The Magazine

Track Record

A Japanese novelist races against his demons.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By FRANKLIN FREEMAN
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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

A Memoir

by Haruki Murakami

translated by Philip Gabriel

Knopf, 175 pp., $21

Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist whose work has been compared to that of Raymond Chandler and Franz Kafka, did not start out as a novelist. For a decade he ran his own jazz club in Tokyo. Then one day, while watching a baseball game, he thought perhaps he could write a novel. He did, entered it in a contest, and, after he had forgotten about it, learned he had won.

He wrote another novel, sold his club, and became a full-time writer. At the same time he took up running because he was a three-pack-a-day smoker and gained weight when sedentary. He knew that if he planned on being a writer for long, he had better live a more healthy life.

So Murakami rejected Yeats's dictum that one must perfect the life or the art--although he does acknowledge there is an element of darkness in writing novels:

Basically I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place.

Murakami's way of dealing with this toxin is through running and, recently, competing in triathlons. He doesn't say everyone should do it this way, but he does say that it is better to deal with it in a healthy way, rather than the usual writers' solutions: drinking, debauchery, etc.

Some would call this toxin by the traditional name of original sin, and suggest another healthy way of dealing with it is through prayer and repentance; others would call it the death wish and suggest psychotherapy. But Murakami exists in a world of his own making: Not that he literally believes he made the world, but that he writes from within a vacuum, as if he were the only person in the world and all his observations were written on a blank slate.

This is partly a matter of atmosphere, but it also shows in the lack of context that surrounds his -memoir. Admittedly this is a memoir that focuses on only one aspect of his own life--he has discovered, he says, that when he writes about running he writes about himself--but there is a curious emptiness here. Murakami mentions his wife a few times, other runners, he quotes Raymond Chandler and mentions Hemingway; but mostly it's just him, his running and his writing. He admits he likes being alone--not unusual for writers--but when he gropes, fleetingly, into metaphysics he refers to nobody but himself, as if all the prophets, sages, and religious leaders (or Freud, for that matter) never said anything about the spiritual side of life.

But Murakami writes this way not out of pride or defiance: He takes no interest in certain things because he has to physically experience something to understand it. Or so he says.

I'm making this sound as though What I Talk About is devoid of humor, but anyone who reads Murakami knows that humor infuses his work:

The weather's been strange in Japan this summer. . . . They say it's all because of global warming. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. Some experts claim it is, some claim it isn't. There's some proof that it is, some that it isn't. But still people say that most of the problems the earth is facing are, more or less, due to global warming. When sales of apparel go down, when tons of driftwood wash up on the shore, when there are floods and droughts, when consumer prices go up, most of the fault is ascribed to global warming. What the world needs is a set villain that people can point at and say, "It's all your fault!"

Murakami subscribes to no orthodoxy, whether global warming or anything else, but he is not a "negative" writer, critical of everything, praising nothing. He is a big fan of The Great Gatsby ("I never get tired of it, no matter how many times I read it.") and, in the tenor of his writing and running, resembles Jay Gatsby himself, as pictured in Fitzgerald's last paragraph: Alone, but reaching for a vision of -paradise.

Franklin Freeman is a writer in Maine.