Japan's Murakami says metaphor more real after 9/11

TOKYO Sun Nov 22, 2009 10:51pm EST

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami attends a ceremony awarding him with a prize at the 24th International book fair in Jerusalem February 15, 2009. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami attends a ceremony awarding him with a prize at the 24th International book fair in Jerusalem February 15, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - In the chaotic world after the Cold War and the September 11 2001 attacks, Japanese author Haruki Murakami says metaphors can be even more powerful than what's real -- a reason why his surreal books are read worldwide.

"I think people are gradually starting to understand and accept the realness of unreal things," Murakami, one of the most widely read Japanese novelists in the world, told Reuters in a rare media interview.

"While it is necessary to write about the post-Cold War ways of the world, no matter how realistically it may be written, it can't be expressed sufficiently. The only way it could be written about is through metaphors," he said.

The 60-year-old novelist, a regular in Nobel literature prize predictions, has been writing in Japanese for three decades. His novels, short stories and essays have been translated into more than 40 languages.

In May, he published the two-volume, 1,055-page novel "1Q84," a title suggestive of George Orwell's "1984" as the Japanese word for 9 is pronounced the same as the English letter "Q."

"First, there was George Orwell's 1984, a novel about the near future... I wanted to write something that was the opposite of that, a novel on the recent past that shows how things could have been," Murakami said.

The book alternates chapters between two characters, a female named Aomame and a male named Tengo. It deals with themes such as cults and abuse, loss, as well as sex, love and murder.

Incidents such as the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities and the Tokyo subway gas attack in 1995 by a religious cult drove Murakami to write the novel.

"To me, 9/11 does not feel like an incident that took place in the real world. Somewhere, there must be a world in which this didn't happen," he said.

"I am always doubtful about whether this world that I am in now is the real one. Somewhere in me, I feel there is a world that may not have been this way."

Over 2.2 million copies of "1Q84" had been printed in Japan as of October.

CULTS AND CRISIS

In the story, Tengo meets a mysterious teenage girl who has escaped from a religious cult founded by her father.

Murakami has been pursuing the topic of why people follow cults ever since he wrote "Underground," a compilation of some 60 interviews with victims of the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack that killed 12 and injured thousands.

"There is the question of how to live and what to keep as a core set of values. But those values are lacking now, and I think cults will continue to attract people," he said. "What we can do is to provide a different core set of values from them."

While his themes are varied, Murakami's distinctive writing style, consisting of simple words and phrases that read similar to translated novels, has remained the same through the years.

Murakami, who is also a translator of many American novels including "The Great Gatsby," said translating has helped him learn about good writing.

He wrote the beginning of his first novel "Hear the Wind Sing" in English, then translated it into Japanese, a process that he said helped him establish his own writing style.

"I am not particularly conscious of the Japanese elements in the Japanese language. People often say Japanese is beautiful... but I would like to use it as a tool to write stories," he said.

"My goal is to use simple words to tell complicated stories."

The media-shy writer graduated from Tokyo's Waseda University and ran a jazz club with his wife before becoming a novelist.

He is working on the third volume of "1Q84," which he said could be released in May 2010, adding that it expands on the previous volumes, which are now being translated into English.

And while many expect him to win the Nobel prize, Murakami said the most important prize for him is his readers. "People tend to look only at prizes and numbers, but those are merely results, and they don't have meaning in themselves," he said.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)