The stories in Haruki Murakami's new collection, First Person Singular, have a sort of fractal nature — you're reading a story by a middle-aged Japanese man in which a middle-aged Japanese man is telling you a story (and sometimes that story involves him telling other stories). You get drawn into the spiral, and soon you're in that strange world where many of his stories exist, a place full of his favorite things (jazz, baseball, the Beatles, though surprisingly few cats this time) and yet unmistakably odd, existing at a slight, unexplained angle to reality.
"In this book, I wanted to try pursuing a 'first person singular' format, but I don't like relating my experiences just the way they are," Murakami tells me in an email interview. "So I reshape them over and over and fictionalize them, to the point where, in some cases, you can't detect what they were modeled after. Through these steps, I gain a deeper understanding of the meaning behind the experience. Fiction writing is partly the process of clarifying what lies within you.
"There's a long tradition in modern Japanese literature of the autobiographical, so-called I-novel, the idea that sincerity lies in honestly and openly writing about your life, making a kind of self-confession. I'm opposed to that idea and wanted to create my own 'first personal singular' writing."
You so rarely name your narrators — but there you are, writing poems about a baseball team in the Yakult Swallows story. What relation does that Haruki Murakami bear to the one I'm talking to now?
This contradicts my answer to your previous question, but what I wrote about in that particular story is what happened to me, pretty much as is. I suppose you could call it less a short story than a kind of essay.
But the part about publishing a book called The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection is pure invention. I never wrote those kind of poems. I just made them all up later on. So since the story contains that one fabricated element, at least, it does retain the form of a fictional work. ... But that said, do you think my explanation here is actually true?
This is one of the challenges the writer presents to the reader, how to detect the line separating fact from invention.
Names (or the absence of names) were an ongoing theme in this collection, and then right there in the middle there's that delightful name-stealing monkey. He felt like the real hinge of the book. Tell me about him and where he came from.
About fifteen years ago I wrote a short story entitled "A Shinagawa Monkey," about a monkey who was obsessed with stealing the names of human women he loved. The monkey lived in the sewers below Shinagawa, in Tokyo (a subterranean world). In the end the monkey is captured by people and released deep in the mountains.
That monkey has been on my mind a lot ever since. I was wondering what happened to him afterwards, so this time I set out to write a kind of sequel. For those fifteen years the monkey's been hidden away, inside me (a world deep down), waiting, I think, for the right moment to reappear.
It's not at all clear to me what that monkey represents. He certainly exists within me, though, that much is certain, and has been pestering me to write about him.
You drop these moments of surrealism in, particularly right at the end (no spoilers, though), in a very deadpan manner; your narrators just recount them but don't come to any conclusions. How do you hope readers will think about the monkey or the mysterious old man in the park? And why is it important to leave those things inconclusive on the page?
I don't particularly think the stories I write have elements of surrealism. The thing is, the more I try to write about things realistically, and try to accurately express what lies at the core of those things, the more the story goes off in weird directions. I don't intentionally plan for that to happen, but that sort of development just emerges, naturally, as an inevitable result.
When I think about it, I've had all sorts of strange experiences in my life, and I get the feeling that it's their very strangeness that gives them meaning. I don't set out to logically analyze that kind of weirdness. Fiction's role isn't to analyze. The only thing I can do is convert these experiences, as realistically as I can, into fiction.
I noticed that a lot of these stories happen in very liminal times and places — on top of mountains, hung between earth and sky, at twilight, in transitional seasons, particularly autumn. What does that bring to the story?
That's an intriguing question. When I'm really focused on writing, I get the feeling that I shift from this world to the other world, and then return to this world. Kind of like commuting. I go there, and come back. Going is important, but coming back is even more important. Since it'd be awful if you couldn't return.
At the beginning of the ninth century there was a nobleman in Kyoto named Ono no Takamura. During the day he worked in the imperial palace, and it was rumored that at night he'd descend to hell (the underworld) and serve there as secretary to Enma Daio, the ruler of hell. Commuting, as it were, every day between this world and the other. His passageway to travel back and forth was an old well, and it still exists in Kyoto. I love that story. Though I don't think I'd ever like to climb down inside that well.
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