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17th October 2011

Tailor Made for Students

A peek at the labyrinthian mind of Haruki Murakami

Sometimes, that copy of Crime and Punishment or your un-translated stack of Ovid can look a bit daunting at university. Whiskey and music will be waiting downstairs, taunting and laughing at you as you read the same sentence on page three for the 100th time in five hours. It’s only a matter of time before you snap. You’ll scream, rip the book to shreds and down a keg of gin and tonic while your housemates sit in their pants, play Scalextric and half-arsedly egg you on. Then you’ll wake up the next morning feeling terrible that you didn’t, as you had promised yourself, get to that bit where Achilles kills Hektor. Or something.

Just as bad would be to give in and read some wholly vacuous trash that you can skim through in the same amount of time it takes to watch the Jennifer Anniston film it’s based on. So where, where can you find a wonderful middle ground? A book which is a riot to read but which you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen leafing through in public? Well, of course, there are loads. But no other author seems to write books as tailor made for students as Haruki Murakami.

Murakami is a highly original Japanese author, whose novels often utilise magic realism and dark, looping narratives. Seemingly paradoxically, his books are as utterly baffling as they are completely accessible. If you’re a fan of predictable plots and tied-up ends, steer well clear of this one. His novels don’t follow any formula I can think of. Constant, bewildering madness hits you at every page, until you’re almost physically reacting to it. Truckloads of apparent nonsense whirl around in no particular order, acres and acres of it, like a swirling vortex of incomprehension. You have absolutely no idea what is going on most of the time, but are still incurably gripped. Their unconventional, bounding plots and unexplained occurrences and symbolism make them almost poetic, but also wholly un-putdownable.

If you’re not gasping and wincing and laughing and crying in confusion (which you usually are, simultaneously and all the time) then you’re reading an incredibly explicit sex scene. You’ll always think there’s some context or reason for it happening, but there isn’t. In fact, sometimes you don’t know if it even is happening, or if it’s just the imagination of the main character. That’s the case in Kafka on the Shore, a 600 page monster but which you will get through in two days purely by its incredibly gripping, lucid writing style. And maybe, if you’re not reading excruciatingly descriptive sex scenes, you’re reading scenes of unimaginable horror that will keep you awake for two weeks after you read it. There’s a section I still think about and shudder in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I won’t give it away, but it involves skinning.

None of what I have said fits the description of Norwegian Wood, which is Murakami’s most famous and most popular novel for some reason. That one is an almost completely by-the-books tragic love story. It’s the sort of book you’ll tilt your head at once you’ve read the last page and generously give a B+. Something mad like 60% of the Japanese population has read Norwegian Wood and there’s recently been a predictably ‘kind-of-alright’ film based on it, released on the island to mind-bending box office success. Their love of that novel over his other more surrealist works is almost as confusing as the plots of those books themselves.

The prior mentioned Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle are the ones to look out for. If you liked them, pick up a copy of After Dark, and maybe Dance Dance Dance and Sputnik Sweetheart. He has recently released a novel called 1984. Don’t know if anyone told him that that title is taken already.

A lot of the time the characters in Murakami novels are students at university, flitting between doing student things and being manipulated by the labyrinthian maze that is Murakami’s mind. So there you are. If you want a real contemporary page-turner, which is also semi-relatable and genuinely good literature, look no further than this sparkling gem of an author.


Stephen Jones

Stephen Jones

Former Film editor (2010-2011), Literature editor (2011-2012), Big Cheese at the Cracker Factory (2009-present)One must always judge a book by its cover.

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