I prepared for my first-ever trip to Japan, this summer, almost entirely by immersing myself in the work of Haruki Murakami. This turned out to be a horrible idea. Under the influence of Murakami, I arrived in Tokyo expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin — a cosmopolitan world capital whose straight-talking citizens were fluent not only in English but also in all the nooks and crannies of Western culture: jazz, theater, literature, sitcoms, film noir, opera, rock ’n’ roll. But this, as really anyone else in the world could have told you, is not what Japan is like at all. Japan — real, actual, visitable Japan — turned out to be intensely, inflexibly, unapologetically Japanese.
This lesson hit me, appropriately, underground. On my first morning in Tokyo, on the way to Murakami’s office, I descended into the subway with total confidence, wearing a freshly ironed shirt — and then immediately became terribly lost and could find no English speakers to help me, and eventually (having missed trains and bought lavishly expensive wrong tickets and gestured furiously at terrified commuters) I ended up surfacing somewhere in the middle of the city, already extremely late for my interview, and then proceeded to wander aimlessly, desperately, in every wrong direction at once (there are few street signs, it turns out, in Tokyo) until finally Murakami’s assistant Yuki had to come and find me, sitting on a bench in front of a honeycombed-glass pyramid that looked, in my time of despair, like the sinister temple of some death-cult of total efficiency.
And so I was baptized by Tokyo’s underground. I had always assumed — naively, Americanly — that Murakami was a faithful representative of modern Japanese culture, at least in his more realist moods. It became clear to me down there, however, that he is different from the writer I thought he was, and Japan is a different place — and the relationship between the two is far more complicated than I ever could have guessed from the safe distance of translation.
One protagonist of Murakami’s new novel, “1Q84,” is tormented by his first memory to such an extent that he makes a point of asking everyone he meets about their own. When I met Murakami, finally, in his Tokyo office, I made a point of asking him what his own first memory was. When he was 3, he told me, he managed somehow to walk out the front door of his house all by himself. He tottered across the road, then fell into a creek. The water swept him downstream toward a dark and terrible tunnel. Just as he was about to enter it, however, his mother reached down and saved him. “I remember it very clearly,” he said. “The coldness of the water and the darkness of the tunnel — the shape of that darkness. It’s scary. I think that’s why I’m attracted to darkness.” As Murakami described this memory, I felt a strange internal joggling that I couldn’t quite place — it felt like déjà vu crossed with the spiritual equivalent of having to sneeze. It struck me that I had heard this memory before, or, eerily, that I was somehow remembering the memory myself, firsthand. Only much later did I realize that I was, indeed, remembering the memory: Murakami had transferred it to one of his very minor characters near the beginning of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.”
That first visit to Murakami took place on a muggy midmorning, midweek, in the middle of an impossibly difficult summer for Japan — a summer spent trying to deal, here in reality, with the aftermath of a seemingly unreal disaster. The tsunami hit the northern coast four months before, killing 20,000 people, destroying entire towns, causing a partial nuclear meltdown and plunging the country into a handful of simultaneous crises: energy, public health, media, politics. (When the prime minister stepped down recently, it made him the fifth in five years to do so.) I had come to speak with Murakami, Japan’s leading novelist, about the translation into English (and also French, Thai, Spanish, Hebrew, Latvian, Turkish, German, Portuguese, Swedish, Czech, Russian and Catalan) of his massive “1Q84” — a book that has already sold millions of copies across Asia and generated serious Nobel Prize chatter in most of the languages in which it is not yet even available. At age 62, three decades into his career, Murakami has established himself as the unofficial laureate of Japan — arguably its chief imaginative ambassador, in any medium, to the world: the primary source, for many millions of readers, of the texture and shape of his native country.
This, no doubt, comes as an enormous surprise to everyone involved.
Murakami has always considered himself an outsider in his own country. He was born into one of the strangest sociopolitical environments in history: Kyoto in 1949 — the former imperial capital of Japan in the middle of America’s postwar occupation. “It would be difficult to find another cross-cultural moment,” the historian John W. Dower has written of late-1940s Japan, “more intense, unpredictable, ambiguous, confusing, and electric than this one.” Substitute “fiction” for “moment” in that sentence and you have a perfect description of Murakami’s work. The basic structure of his stories — ordinary life lodged between incompatible worlds — is also the basic structure of his first life experience.
Murakami grew up, mostly, in the suburbs surrounding Kobe, an international port defined by the din of many languages. As a teenager, he immersed himself in American culture, especially hard-boiled detective novels and jazz. He internalized their attitude of cool rebellion, and in his early 20s, instead of joining the ranks of a large corporation, Murakami grew out his hair and his beard, married against his parents’ wishes, took out a loan and opened a jazz club in Tokyo called Peter Cat. He spent nearly 10 years absorbed in the day-to-day operations of the club: sweeping up, listening to music, making sandwiches and mixing drinks deep into the night.
His career as a writer began in classic Murakami style: out of nowhere, in the most ordinary possible setting, a mystical truth suddenly descended upon him and changed his life forever. Murakami, age 29, was sitting in the outfield at his local baseball stadium, drinking a beer, when a batter — an American transplant named Dave Hilton — hit a double. It was a normal-enough play, but as the ball flew through the air, an epiphany struck Murakami. He realized, suddenly, that he could write a novel. He had never felt a serious desire to do so before, but now it was overwhelming. And so he did: after the game, he went to a bookstore, bought a pen and some paper and over the next couple of months produced “Hear the Wind Sing,” a slim, elliptical tale of a nameless 21-year-old narrator, his friend called the Rat and a four-fingered woman. Nothing much happens, but the Murakami voice is there from the start: a strange broth of ennui and exoticism. In just 130 pages, the book manages to reference a thorough cross-section of Western culture: “Lassie,” “The Mickey Mouse Club,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “California Girls,” Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the French director Roger Vadim, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley, the cartoon bird Woodstock, Sam Peckinpah and Peter, Paul and Mary. That’s just a partial list, and the book contains (at least in its English translation) not a single reference to a work of Japanese art in any medium. This tendency in Murakami’s work rankles some Japanese critics to this day.
Murakami submitted “Hear the Wind Sing” for a prestigious new writers’ prize and won. After another year and another novel — this one featuring a possibly sentient pinball machine — Murakami sold his jazz club in order to devote himself, full time, to writing.
“Full time,” for Murakami, means something different from what it does for most people. For 30 years now, he has lived a monkishly regimented life, each facet of which has been precisely engineered to help him produce his work. He runs or swims long distances almost every day, eats a healthful diet, goes to bed around 9 p.m. and wakes up, without an alarm, around 4 a.m. — at which point he goes straight to his desk for five to six hours of concentrated writing. (Sometimes he wakes up as early as 2.) He thinks of his office, he told me, as a place of confinement — “but voluntary confinement, happy confinement.”
“Concentration is one of the happiest things in my life,” he said. “If you cannot concentrate, you are not so happy. I’m not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years. I don’t get bored. I’m kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I’m always hot.”
That daily boiling has produced, over time, one of the world’s most distinctive bodies of work: three decades of addictive weirdness that falls into an oddly fascinating hole between genres (sci-fi, fantasy, realist, hard-boiled) and cultures (Japan, America), a hole that no writer has ever explored before, or at least nowhere near this deep. Over the years, Murakami’s novels have tended to grow longer and more serious — the sitcom references have given way, for the most part, to symphonies — and now, after a particularly furious and sustained boil, he has produced his longest, strangest, most serious book yet.
Murakami speaks excellent English in a slow, deep voice. He dislikes, he told me, speaking through a translator. His accent is strong — inflections would rise dramatically or drop off suddenly just when I was expecting them to hold steady — and yet only rarely did we have trouble understanding each other. Certain colloquialisms (“I guess”; “like that”) cycled in and out of his speech in slightly odd positions. I got the sense that he enjoyed being out of his linguistic element: there’s a touch of improvisational fun in his English. We sat at a table in his office in Tokyo, the headquarters of what he refers to half-jokingly as Murakami Industries. A small staff buzzed around, shoelessly, in the other rooms. Murakami wore blue shorts and a short-sleeve button-up shirt that appeared to have been — like many of his characters’ shirts — recently ironed. (He loves ironing.) He was barefoot. He drank black coffee out of a mug featuring the Penguin cover of Raymond Chandler’s “Big Sleep” — one of his first literary loves, and a novel he is currently translating into Japanese.
As we began to talk, I set my advance copy of “1Q84” on the table between us. Murakami seemed genuinely alarmed. The book is 932 pages long and nearly a foot tall — the size of an extremely serious piece of legislation.
“It’s so big,” Murakami said. “It’s like a telephone directory.”
This, apparently, was Murakami’s first look at the American version of the book, which, as tends to happen in such cultural exchanges, has been slightly denatured. In Japan, “1Q84” came out in three separate volumes over two years. (Murakami originally ended the novel after Book 2 and then decided, a year later, to add several hundred more pages.) In America, it has been supersized into a single-volume monolith and positioned as the literary event of the fall. You can watch a fancy book trailer for it on YouTube, and some bookstores are planning to stay open until midnight on its release date, Oct. 25. Knopf was in such a hurry to get the book into English that they split the job between two translators, each of whom worked on separate parts.
I asked Murakami if he intended to write such a big book. He said no: that if he’d known how long it would turn out to be, he might not have started at all. He tends to begin a piece of fiction with only a title or an opening image (in this case he had both) and then just sits at his desk, morning after morning, improvising until it’s done. “1Q84,” he said, held him prisoner for three years.
This giant book, however, grew from the tiniest of seeds. According to Murakami, “1Q84” is just an amplification of one of his most popular short stories, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning,” which (in its English version) is five pages long. “Basically, it’s the same,” he told me. “A boy meets a girl. They have separated and are looking for each other. It’s a simple story. I just made it long.”
“1Q84” is not, actually, a simple story. Its plot may not even be fully summarizable — at least not in the space of a magazine article, written in human language, on this astral plane. It begins at a dead stop: a young woman named Aomame (it means “green peas”) is stuck in a taxi, in a traffic jam, on one of the elevated highways that circle the outskirts of Tokyo. A song comes over the taxi’s radio: a classical piece called the“Sinfonietta,” by the Czechoslovakian composer Leos Janacek — “probably not the ideal music,” Murakami writes, “to hear in a taxi caught in traffic.” And yet it resonates with her on some mysterious level. As the “Sinfonietta” plays and the taxi idles, the driver finally suggests to Aomame an unusual escape route. The elevated highways, he tells her, are studded with emergency pullouts; in fact, there happens to be one just ahead. These pullouts, he says, have secret stairways to the street that most people aren’t aware of. If she is truly desperate she could probably manage to climb down one of these. As Aomame considers this, the driver suddenly issues a very Murakami warning. “Please remember,” he says, “things are not what they seem.” If she goes down, he warns, her world might suddenly change forever.
She does, and it does. The world Aomame descends into has a subtly different history, and there are also — less subtly — two moons. (The appointment she’s late for, by the way, turns out to be an assassination.) There is also a tribe of magical beings called the Little People who emerge, one evening, from the mouth of a dead, blind goat (long story), expand themselves from the size of a tadpole to the size of a prairie dog and then, while chanting “ho ho” in unison, start plucking white translucent threads out of the air in order to weave a big peanut-shaped orb called an “air chrysalis.” This is pretty much the baseline of craziness in “1Q84.” About halfway through, the book launches itself to such rarefied supernatural heights (a levitating clock, mystical sex-paralysis) that I found myself drawing exclamation points all over the margins.
For decades now, Murakami has been talking about working himself up to write what he calls a “comprehensive novel” — something on the scale of “The Brothers Karamazov,” one of his artistic touchstones. (He has read the book four times.) This seems to be what he has attempted with “1Q84”: a grand, third-person, all-encompassing meganovel. It is a book full of anger and violence and disaster and weird sex and strange new realities, a book that seems to want to hold all of Japan inside of it — a book that, even despite its occasional awkwardness (or maybe even because of that awkwardness), makes you marvel, reading it, at all the strange folds a single human brain can hold.
I told Murakami that I was surprised to discover, after so many surprising books, that he managed to surprise me again. As usual, he took no credit, claiming to be just a boring old vessel for his imagination.
“The Little People came suddenly,” he said. “I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what it means. I was a prisoner of the story. I had no choice. They came, and I described it. That is my work.”
I asked Murakami, whose work is so often dreamlike, if he himself has vivid dreams. He said he could never remember them — he wakes up and there’s just nothing. The only dream he remembers from the last couple of years, he said, is a recurring nightmare that sounds a lot like a Haruki Murakami story. In the dream, a shadowy, unknown figure is cooking him what he calls “weird food”: snake-meat tempura, caterpillar pie and (an instant classic of Japanese dream-cuisine) rice with tiny pandas in it. He doesn’t want to eat it, but in the dream world he feels compelled to. He wakes up just before he takes a bite.
On our second day together, Murakami and I climbed into the backseat of his car and took a ride to his seaside home. One of his assistants, a stylish woman slightly younger than Aomame, drove us over Tokyo on the actual elevated highway from which Aomame makes her fateful descent in “1Q84.” The car stereo was playing Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Old Dan Tucker,” a classic piece of darkly surrealist Americana. (“Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man/Washed his face in a frying pan/Combed his hair with a wagon wheel/And died with a toothache in his heel.”)
As we drove, Murakami pointed out the emergency pullouts he had in mind when he wrote that opening scene. (He was stuck here in traffic, he said, just like Aomame, when the idea struck him.) Then he undertook an existentially complicated task: he tried to pinpoint, very precisely, on the actual highway, the spot where the fictional Aomame would have climbed down into a new world. “She was going from Yoga to Shibuya,” he said, looking out the car window. “So it was probably right here.” Then he turned to me and added, as if to remind us both: “But it’s not real.” Still, he looked back through the window and continued as if he were describing something that had actually happened. “Yes,” he said, pointing. “This is where she went down.” We were passing a building called the Carrot Tower, not far from a skyscraper that looked as if it had giant screws sticking into it. Then Murakami turned back to me and added, as if the thought had just occurred to him again: “But it’s not real.”
Murakami’s fiction has a special way of leaking into reality. During my five days in Japan, I found that I was less comfortable in actual Tokyo than I was in Murakami’s Tokyo — the real city filtered through the imaginative lens of his books. I spent as much time in that world as possible. I went to a baseball game at Jingu Stadium — the site of Murakami’s epiphany — and stood high up in the frenzy of the bleachers, paying special attention every time someone hit a double. (The closest I got to my own epiphany was when I shot an edamame bean straight down my throat and almost choked.) I went for a long run on Murakami’s favorite Tokyo running route, the Jingu-Gaien, while listening to his favorite running music, the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and Eric Clapton’s 2001 album “Reptile.” My hotel was near Shinjuku Station, the transportation hub around which “1Q84” pivots, and I drank coffee and ate curry at its characters’ favorite meeting place, the Nakamuraya cafe. I went to a Denny’s at midnight — the scene of the opening of Murakami’s novel “After Dark” — and eavesdropped on Tokyoites over French toast and bubble tea. I became hyperaware, as I wandered around, of the things Murakami novels are hyperaware of: incidental music, ascents and descents, the shapes of people’s ears.
In doing all of this I was joining a long line of Murakami pilgrims. People have published cookbooks based on the meals described in his novels and assembled endless online playlists of the music his characters listen to. Murakami told me, with obvious delight, that a company in Korea has organized “Kafka on the Shore” tour groups in Western Japan, and that his Polish translator is putting together a “1Q84”-themed travel guide to Tokyo.
Sometimes the tourism even crosses metaphysical boundaries. Murakami often hears from readers who have “discovered” his inventions in the real world: a restaurant or a shop that he thought he made up, they report, actually exists in Tokyo. In Sapporo, there are now apparently multiple Dolphin Hotels — an establishment Murakami invented in “A Wild Sheep Chase.” After publishing “1Q84,” Murakami received a letter from a family with the surname “Aomame,” a name so improbable (remember: “green peas”) he thought he invented it. He sent them a signed copy of the book. The kicker is that all of this — fiction leaking into reality, reality leaking into fiction — is what most of Murakami’s fiction (including, especially, “1Q84”) is all about. He is always shuttling us back and forth between worlds.
This calls to mind the act of translation — shuttling from one world to another — which is in many ways the key to understanding Murakami’s work. He has consistently denied being influenced by Japanese writers; he even spoke, early in his career, about escaping “the curse of Japanese.” Instead, he formed his literary sensibilities as a teenager by obsessively reading Western novelists: the classic Europeans (Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Dickens) but especially a cluster of 20th-century Americans whom he has read over and over throughout his life — Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut. When Murakami sat down to write his first novel, he struggled until he came up with an unorthodox solution: he wrote the book’s opening in English, then translated it back into Japanese. This, he says, is how he found his voice. Murakami’s longstanding translator, Jay Rubin, told me that a distinctive feature of Murakami’s Japanese is that it often reads, in the original, as if it has been translated from English.
You could even say that translation is the organizing principle of Murakami’s work: that his stories are not only translated but about translation. The signature pleasure of a Murakami plot is watching a very ordinary situation (riding an elevator, boiling spaghetti, ironing a shirt) turn suddenly extraordinary (a mysterious phone call, a trip down a magical well, a conversation with a Sheep Man) — watching a character, in other words, being dropped from a position of existential fluency into something completely foreign and then being forced to mediate, awkwardly, between those two realities. A Murakami character is always, in a sense, translating between radically different worlds: mundane and bizarre, natural and supernatural, country and city, male and female, overground and underground. His entire oeuvre, in other words, is the act of translation dramatized.
Back in the backseat of Murakami’s car, we left Tokyo and entered its exurbs. We passed numerous corporate headquarters, as well as a love hotel shaped like a giant boat. After an hour or so, the landscape thickened and rose, and we arrived at Murakami’s house, a nice but ordinary-looking two-story structure in a leafy, hilly neighborhood halfway between the mountains and the sea.
I exchanged my shoes for slippers, and Murakami took me upstairs to his office — the voluntary cell in which he wrote most of “1Q84.” This is also, not coincidentally, the home of his vast record collection. (He guesses that he has around 10,000 but says he’s too scared to count.) The office’s two long walls were covered from floor to ceiling with albums, all neatly shelved in plastic sleeves. Presiding over the end of the room, under a high bank of windows that looked out onto the mountains, were two huge stereo speakers. The room’s other shelves held mementos of Murakami’s life and work: a mug featuring Johnnie Walker, the whisky icon whom he re-imagined as a murderous villain in “Kafka on the Shore”; a photo of himself looking miserable while finishing his fastest marathon ever (1991, New York City, 3:31:27). On the walls were a photo of Raymond Carver, a poster of Glenn Gould and some small paintings of important jazz figures, including Murakami’s favorite musician of all time, the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.
I asked if we could listen to a record, and Murakami put on Janacek’s “Sinfonietta,” the song that kicks off, and then periodically haunts, the narrative of “1Q84.” It is, as the book suggests, truly the worst possible music for a traffic jam: busy, upbeat, dramatic — like five normal songs fighting for supremacy inside an empty paint can. This makes it the perfect theme for the frantic, lumpy, violent adventure of “1Q84.” Shouting over the music, Murakami told me that he chose the “Sinfonietta” precisely for its weirdness. “Just once I heard that music in a concert hall,” he said. “There were 15 trumpeters behind the orchestra. Strange. Very strange… . And that weirdness fits very well in this book. I cannot imagine what other kind of music is fitting so well in this story.” He said he listened to the song, over and over, as he wrote the opening scene. “I chose the ‘Sinfonietta’ because that is not a popular music at all. But after I published this book, the music became popular in this country… . Mr. Seiji Ozawa thanked me. His record has sold well.”
When the “Sinfonietta” ended, I asked him if he could remember the first record he ever bought. He stood up, rummaged around one of his shelves and produced, for my inspection, “The Many Sides of Gene Pitney.” Its cover featured a glamour shot of Pitney, an early-’60s American crooner, wearing a spotted ascot and a lush red jacket. His hair looked like a cresting wave frozen into shape. Murakami said he bought the record in Kobe when he was 13. (This was a replacement copy; he wore the original out decades ago.) He dropped the needle and played Pitney’s first big hit, “Town Without Pity,” a dramatic, horn-filled vamp in which Pitney voices a young lover crooning an apocalyptic cry for help: “The young have problems, many problems/We need an understanding heart/Why don’t they help us, try to help us/Before this clay and granite planet falls apart?”
Murakami lifted the needle as soon as it was over. “A silly song,” he said.
The title of “1Q84” is a joke: an Orwell reference that hinges on a multilingual pun. (In Japanese, the number 9 is pronounced like the English letter Q.)
I asked Murakami if he reread “1984” while writing “1Q84.” He said he did, and it was boring. (Not that this is necessarily bad; at one point I asked him why he liked baseball. “Because it’s boring,” he said.)
“Most near-future fictions are boring,” he told me. “It’s always dark and always raining, and people are so unhappy. I like what Cormac McCarthy wrote, ‘The Road’ — it’s very well written… . But still it’s boring. It’s dark, and the people are eating people… . George Orwell’s ‘1984’ is near-future fiction, but this is near-past fiction,” he said of “1Q84.” “We are looking at the same year from the opposite side. If it’s near past, it’s not boring.”
I asked him if he felt any kinship with Orwell.
“I guess we have a common feeling against the system,” Murakami said. “George Orwell is half journalist, half fiction writer. I’m 100 percent fiction writer… . I don’t want to write messages. I want to write good stories. I think of myself as a political person, but I don’t state my political messages to anybody.”
And yet Murakami has, uncharacteristically, stated his political messages very loudly over the last couple of years. In 2009, he made a controversial visit to Israel to accept the prestigious Jerusalem Prize and used the occasion to speak out about Israel and Palestine. This summer, he used an awards ceremony in Barcelona as a platform to criticize Japan’s nuclear industry. He called Fukushima Daiichi the second nuclear disaster in the history of Japan, but the first that was entirely self-inflicted.
When I asked him about his Barcelona speech, he modified his percentages slightly.
“I am 99 percent a fiction writer and 1 percent a citizen,” he said. “As a citizen I have things to say, and when I have to do it, I do it clearly. At that point, nobody said no against nuclear-power plants. So I think I should do it. It’s my responsibility.” He said that the response to his speech, in Japan, was mostly positive — that people hoped, as he did, that the horror of the tsunami could be a catalyst for reform. “I think many Japanese people think this is a turning point for our country,” he said. “It was a nightmare, but still it’s a good chance to change. After 1945, we have been working so hard and getting rich. But that kind of thing doesn’t continue anymore. We have to change our values. We have to think about how we can get happy. It’s not about money. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about discipline and purpose. What I wanted to say is what I’ve been saying since 1968: we have to change the system. I think this is a time when we have to be idealistic again.”
I asked him what that idealism looked like, if he perhaps saw the United States as a model.
“I don’t think people think of America as a model anymore,” he said. “We don’t have any model at this moment. We have to establish the new model.”
The defining disasters of modern Japan — the subway sarin-gas attack, the Kobe earthquake, the recent tsunami — are, to an amazing extent, Murakami disasters: spasms of underground violence, deep unseen trauma that manifests itself as massive destruction to daily life on the surface. He is notoriously obsessed with metaphors of depth: characters climbing down empty wells to enter secret worlds or encountering dark creatures underneath Tokyo’s subway tunnels. (He once told an interviewer that he had to stop himself from using well imagery, after his eighth novel, because the frequency of it was starting to embarrass him.) He imagines his own creativity in terms of depth as well. Every morning at his desk, during his trance of total focus, Murakami becomes a Murakami character: an ordinary man who spelunks the caverns of his creative unconscious and faithfully reports what he finds.
“I live in Tokyo,” he told me, “a kind of civilized world — like New York or Los Angeles or London or Paris. If you want to find a magical situation, magical things, you have to go deep inside yourself. So that is what I do. People say it’s magic realism — but in the depths of my soul, it’s just realism. Not magical. While I’m writing, it’s very natural, very logical, very realistic and reasonable.”
Murakami insists that, when he’s not writing, he is an absolutely ordinary man — his creativity, he says, is a “black box” to which he has no conscious access. He tends to shy away from the media and is always surprised when a reader wants to shake his hand on the street. He says he much prefers to listen to other people talk — and indeed, he is known as a kind of Studs Terkel in Japan. After the 1995 sarin-gas attacks, Murakami spent a year interviewing 65 victims and perpetrators; he published the results in an enormous two-volume book, which was translated into English, heavily abridged, as “Underground.”
At the end of our time together, Murakami took me for a run. (“Most of what I know about writing,” he has written, “I’ve learned through running every day.”) His running style is an extension of his personality: easy, steady, matter of fact. After a minute or two, after we found our mutual stride, Murakami asked if I would like to start with something he referred to only as the Hill. The way he said it sounded like a challenge, a warning. Soon I understood his tone, because we were suddenly climbing it, the Hill — not exactly running anymore but stumbling in place at a serious tilt, the earth an angled treadmill underneath us. As we inched our way toward the end of the road, I turned to Murakami and said, “That was a big hill.” At which point he gestured to indicate that we had only reached the first of many switchbacks. After awhile, as our breathing turned more and more ragged, I started to wonder, pessimistically, if the switchbacks would never end, if we had entered some Murakami world of endless elevation: ascent, ascent, ascent. But then, finally, we reached the top. We could see the sea far below us: the vast secret water world, fully mapped but uninhabitable, stretching between Japan and America. Its surface looked calm, from where we stood, that day.
And then we started running down. Murakami led me through his village, past the surf shop on the main street, past a row of fishermen’s houses (he pointed out a traditional “fishermen’s shrine” in one of the yards). For a while the air was moist and salty as we ran parallel to the beach. We talked about John Irving, with whom Murakami once went jogging in Central Park as a young, unknown translator. We talked about cicadas: how strange it would be to live for so many years underground only to emerge, screaming, for a couple of fatal months up in the trees. Mainly I remember the steady rhythm of Murakami’s feet.
Back at the house, after our run, I showered and changed in Murakami’s guest bathroom. As I waited for him to come back downstairs, I stood in the breeze of the dining-room air-conditioner and looked out a picture window that framed a little backyard garden of herbs and small trees.
After a few minutes, a strange creature fluttered into my view of the garden. At first it seemed like some kind of bird — a strange hairy hummingbird, maybe, based on the way it was hovering. But then it started to look more like two birds stuck together: it wobbled more than it flew, and it had all kinds of flaps and extra parts hanging off it. I decided, in the end, that it was a big, black butterfly, the strangest butterfly I had ever seen. It floated there, wiggling like an alien fish, just long enough for me to be confused — to try to resolve it, never quite successfully, into some familiar category of thing. And then it flew away, wiggling, off down the mountain toward the ocean, retracing, roughly, the route Murakami and I had taken on our run.
Moments after the butterfly left, Murakami came down the stairs and sat, quietly, at his dining-room table. I told him I had just seen the weirdest butterfly I had ever seen in my entire life. He took a drink from his plastic water bottle, then looked up at me. “There are many butterflies in Japan,” he said. “It is not strange to see a butterfly.”