the observer Sun 29 March 2009
When Haruki Murakami starts to talk about running, he could end up talking about almost anything: girls' ponytails, Rolling Stones albums, the clouds in Hawaii; all the novelist's quirks are here in compact form. But mostly this memoir is simply about running itself - Murakami completes at least one marathon every year - and about writing. "Most of what I know about writing fiction," he says, "I learned by running every day." True to form, the book's physique and pace are a long-distance runner's, light and whippety, seldom slowing to anything less than a breezy, pop-existentialist jog: "On cold days, I think about how cold it is. And about heat on the hot days ... but really, I don't think much of anything worth mentioning."
the observer Sat 09 August 2008
Approaching his 30th birthday, Haruki Murakami was the owner of a jazz bar in Kokubunji, Tokyo. He was smoking as many as 60 cigarettes a day and was committed to a life reckless sociability. It was around this time that he began to write his first novel, often late at night or very early in the morning once the bar had closed, and he also took up running. Ever since then the two activities have been intertwined in his life: he took up running so that he could acquire the virtues of stamina and endurance; virtues that would, as he saw it, enable him to keep writing and then write some more and better. 'My whole body reeked of smoke ... [and] if I wanted to have a long life as a novelist, I needed to find a way to keep fit and maintain a healthy weight.'
It's clear that for Murakami, running has a moral dimension. Long ago (he is now 59), when he first began to run seriously, he asked himself important questions: what is it that I want from my life? What kind of person do I want to be? How can running help to prolong my life as a writer?
The success of his early novels encouraged him to close the Tokyo bar and to dedicate himself to writing full-time, which, at the age of 33, he did. Thirty-three, he notes, was the age at which Jesus Christ died and F Scott Fitzgerald 'began to go downhill' - but for him, no longer a young man but still young enough, it was the moment when he decided to become his own self-creation, to try to become the master of his own will.
Like most great artists, Murakami is an obsessive and a narcissist: everything in his life is subordinate to the work, to the act of creation. 'I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person,' he confides, 'but with an unspecified number of readers.'
As both a writer and a runner he is often alone, but his is a happy solitude, and his one clear, defining ambition is to keep on running so that he can keep on writing, the one activity overlapping with and informing the other. Murakami tries to run on average 36 miles per week, with one day off. No matter where he is in the world he does not deviate from this routine, unless he is preparing for a marathon (he has run 27 of them), and then he will run even more miles. Running has left him with a heightened receptivity to landscape and to shifts in weather patterns. He writes here of running every day through a radiant New England autumn and on into the gruelling winter, and of luminous summer days in Hawaii, and all the time he is running he is thinking - but what is it he thinks of exactly?
In spite of the challenge of the title, he can never properly answer this question, because, on the whole, he doesn't really think about very much at all: 'All I do is keep on running into my own cosy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence.'
But this is neither the void nor the nostalgia of the classical Japanese tradition, as can be encountered so exquisitely in the fiction of Yasunari Kawabata, Japan's first Nobel literature laureate. Following Emperor Hirohito's unilateral declaration of surrender to the Americans in 1945, Kawabata wrote of how 'since the defeat, I have gone back into the sadness that has always been with us in Japan'. Kawabata yearned for the silence and the void or emptiness of traditional Zen aesthetics - but it is not this void of
self-dissolution that Murakami seeks. 'The best way to think about reality,' says the narrator of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 'is to get as far away from it as possible.' For Murakami, running is the opposite: not so much a flight from reality as an enhancement of it. He takes from his days on the road hard, 'practical, physical lessons', guides for living.
The title of this unconventional memoir is a reworking of a famous Raymond Carver story (Murakami has translated Carver into Japanese), and the book was written haphazardly over many months in 2005 and 2006 as Murakami prepared to run the New York City Marathon. There's a certain monotony, even banality, to some of the observations; after all, there can be a terrible boredom and drudgery to long-distance running, and as Murakami himself explains, he runs not to compete with others, as a professional athlete does, but because he wants to stay in the best condition 'in order to keep on writing novels'. Ultimately, then, running for Murakami is not an end in itself, but the means through which he keeps fit and focused. He runs only for himself. So what does he talk about when he talks about running? He talks about being Haruki Murakami!
There's a wandering, digressive, free-form quality to the writing - like improvised jazz - familiar to anyone who has read the novels, with their labyrinthine plots, perplexed, solitary male protagonists, meaningful coincidences and dream-like sequences. The narrative voice here is as persuasive as in any of the novels, candid and jaunty, and you finish the book charmed by the simple, unaffected grace of Murakami.