Does Haruki Murakami’s popularity derive from the ubiquity of American culture? Perhaps no other Japanese author has attained such a global following, with translations in over 40 languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese. The author’s new memoir, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, suggests that Murakami’s worldwide success has been enabled by his affinity for American iconography.
What I Talk About is essentially a running diary, a journal about marathons and triathlons—passions of Murakami’s—with literary digressions. Among the latter, Murakami pinpoints the moment when he was inspired to write a novel. That happened to be on April 1, 1978, just as expatriate Dave Hilton hit a double down the left field line during the Yakult Swallow season opener against the Hiroshima Carps. Later, he describes how he started running: “Thirty-three—that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill.”
When Murakami runs, he listens to Otis Redding and the Lovin’ Spoonful. To recall July 1983, when he ran from Athens to Marathon, he establishes the setting as “[a] nostalgic era now, back when Duran Duran and Hall and Oates were cranking out the hits.” The near total omission of anything but American and British references—a trait also manifest large in his eccentric yet hip fiction—is remarkable. It’s also a little off-putting. And yet, perhaps American sport, pop music, and literature have become universal, a language easily recognized in any translation.
Given these tendencies, it’s significant when Murakami deviates from the script. Most notable is his revelation that the Japanese expect that writing novels demands degeneracy, that “by living an unhealthy lifestyle a writer can remove himself from the profane world and attain a kind of purity that has artistic value.” Not only is this one of the few overtly Japanese notions Murakami discusses, it’s one he fully embraces: “when we set off to write a novel... a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface.” While motivating Murakami’s running as means to overcoming the toxin, this disclosure serves also to remind us of his cultural comprehensiveness. No, it’s not American dominion, but some other more magical and less ominous attribute that so enlivens Murakami’s fiction for such a broad readership.