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Matthew Carl Strecher

Jun 14, 2021

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami

2014

In an “other world” composed of language—it could be a fathomless Martian well, a labyrinthine hotel, or forest—a narrative unfolds, and with it the experiences, memories, and dreams that constitute reality for Haruki Murakami’s characters and readers. Memories and dreams in turn conjure their magical counterparts—people without names or pasts, fantastic animals, half-animals, and talking machines that traverse the dark psychic underworld of this writer’s extraordinary fiction.

Fervently acclaimed worldwide, Haruki Murakami’s wildly imaginative work in many ways remains a mystery, its worlds within worlds uncharted territory. Finally in The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), Matthew Carl Strecher provides readers with a map to the strange realm that grounds virtually every aspect of Murakami’s writing. A journey through the enigmatic and baffling innermost mind, a metaphysical dimension where Murakami’s most bizarre scenes and characters lurk, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami exposes the psychological and mythological underpinnings of this other world. The author shows how these considerations color Murakami’s depictions of the individual and collective soul, which constantly shift between the tangible and intangible but in this literary landscape are undeniably real.

Through these otherworldly depths The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami also charts the writer’s vivid “inner world,” whether unconscious or underworld (what some Japanese critics call achiragawa あちら側, or “over there”), and its connectivity to language. Strecher covers all of Murakami’s work—including his efforts as a literary journalist—and concludes with the first full-length close reading of the writer’s recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

In this interview, we began with the question of "why Murakami Haruki has not yet won the Nobel Prize in Literature" and quickly went over the recent critical review of his First Person Singular (Knopf, 2021) at LA Times, entitled "How Haruki Murakami Fell Down a Literary Well" (April, 2021). Soon after warming up with these tangible topics, we delved into the vast territory of literary metaphysics by asking the following questions in reference to the works of Murakami. 

  • How stable the distinction between the “real over here” and the “metaphysical over there”?
  • There are several turning points in this analysis of Murakami’s novels that challenge the binary distinction of real/unreal, physical/metaphysical: e.g., Tengo’s question in 1Q84: “Am I in the world of the novel?” What are the grounds in which we can draw the distinction between real and imaginary, historical and fictional events in these novels? 
  • The image of underground or water (such as a well or ido, 井戸) in Murakami seems to have a peculiar sense of the metaphysical. They seem to undermine a clear division or a foundation by which we can claim something as being real or not. Are these novels challenging us to rethink the rigidity of the distinction that we have between reality and fiction, physical and metaphysical, and visible and invisible?
  • There is a kind of "posthumous thinking" that generates a conversion in more recent works of Murakami (e.g., Tazaki Tsukuru). Can the dark place be a semi-sacred space where we can recognize our imperfection, thereby practicing growth and change? Is there a tendency towards some kind of “metanoesis” in more recent works of Murakami?

Matthew's replies to these questions were rich in textual references. I have no doubt that a series of literary images carefully selected during our conversation will spark some strange and/or exciting memories in those who have read Murakami's novels. What we find at the bottom of this "literary well," however, does not seem to be a solitary confinement of subjective realism but a personalised transformation in which each of us can give a testimony to the surprising porosity of a single individual. Simply put, if we explore the ground of our self-consciousness, we discover self's unknown connectivity with other individuals and the world. 

After liquifying any preconceived narratives (extending from our everyday language to the noble conception of universal morality in philosophy), Murakami's novels do not offer us any grand metaphysical worldview that would save us from the dark night of nihilism. But once we see the images of ourselves as a prisoner of a preconceived narrative, we seem to be able to start digging deeper into this delusion. Then, this trans-descending can somehow undermine the structure of its meaning(less-ness). It is true: a well can never exist apart from the underground water system, and even though they cannot be seen at the same time time, they are mutually transformative. Perhaps, in the same way, the metaphysical worlds should be described as self-reflective portals (than a bunch of dry wells). They can carry us from one story to another across literary texts and sustain our ability to construct our own narratives that (re-)shape these worlds. It is up to us to turn them into our next prison or a playground of boundless imagination where we can move towards some self-understanding. 

Takeshi Morisato is philosopher and sometimes academic. He is the editor of the European Journal of Japanese Philosophy. He specializes in comparative and Japanese philosophy but he is also interested in making Japan and philosophy accessible to a wider audience.

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Takeshi Morisato

Takeshi Morisato is philosopher and sometimes academic. He is the editor of the European Journal of Japanese Philosophy. He specializes in comparative and Japanese philosophy but he is also interested in making Japan and philosophy accessible to a wider audience.

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