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April 21, 2009

Review: What I Talk about when I Talk about Running (Murakami)

Murakami Haruki has written several bookshelves full of non-fiction works, usually still available as "bunkobon" (pocket books) in Japan, but none had appeared in English so far. That was not surprising: Murakami writes a sort of "light essays" that share the colloquial "talking to myself" style with his novels, but on a level of much less tension, not to say artistry. In fact, his non-fiction is mostly rather trivial. What about this first non-fiction work to be translated?

I am afraid it is not so different from his other light essays. Of course, Murakami remains the pleasant narrator he always is - the kind of guy to whose soliloquies we could listen for hours after meeting him in a bar. Sometimes there are interesting observations, such as the body count of dead dogs and cats when he is running in Greece from Athens to Marathon.

But more often his observations are extremely banal. When overtaken by pretty girls with bouncing ponytails running on the boards of the Charles River in Boston, he ruminates that "new generations overtake the old." He is not running for competition, he says elsewhere, and occasionally losing doesn't matter because “On the highway of life, you can’t always be in the fast lane.” Does anyone want more of such wisdom gems?

If Murakami had written up such banalities as the thoughts of one of his protagonists in his fiction, we would praise him for aptly catching the emptiness of our present time. Unfortunately, these are his own thoughts... this book is like a hole through which he reveals his own emptiness, there is not a deeper thought about writing or running or whatever in the whole book. Or perhaps I should say Murakami reveals his ordinariness: for isn't he trying to be just another, nice simple guy, really one of us?

Murakami started running when he started writing seriously, to keep in good condition. He runs a marathon every year and tries to practice almost daily. Running is a logical sport to take up for a writer, he says, because both running and writing are solitary endeavors. They both require inner motivation and consistent effort. (But as the commentator in the German newspaper Die Zeit points out, constantly running is not the best training for a marathon - interval training gives better results.)

Murakami compares running to writing: also writing, in his view, is something he has to push himself to daily for 4 hours. Consistency, endurance, plodding on. But does that always lead to great literature? Especially in Kafka on the Shore I felt Murakami was pushing himself to keep writing, in order to fill the large framework he had designed, without having much to say. Most of the book is boring - some great parts as the episode of the sardines raining from the sky, excluded. Isn't Murakami basically a writer of short forms who pushes himself too much to write large novels? His early stories are still his best work.

This is not a great book about running. This is not a great book about writing. This is not a book that gives new information about Murakami Haruki (nothing that was not already included in Jay Rubin's Murakami Haruki and the Music of Words), let alone any deeper insights... Perhaps Murakami Haruki should stop being a nice guy. He should stop being an easy and popular author. He should get angry and finally write something great.

[By the way, the title of the book is a riff on a title by Raymond Carver, an author translated by Murakami, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love]