Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami by David Karashima. (Soft Skull Press)
I feel like I came to Haruki Murakami later in life than I should have. I was in college and from the moment I started reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World I was hooked. I moved on to After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood after that and with every Murakami book I read I got pulled deeper and deeper into the fandom and mystique that hovers around the Japanese author.
Murakami’s work is speculative and surreal, while also being down-to-earth and matter of fact. The combination of putting the fantastical inside this style of writing is compelling and draws me in every time. I was often curious if the tone and voice of his novels would be the same in its original Japanese, or if this was a by-product of the translation. It’s something I’d ask my friends and, of course, they’d respond with, “How would I know?” I’d then ask myself if it really mattered and continued to read.
This year, some of my curiosities have been answered with the release of Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami by David Karashima. When I first picked this book up, I thought it was going to be a deconstruction of Murakami’s work through the lens of his biography, but what I found is a far more intriguing concept.
Karashima is taking a look at Murakami’s work by looking at the translators who fell in love with Murakami’s work, and who then helped make him the global presence we know him as today. What’s fun about this book is it doesn’t often speak directly about Murakami but writes around him with the people in the Murakami orbit. As we’re learning what his work means to them, we’re getting a clearer picture of who he is. It’s like painting a portrait solely with the negative space.
What’s fun about this book is it doesn’t often speak directly about Murakami but writes around him with the people in the Murakami orbit. As we’re learning what his work means to them, we’re getting a clearer picture of who he is. It’s like painting a portrait solely with the negative space.
Something that became more apparent to me was the book delves into the what but rarely the why. We get backstory and details about the interactions with the people who worked to bring Murakami’s voice to the English-speaking world, and while we’re told many times that they all liked Murakami’s work, it never feels obvious why they liked it so much. I wanted to know what it was about Murakami that drew these translators to it—willing to spend years of their lives translating his work. Instead, we get a relatively dry account of the process and the people. It’s almost like reading a Wikipedia page about a subject I care about. All the details are there, and I’m going to continue to read because I want to know this stuff, but at the end of the day it’s missing the flair that would’ve really hooked me.
There are moments that seem to meander a bit too much. It seems like Karashima wanted to make sure he didn’t miss a beat, so he included numerous interactions from 30 years ago. The problem is that memory naturally corrodes. One translator or editor tells a story, only to be contradicted by Murakami himself or a different key player in the publishing process. We then read this ping pong effect, watching the story go back and forth without getting closer to the truth of the matter. This gives us an honest portrayal because we get the different angles to the story, but it happened so often I wondered why they were included in the first place.
We get insights into the connections Murakami’s work made with powerhouse writers like David Mitchell and Junot Diaz. This adds context to his work as a whole, but I can’t help but feel like this was an afterthought. It’s what I was yearning for throughout the book, but I would have loved to see this kind of insight from the translators who arguably know Murakami’s work the best.
In the end, there’s some fun stories about the people who brought Murakami to America, but it’s lacking that spark that I was hoping for—it was too preoccupied with going for the facts instead of the truth.