard of this book, and I would definitely like to get another, more distanced, view at some point. As mentioned in the post, Rubin does come across as being inside 'Team Murakami' a little…


  3. I definitely intend to read this book as part of my self-set 'Murakami Challenge'. It's on my shelf waiting 😉 I'm with you in that I'm dubious about that claim from p. 60 (so far I feel Murakami is not really doing that in his works), but otherwise the book sounds great. Translating is such an interesting business so I really want to find out what my favourite author's translator thinks. I'm also curious about the less positive claims about Rubin himself. So far I've read almost everything by Murakami in English so I never really noticed, but I heard the English translations are actually quite poor compared to German and Dutch translations. I'm not one to judge, I love the books in English, but I still plan to find out about that some time 😉

    Have you heard of the Haruki Murakami book by Mark Mussari, in the 'Today's Writers & Their Works' series?


  4. I read this a while ago, I remember enjoying reading about Murakami meeting Carver, (which made me inadvertently track out a few Carver's to read), and also Rubin mentioning, if I remember rightly, that Murakami used to run a website and that he'd used to answer reader's questions personally – can't really visualize that happening now, would be good though!.


  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this book when I read it and agree with you concerning you should have read a few of his works first. Will do my usual shout out that to really understand Murakami you should read his nonfiction work Underground.


  6. Carola – I think by poor, people may mean incomplete. This book gives some insights into how the translations have been managed. If anything, I've heard that Murakami's translators into English make him look good!

    I haven't heard of the Mussari book, but that's another to add to the list – thanks 🙂


  7. me. – I have considered going after Murakami's influences, but as I'm not a huge fan of American lit, it's probably best if I don't 😉

    Amazingly, he answered the e-mails for a few years (and then released many of them in a book!).


  8. I have a falling out with Murakami. I did really like some of his books but not so others. This book is actually on the shelf and I'm interested in the aspects of translation and translation editing/abridgement in it.


  9. Rise – Definitely an interesting read on that front 🙂 In the podcast with Rubin and Philip Gabriel which I pointed to last week, both were sure that '1Q84' should have been edited more…

    I'm a big Murakami fan, but the more I read, the more I see his flaws. However, the good bits (for me) far outweigh the negatives. Having said that, I think the Nobel Prize chances may have come and gone – if '1Q84' had been better received, I don't think Mo Yan would have been celebrating last year 😉


  10. Definitely agree that his English translators make him look good – he's so popular in Japan, no editor will go near his work with a ten-foot pole. Which is probably why 1Q84 is so bloated. And why Wind-Up Bird had to be cut down by Rubin and Gabriel when they came to translating it.


  11. Anything that has a stamp about Murakami I'll read it. But this sounds a little confusing and also translating a translation feels overdone. I'd rather hear it from Murakami what those tunnels and wells signify though. Difficult to get this one at the public library. May have to resort to purchasing it.


  12. Jo – Definitely worth a read, especially if you've read a lot of Murakami's work. It is a book which gives you an insight into what Murakami is doing in his writing – that is, if you want to know 😉


  13. @owl59 here.i. just wanted to show off that I, bring a murakami fan from Japan, enjoyed his website very much while it was around.


  14. @owl59 – Lucky you! This was the first I'd heard of it. It's not surprising that he eventually had to give it up – I have enough trouble keeping up with replies to my blog comments 😉


  15. Thanks for the comments! I had heard this before. Sounds like I really have to pick up Rubin's book.

    I checked out the Dutch edition of the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (after reading The Bakery Attacks in Dutch I am really beginning to appreciate the Dutch translators) and it has approximately 250 more pages than any English edition… I wonder if that means it's more complete. I'm definitely tempted to read that one as opposed to the English version.
    Translations are an interesting case for sure.


  16. Carola – The explanation I read (and heard in a podcast) is that originally 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' was published much like '1Q84' was in Japan – i.e. Books 1 & 2 together, followed by Book 3 a year later. Apparently, Book 3 consisted of a lot of 'here's what's happened so far' information, and for the English (single-volume) version it was heavily edited. And Rubin had a strict 600-page limit! By the time '1Q84' came around, Murakami was famous enough for the book to be translated in its entirety…

    I have a feeling that both approaches are wrong. The Japanese refusal to edit can't be good, but chopping out hundreds of pages doesn't sound great either. Perhaps there's a healthy middle somewhere…


  17. Interesting interesting! And I must say I completely agree with you. To be honest, one thing that bothered me about 1Q84 is that it kept repeating information, especially in Book 1 (he kept describing Tengo's earliest memory over and over and over, for example). I guess it's clear that that book was translated completely…

    The more I hear, the more I want to pick up Rubin's book early. But I feel I should at least read Murakami's 'more popular works' (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore especially) first.


  18. Thanks for posting about this book – I've never come across it before and it sounds so interesting. I hardly know anything about Murakami's life, but this seems like a good place to start.


  19. Lucy – Definitely a good one to start with (provided you've read a lot of his stuff). I would like a second opinion though, so I may look for one of the others that have been mentioned in the comments 🙂


  20. I think I have to get this. Thanks for introducing! I have read six Murakamis, currently plowing my way through 1Q84. For me his writing talents are really second rate, it's the general atmosphere of his works that draws in. (Doesn't mean I'd say no to good writing and some editing here and there, of course!)


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