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The Anti-hero with a Thousand Frowns

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The anti-hero with a thousand frowns: Haruki


Murakami and the figure of the lone male modernist
character in fiction
Introduction
I wasnt really interested in writing a hard-boiled mystery; I just wanted
to use the hard-boiled mystery structure. Im very interested in
structure. Ive been using other pop structures in my writing as well
science fiction structures, for example. Im also using love story or
romance structures. But as far as my thinking about the hard-boiled
style, Im interested in the fact that they are very individualist in
orientation. The figure of the loner. Im very interested in that because
it isnt easy to live in Japan as an individualist or as a loner. Im always
thinking about this. Im a novelist and Im a loner, an individualist (It
dont mean a thing, if it aint got that swing: An interview with Haruki
Murakami).

The fiction of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is a deliberate imitation of the hardboiled detective style (Fisher 159) however, instead of investigating a crime his
protagonists investigate themselves. They are solipsists who must pull apart emotions
to determine their source and meaning always without the guarantee of resolution.

To a considerable degree Murakamis characters are universal stock


figures of contemporary literature, almost a clich of the existential
condition. Lonely, fragmented, unable to communicate, they live a
mechanical, purposeless existence. They have become merely their
functions, as Emerson warned. Vaguely they sense that something is

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missing in their lives. Some are shallow with little interior life; others
have a deep need for meaning and self-fulfillment. Mostly they are
simply bewildered by their sense of disconnection and loss.
(Loughman 88)

I intend to suggest Murakamis location in the tradition of modernist writing by


comparing and contrasting Camus The Outsider, Sartres Nausea, and to a lesser
extent Kafkas The Trial with Murakamis fiction. I understand Modernism here
to signify a paradigmatic shift, a major revolt, beginning in the mid- and late
nineteenth century, against the prevalent literary and aesthetic traditions of the
Western world (Eystensson 2). Sartre, Camus and, as I will demonstrate, Murakami,
are modern writers in general and existentialists specifically on the basis that all three:

Address themselves to two broad alternatives facing man in a world in


which God is dead: (1) the institutionalized and collectivized life on the
analogy of the machinery of technology toward which modern man is
drifting, and (2) the agonizing difficult authentic existence of the
individual who insists upon maintaining his unique consciousness in
the face of the overwhelming pressure to conform that is, on being a
man-in-the-world (Spanos 2).

I plan to explore two characteristics shared by Sartres Antoine, Camus Meursault,


and many of Murakamis protagonists alienation from culture and alienation from
time. As well as showing parallels between these early and contemporary modernist
texts, I will also show how Murakami has contributed distinctively to this literary
tradition. I will ask what a modern mindset rather than just a modern infrastructure
might mean for Japan. However, I will not attempt an in-depth exploration of the
relationship between Murakami and the country of his birth. Loughman has already
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carried out such an exploration, yet more influential in my choice is my lack of


primary contact with Japan itself. Since my main source of information regarding the
Japanese psyche is Murakamis non-fiction work Underground: the Tokyo Gas Attack
and the Japanese Psyche, my findings in regard to what Murakami means to Japan
will reflect Murakamis (perceived) relationship with his culture, and the type of
discourse that he has set out to establish (rather than what he has actually achieved).
One interviewer notes that Murakami does not plan anything [ h]e just writes.
(Patil) Subsequently I intend to be reserved in my speculations on themes intended or
unconsciously explored. I would like to have presented a genealogy of the lone
modernist figure plotting its evolution from, say, Kafkas K in The Trial, to
Murakamis K in Sputnik Sweetheart. However, such an undertaking would require
the identification of those texts most influential to each successive wave, or
generation, of writers of modernism in order to create a realistic sense of a literary
lineage, and would be beyond the scope of this project.

Alienation from culture

In Nausea, Antoine walks through the city along beaches and boulevards studying
people of the upper class in his native France like an anthropologist in his own land.
In Lost in Space, Barr suggests that Murakami is a science fiction writer the genre
usually used to explore the notion of the alien (Barr 172). In Underground, Murakami
confesses to approaching his exploration of the Japanese psyche in order to
understand it after his seven-year self-imposed exile (Underground 204-5). It would
appear a prerequisite for the existential figure that they estrange themselves from their
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universe. Murakami and his protagonists conduct a similar exploration, yet rather than
attempting estrangement and distancing, they use the tool of empathy, participation,
and connection. Murakami explains:

To me, a story means to put your feet in someone elses shoes. There
are so many kinds of shoes, and when you put your feet in them you
look at the world through other peoples eyes. You learn something
about the world through good stories, serious stories. (Miller)

Murakamis non-fiction work on the Tokyo subway gas attack of 1995 provides
valuable insight to the Japanese and to Murakamis psyche. It reveals the similarities
between the author and his protagonists similarities that Murakami himself observes:

I myself have been on my own and utterly independent since I


graduated. I havent belonged to any company or any system. It isnt
easy to live like this in Japan. You are estimated by which company or
which system you belong to. That is very important to us. In that sense,
Ive been an outsider all the time. (Miller)

The testimonies that make up Underground are divided into the commuters
survivors of the Tokyo Gas Attack (us) and members of Aum, the perpetrators
(them). Murakami approaches both groups with a typical novelists empathy, yet it
is clear that though he situates himself, by definition, within the us he can very
much relate to the cult members Talking to them so intimately made me realize
how their religious quests and the process of novel writing, though not identical, are
similar (Underground 215). As one of Murakamis translators notes:

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The Aum members fascinate him because they have tried to do what
his characters usually give up any hope of doing Unlike the more
passive victims of the attack, the cult members have dared to probe
into the black box at the core of themselves. (Rubin 243)

Murakami walks in the space between both camps, leveling criticism at both, while
we the reader find that the line dividing us and them in extremely confrontational
situations begins to disappear, and we are left facing our own inner darkness
(Matsuoka 305). Rubin further notes that:

Murakami attempts to convey how little separates the sick world of


Aum from the everyday world of ordinary Japan.
The individuality-crushing pressures of Japanese society can lead to
highly educated, ambitious, idealistic young people to abandon the
places that have been promised them in search of worlds of unknown
potential under misguided religious leaders The greatest distinction
between victims and perpetrators is that the latter are desperate
enough to do something about the emptiness that both feel. (239)

Just as the Japanese were aghast at the cult members surrendering of their
individuality, the majority of Japanese possess a similar group mindedness in their
dedication to their families, their employers, and to the status quo. As Murakami
states, Japanese white-collar workers or salary men are used to it.

They have been doing that life for many years. They dont have any
alternative. Theres a similarity between the cult people and ordinary
people. When I studied those interviews, the similarity was in my mind.
(Miller)

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All of Murakamis protagonists share such unwillingness to commit to any kind of


extremism. In turn, the false coldness of the Court System and the false warmth of
society have caught Meursault; Antoine rejects both the humanist masses and the
adventurers of the exotic; while K. endeavors to be part of both the ridiculous court
system and the equally ridiculous world of the Bank and his residency. This
recognition of the absurdity of any extreme viewpoint, and the entropy of material and
social gains, leads Antoine, Meursault, and Murakamis protagonists to possess a
noticeable lack of ambition. Meursault argues, you could never change your life, that
in any case one life was as good as another (Camus 44); Antoine does not write for
fame or money but to connect on a personal level with the individual that he is
profiling; and Murakamis protagonists appear to live off good fortune and are strong
believers in the immanent life:

Thats how it goes. Lots of different ways to live. And lots of different
ways to die. But in the end that doesnt make a bit of difference. All
that remains is a desert. (South of the Border 81; emphasis in original)

And in after the quake:

You need to lighten up and learn to enjoy life a little more. I mean,
think about it: tomorrow there could be an earthquake, you could be
kidnapped by aliens, you could be eaten by a bear. Nobody knows
whats going to happen (17).

Miller notes, the heroes in Haruki Murakamis dazzling, addictive and rather strange
novels dont fit the stereotype of conformist, work-obsessed Japanese men at all.
A motif of Murakamis fiction is the realization of the protagonists that their lives will

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never reach the heights for which they had hoped, yet when compared to other
characters, such an acceptance of ones limitations is a survival trait, for ambition can
all too easily becoming an all-consuming white whale. Several of Murakamis texts
feature protagonists that pursue a Kurtz-like figure a brilliant character that travels
into the wilderness and ultimately into their own destruction. In Wild Sheep Chase,
for instance the protagonist pursues his old friend Rat up a long alpine road and into a
mountain hideaway much like Marlow in Conrads Heart of Darkness. In Wind-up
Bird Chronicles, the protagonists wife goes to jail for murder, or attempted murder.
In Norwegian Wood, the protagonists girlfriend signs herself into a mental asylum
and eventually commits suicide; in Sputnik Sweetheart, the protagonists love interest
disappears, possibly to a parallel universe; and in Underground Murakami illustrates
that those who were central to the planning and execution of the gas attack were part
of the Japanese elite (Underground 57). The protagonists enjoyment of the simpler
pleasures on the other hand of cooking food, sitting and watching crowds walk past,
of savoring cocktails, of going out for nights of pleasure suggests a Taoist mood of
intense indifference; neither happy nor sad, replete nor empty, lonely nor loved,
[Murakamis protagonists] simply exists (Tamotsu 271). Throughout east Asia,
Murakamis cool, detached, often comical narrator seems to offer an alternative to
life lived in the grim Confucian envelope of State and Family (Rubin 5). Murakamis
protagonists accept the ordinary, and this enables them to be highly adaptable and
receptive to the extraordinary, keep(ing) in tune with the unpredictable, shifting
music of life (Rubin 3):

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We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and
stationary. We even talk about people being down to earth or having
their feet firmly planted on the ground. But suddenly one day we see
that it isnt true. The earth, the boulders that are supposed to be solid,
all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid (after the quake 68).

Murakami may have a specific interest in advocating the existentialist disregard for
ambition considering the Japanese preoccupation with success, the dangers of which
are highlighted in Underground where both those unaffected by the sarine and those
who had themselves been gassed remained more concerned with their professional
obligations. A victim recounts, Hey, whats going on here? I thought (while
suffering the effects of sarine poisoning), but I had to get to work. I had a whole list of
things to do. (Underground 49) Murakamis fictitious protagonists, on the other hand,
are apathetic to their context within society. In South of the Border, West of the Sun
for instance, Hajime like Antoine and Meursault is willing to risk his whole,
carefully constructed life in order to avoid being guilty of bad faith.

One of the devices Antoine and Murakamis protagonists use to step outside of the
court of their peers is semiotic manipulation, for while reality may be socially
constructed, language maintains it socially. For instance Antoine, globetrotter turned
hermit, is detached from the naming conventions presented to him by his peers he
is no longer able to fix, to stabilize, existence by naming things (Spanos 50).
Antoine realizes that a society that understands the essence of a thing by its utility will
understand an individuals worth and identity in terms of the social role that they
fulfill. Antoine is rescued from having to apply this epistemological process to

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himself when he comes to understand that contrary to what he has been socialized to
believe in, existence precedes essence, and that that essence is arbitrary (Sartre 182-9).
In understanding that he exists in his own right separate from our social function
Antoine frees himself from the obligation to justify his existence through work.

Murakami also appears to argue that people are not what they do by using adjectives
how they appear rather than verbs what they do. The protagonists and characters
acquire nicknames from their peers such as Mr. Wind-up Bird, The Rat, The
Sheep Man, and The Boss. This emphasizes that Murakamis protagonists are in a
constant state of flux their identity is ethereal, and the identity that their parents
gave them at their birth is irrelevant to the period in their lives that we get to observe
them.

Finally, the sense of cultural alienation that Murakamis protagonists appear to suffer
from may not be so much that they belong to no culture, but that they belong like
Murakami himself to too many cultures. Murakami is parodying [Western] stylistic
conventions, using an American tough-guy style to recount the misadventures of his
bookish, melancholy Japanese protagonists (Fisher 159). Tamotsu describes him
essentially as a cultural pirate in his style and content (Tamotsu 256), and as Fisher
observes it is necessary to consider Murakami a writer of the postmodern world, of a
world in which the West and Japan are problematic entities. Murakamis work is
an intermediary between the western modernist tradition and Japanese literature.

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Alienation from time

As with Sartres Antoine isolation from Anny, Murakamis protagonists are isolated
geographically from their loved ones, their pets, and their best friends. It is the
individuals relationship with time, however, that is more significant a concern of the
protagonists of Nausea and Murakamis fiction. Antoine, for instance, attempts to
bridge the gap between himself and the long-deceased Marquis de Rollebon, while
Murakamis protagonists lose their loved ones to death and to the transformative
potential of time. As Hajime observes, Everyone just keeps on disappearing. Some
things just vanish, like they were cut away. Others fade slowly into the mist. And all
that remains is a desert (South of the Border 81; emphasis in original). Antoine is
flexible in the face of time, acknowledging the mortality of his individual passion and
even his capacity for passion. He proceeds to say to the wall of portraits of great
figures Farewell, you beautiful lilies, elegant in your little painted Sanctuaries,
farewell, you beautiful lilies, our pride and raison dtre, farewell, you Bastards.
(Sartre 138) Antoine recognizes that life is most rewarding when immersed in, when
we reflect only sporadically on our location in time, and when we avoid at all costs
reflecting on our lives and converting experiences into an adventure. Murakamis
protagonists also aspire to attain this degree of sublimity: the mundane events of their
lives drinking beer, cooking, sampling cocktails, walking through Tokyo gain as
much attention as the magical such as hiking through sewers while being hunted by
subterranean mutants. Murakami does not go into great sensual depth with these
routine experiences, nor does he de-familiarize them like Sartre in Nausea, yet simply

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presents them. Murakamis protagonists recognize, and value, the passing of every
moment as being of equal importance. As Hajime states, I dont consider it my job to
investigate the expanse of memory called the past and judge what is correct and what
isnt (17). When Antoine laments, How on earth can I, who havent had the
strength to retain my own past, hope to save the past of somebody else? (Sartre 139),
he seems to be asking whether we can live our lives as more than a succession of
dreams. Murakamis protagonists appear to present a case for the affirmative. This is
because they realize that their failure to rescue history is not due to a failure of
strength on their part, but because such an endeavor is impossible. As the ending of
The Second Bakery Attack where the protagonist, symbolically has retrieved
his past, changed it, and made possible a different future (Loughman 87) the past
can never be resurrected but can only be salvaged and used as inspiration for the
future.

This, however, does not mean that Murakamis protagonists are not constantly
struggling to reconcile themselves to the fragility of memories. They frequently mark
the passage of time by the music of time yet such musical references act only as token
nostalgic triggers. In making such musical references, Murakami appears to question
the adequacy of music to encapsulate the spirit of the times.

Norwegian Wood begins with the Beatles song of the same title:

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.


She showed me her room, isnt it good, Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,

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So I looked around and I noticed there wasnt a chair.


I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine.
We talked until two and then she said, Its time for bed.
She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didnt and crawled off to sleep in the bath.
And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown.
So I lit a fire, isnt it good, Norwegian wood.

While reading the novel makes it clear why the song triggers the protagonists
memory of his unrequited romance with Naoko twenty years earlier, it also becomes
clear that the two narratives the public song and the personal event are heavily
contrasted in their moods. The song is upbeat and positive. Norwegian Wood is a
melancholic tale of loss. As well as highlighting the discrepancy between the public
and personal experiences, this juxtaposition also demonstrates the fatuousness of popculture in its attempt to act as a form of collective memory. Murakamis work are a
critique of kitsch one of the central factors of modern civilized life, the kind of art
that normally and inescapably surrounds us the triumph of the principle of
immediacy (Calinescu 8; emphasis in original). Kitsch is designed to both save
time its enjoyment is effortless and instantaneous and to kill time like a drug, it
frees man temporarily from his disturbed time consciousness (Calinescu 8-9).
Murakami negotiates this paradox by observing the capacity of pop-music to both
reaffirm the present, and to haunt the future.

Just as the protagonist are capable of navigating through culture using techniques
usually associated with the postmodern, so too are they able to negotiate through time,
through their non-judgmental receptiveness and empathy with other peoples stories.

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In Underground, Murakami bears witness to the suffering of the victims of the gas
attack even though he was out of Tokyo at the time of the attack. Though Murakami
notes that the gas attack was not a topic you merely toyed with, he also
acknowledges that he was a spider sucking up this mass of words, only to later break
them down inside me and spin them out into another narrative (Underground 205).

Japan and Modernism


The willingness of Murakamis protagonists to strive for a sense of fulfillment in their
lives is an admirable achievement in a nation that while having successively
modernized its technology and infrastructure is only beginning to modernize itself
culturally and psychically (Loughman). The gap of almost half a century between the
works of Sartre and Camus, and the tremendous success of Murakamis work at home,
suggest that only now in light of the bursting of the economic bubble is Japan
ready to question the machination of its success. Japan, suffering from the blight of
Nationalists and Revisionists attempting the dangerous undertaking of remaking
history (Miller), sorely needs Murakamis portrayals of characters willing to accept
the passage of time. In the tradition of modernism, then, Murakamis work is

An attempt to interrupt the modernity that we live and understand as a


social if not normal, way of life [and that] in refusing to communicate
according to established socio-semiotic contracts [implies] that there
are other modes of communication to be looked for, or even some
other modernity to be created. (Eystensson 4-5; emphasis in original)

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While I understand modernism as the individualistic response to the dehumanizing


effect of the prevalent rise in collectivism and technology, existentialism is
attributable to the possibly humanizing effect of the disintegration of theology.
Murakamis corpus of work is a template for members of a culture in apparent need of
re-evaluating its relationship with technology without resorting to the destructive
forms of religion. If I give you the right story, Murakami argues, that story will
give you a judging system, to tell what is wrong and what is right. (Miller) It is in
fulfilling his perceived obligations as an author to present a checking system that
Murakami is continuing the existential project into the 21st century, showing readers
how to walk the middle ground between technology and theology, extremism and
conservatism, and in doing so giving us some very good stories in the process.

Conclusion
Murakamis novels participate in the same discourse as Sartre, Camus and Kafka.
While his relationship with this tradition can be explained as a postmodern
appropriation and repackaging of Western literature, his playful use of cultural
references with sixties music and various literary genres should not blind readers to
his earnest exploration of existence. As well as being modern, by virtue of his
protagonists tendency to step outside of the social machinery, his works explore and
contribute to central themes of the existential condition in the secular age being in
culture, and being in time. Murakamis protagonists actively negotiate their
relationship with society living as sovereign individuals yet engaging with their
fellow human beings when they wish. In a move that I believe extends Murakamis
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work beyond the traditional realms of modernism, however, Murakamis protagonists,


like Murakami himself, manage to further empower themselves in their dealings with
society by sliding in and out of both eastern and western culture, between us and
them, between sanity and insanity. They are adventurers of the soul whose feet
remain firmly fixed on the ground. They are tempted neither by religion or success,
and their relaxation in both the mundane and the amazing allows them to negotiate
instances that might otherwise baffle their modern predecessors.

While the protagonists of Murakamis work are conscious that the hands of a clock
run in only one direction, (South of the Border 52) they manage to push their
temporal as well as cultural limits. They find themselves confident in the present, the
past and alternative realities. They resign themselves to the impermanence of material
objects and memories and instead of seeking security in cultural memory either in
the form of popular culture or historical documents they find solace in their own and
other peoples stories.

The success of Murakamis protagonists can be attributed to their confidence in


participating in the system of naming a role usually reserved for institutions and
other authorities and their seemingly effortless negotiation of their own, other
peoples, and other nations culture and history.

Murakamis Taoist texts are valuable artifacts in a Confucian culture. His work may
prove highly valuable in a modernist and progressive nation in countering the
reactionary forces of nationalism and theology that threaten to revise Japan past, or

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repeat it. On a literary level at least, Murakami provides an inventive contribution to


existentialism, resulting in a brilliant fusion of the Postmodern and the modernist.

With seamless references to Japanese society and geography, and cultural hybridism,
Murakamis texts are accessible to a non-Japanese audience. His work is
straightforward, seemingly effortless, and the protagonists voices are consistent
resulting in a strong sense of honesty that encourages a sense of intimacy with
Murakami himself. Murakamis iconic, run-of-the-mill protagonists all of whom
remain existentially natural and authentic despite the supernatural situations that they
find themselves in suck in his readers, be they from Japan or the West.

Image by Federico Novaro

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