Women characters of Haruki Murakami | Daily News

Women characters of Haruki Murakami

Imagine being a young girl, growing up in a Japanese city. No one else in your family is a reader. You have to find books on your own. Where do you start? You go to the school library. Under “Literature,” you find Japan’s best-known writers-Akutagawa, Soseki, Dazai, Mishima-and a few big names from other parts of the world-Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Camus, Sartre, Steinbeck. It’ll be years before you come across names like Virginia Woolf, Yuko Tsushima or Susan Sontag. As you stand in the stacks of the school library, scanning the spines one by one, you don’t even recognize that none of the names belongs to a woman.

When I was in my early teens, I spotted the name Haruki Murakami on the spine of a relatively new book. It was already a name that one would find in every bookstore or library, no matter the size. I took the book out and opened it up. I remember feeling like I’d never read anything quite like it.

Overwhelmingly fantastic

No parents, no family, no soporific preaching, none of the self-conscious struggles or triumphs so common in literature. For me, bogged down by situations and circumstances I had never opted into, Murakami’s individualism was shocking. More than anything, I felt like I could have read any given page forever—the writing was overwhelmingly fantastic. What made it fantastic had nothing to do with gender, the author’s or my own. I’ll never forget how excited I was to find out that novels like this existed. From then on, Murakami was a very special writer to me.

Murakami’s narratives tend to follow a pattern. A lonesome protagonist ventures into another world to recover something he has lost. We’re repeatedly shown that what we see, what we believe to be reality, has a shadow to it, and by passing through a “well” that unexpectedly appears in our daily life, our existence can easily be thrown into an unfamiliar place. The stories delve seamlessly into worlds that almost feel constructed from a grammar of the unconscious, realms where the reader may access forms of healing and regeneration only found therein.

When you’re reading, immersed in a story, you can become a point of view. It’s a beautiful thing, but the moment you take your eyes off the page, there you are, stuck in reality again. You’re back in your own body, burdened by time and an array of other constraints. As if this weren’t enough, most women are beset with the additional burden of often feeling out of place simply for being a woman. Because we live in these bodies, we are desired, ascribed value and consumed.

We are told who and what to be, and we internalize these things, often without realizing it. The world of stories ought to be a place where anything is possible, but more often than not we run into the same old pressures, reinforcing their effect. If you look for women in fiction, you’ll find them everywhere—novels, movies, and of course in anime, perhaps Japan’s main cultural export—but they are almost always assigned supporting roles, sexualized and self-sacrificing. It doesn’t matter how young or old the woman is, it would seem she has no choice but to walk one of two paths: the mother or the whore.

Peculiar charm

I’ve had numerous chances to talk with people about Murakami’s work over the years. I’ve spoken to scholars, translators, authors and readers, both in and outside Japan. I’ve heard them speak passionately about their experiences with Murakami and try to find the words to explain the peculiar charm of his stories. We’ve discussed the themes and styles he’s developed over the past 40 years. We’ve talked about how those elements have changed—and how they’ve stayed the same.

Then, about ten years ago, men and women alike started asking one question with particular urgency: “How do you feel about Murakami’s representation of women?” The question had such gravity that it was impossible to ignore. Answers ran the gamut. Some wished that he would handle women with the same creativity that he summoned when writing about men (or wells). Some said “The women make themselves unreasonably available,” while others said “I don’t see anything wrong with this.” Meanwhile, some said they actually thought Murakami’s depictions of women were realistic—even convincing.

Then they would turn to me and ask: “What do you think?”

I understand what’s at stake. Among the true pleasures of reading a tale spun by Murakami is the way he makes the world we know a foreign place. Oftentimes, sex functions as a skeleton key, allowing his protagonists access to other worlds. As these protagonists are overwhelmingly heterosexual and male, women must take on the role of sexual accomplice. I recognize that this pattern is present in no small number of his works, and I can understand that there is something to be learned from paying attention to this pattern. But what can we actually understand from this sort of pattern? The author’s personal ethics, obsessions, or attitude toward the world? Does it speak to something in his work obscured beneath the surface? All of the above? When we uncover these patterns, how does that substantively transform the thing we’ve read?

Deeply personal

What is it that I, or you, for that matter, encounter on the personal level when reading Murakami?

There are things that we can glean from patterns we discover, and things these patterns fail to explain. In other words, there are things we can share about our reading experience and things too personal to convey. The joys of reading are innumerable, but what makes it possible at all is the fact that the act of reading, as a practice, is deeply personal. When reading, we encounter things so deeply personal we could never share them with anyone else. I’ve said a little about one of the patterns found in Murakami’s fiction. So, what is it that I, or you, for that matter, encounter on the personal level when reading Murakami?

(translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd )- Lit Hub


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