By Andrés Muñoz
Have you ever had a very immersive dream? Many of us can barely remember stuff the moment we wake up, but I daresay that Japanese author Haruki Murakami has a direct line to our subconscious. One of the most famous writers of the past decades, Murakami is known for his deeply immersive narratives punctuated by dreamlike scenarios and environments.
At the risk of sounding like a first-year literature teacher, where do we draw the line between a real story and a magical one? This is where Murakami lives.
Here are four of his books for you to dive into.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The very first Murakami book I read was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a wonderful work of psychological fiction and one of Murakami’s most famous novels. It is the story of Toru Okada, a stay-at-home husband who starts a journey in search of his missing cat. Along the way, he will meet a cast of strange characters, some of which enter and exit the story as quickly as they pop in. Among these are his brother-in-law Noboru Wataya, the Kano sisters, Creta and Malta (strangely named after islands in the Mediterranean), and his wife, Kumiko, who weirdly disappears at a point in the novel.
The seemingly erratic pace sets you up for his writing style, a mental maze full of twists and turns. When you seem like you are lost, Murakami reintroduces elements that start to tie the story together. Very much the way a dream takes place, there are very precise descriptions of places and characters that get seared into your mind but from an overarching perspective. These are the blips on the radar that help you put everything together. Many consider this to be his masterpiece.
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
Another powerful story is Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage. This is the tale of a man who was suddenly cast aside by his group of friends when he was young. Many years later, Tsukuru is all grown up, designing train stations for a train company in Tokyo for a living. Motivated by his girlfriend to discover what really happened, he starts a journey to reconnect with his old friends and uncover why he was ostracised. The novel focuses heavily on how we focus our identity and psychology on what others think of ourselves.
What I liked the most about this one is that it’s far less “dreamy” than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; it takes us to different places around Japan and shares much more grounded stories of each of the characters in the group. The story is poignant through and through, its sadness being a powerful driving force that leaves you wondering.
Norwegian Wood was published in 1987 and shot Murakami to fame in Japan. It is a novel about young love and how we interact with those we care about when they are going through highs and lows. It is a series of recollections of Toru, a middle-aged man. He reminisces about his time as a young college student and how he meets two girls, Naoko and Kizuki. After Kizuki dies by suicide, Naoko is emotionally shattered and commits herself to a sanatorium outside of Kyoto. Toru loves Naoko and struggles to be there for her. At the same time, he meets the cheerful, upbeat and outgoing Midori Kobayashi. Toru starts having feelings for her, as she is Naoko’s polar opposite, and he grapples with his conflicting emotions.
A novel aimed at youngsters, this one—like the rest of Murakami’s work—is filled with elements of pop culture. When your book shares its title with a Beatles song, you know there will be musical elements, but it also has a nice portrayal of Japan in the 60s.
Last but not least is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I will keep the spoilers to a minimum.
1Q84 is a story that takes place in our world and at the same time in a different world. It’s a tale of lovers, assassins, religious cults, classical Czech composers, and the intricate universe of literary contests in Japan. Unlike other stories I’ve mentioned, this one changes narrators throughout, providing us a grand perspective on the entire story. It is beautifully structured, with parts I and II launched in 2009 and Part III a few months later in 2010. The “Q” in the title is a play on words, as “Q” and “9” sound the same in Japanese. It’s also a jab at George Orwell’s dystopian novel.
I hope that these four titles serve as a launchpad for you to discover the rich and vast world of Haruki Murakami! You’ll be weaving in and out of dreams, pop culture, and magical realism set in Japan. What other title should we include? Share it with us in the comments section below!