Sunday, October 26, 2008

Haruki Murakami, Cal, and Obsessive Lonely Men

Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite short story writers (and an accomplished novelist), recently received the inaugural Berkeley Japan Prize — that's Berkeley as in University of California at... (a.k.a. 'Cal' for those who wonder if people wearing a Cal hat are actually named Cal.)

I don't read enough of his work, but wherever I find something about him, I enjoy learning about a man who is either a natural writer or the most unlikely writer you'd ever meet. To my mind, that obvious contradiction is an example of why he's so interesting a writer. For example, he decided while attending a baseball game that he was going to become a writer. No training. According to the Cal press release: "When asked about the revelation that led him to writing at age 29, the author described watching his favorite baseball team, the Yakult Swallows, in 1978. An American player on the team, Dave Hilton, hit a double, and as Murakami cryptically explained it, 'On that sunny day drinking beer, I just knew I could write.' Soon thereafter he submitted his first short novel, Hear the Wind Sing, to a publisher, and saw it win the Gunzou Literature Prize for promising young writers in 1979."

I wasn't aware that his nonfiction book Underground was based on interviews with people who survived the 1995 Sarin gas attack in the Japanese subway system. The victims — mostly commuting workers — told boring stories, he said. But, he added, “if you try hard to listen, to like them, to love them, then their stories become interesting. Everyone has his own story.”

I couldn't agree more.

My boring/interesting story is this: In 1994, I attempted to become a teacher of English in Japan through the YMCA. I was working in a Y at the time and a colleague who knew I was unsatisfied with my job encouraged me to try the teaching program in Japan. He was Japanese and said he thought I would fit in well there, unlike many Americans (I'm not entirely sure I understand why, but I took it as a compliment.) I studied and prepared and I thought I did well in my interview. For reasons I've forgotten now, I'd felt that I would probably end up in an area near Kobe. But I never made it to another round of interviews. The number of available spots was severely cut back (I'd been among 32 people interviewed for 16 spots, but then the number was cut to either eight or four, I don't recall which now.) I left the job and, as fate would have it, ended up meeting the woman who is now my wife. Kobe, Japan, experienced a devastating earthquake. And I was left that classic writer's question: What if?

It was more than ten years before I read Haruki Murakami again. Perhaps none of this is related.

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