Forget DeLillo and Pynchon-Murakami’s the Guy for Me

When it comes to reading, I’m a hit man. If a book doesn’t thrill me by page 5, it sleeps with the fishes. Often I ice them after a paragraph. Cold Mountain held me for 20 pages before I said, You’re beautiful, but I know where you want to take me and I’ve got plans, and turned one of those rifles back on it. Great books plead for their lives, so I let them live-for weeks. Right now, I’m halfway through Lolita, Daniel Deronda, even slender Breakfast at Tiffany’s .

All killers yearn to be ravished themselves, and every couple of years I give a huge sigh when I learn that it can still happen to me. For three days last month, a book was the most important thing in my life again. At page 200, I was looking at the last page, 611, and ruing that it was that short. I remember being in a lobby somewhere with a friend, and when she went to the bathroom, sinking to the foot of a column and undoing my backpack to get It out, stealing two or three pages while she was away.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , by Haruki Murakami, came out in October with high hopes. The Japanese author had lately been profiled in The New Yorker . New York magazine put its full weight behind the book. Mr. Murakami has partisans in such literary lights as Bret Easton Ellis, Robert Gottlieb and the poet Tess Gallagher, and the crack team of editor Gary Fisketjon and designer Chip Kidd helped make The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the most elegant object a novel could ever be (only halfway through did I notice that the page numbers were traveling). Knopf hoped that it would at last break the 48-year-old author out of a cult American following “into the vast audience that he already enjoys on his home turf.”

But it hasn’t happened, and that surprises and saddens me. I gather the first print run was around 25,000, and there hasn’t been a second. Nowadays, books have to be “event-ized.” Mr. Murakami is said to be self-conscious about his English and loath to tour, and the biggest event was a reading he gave last month at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, jammed by nearly 600 people. Mr. Murakami’s agent, Amanda Urban, says the book is still building and will be on a best seller list in San Francisco.

But the most powerful voice in literary criticism didn’t like the book. What have we come to that a reader as hateful of daring and spirit as Michiko Kakutani has become the certifier of the Literary? She’s been too long at the job, and a lot of the candles have flickered out. She likes her books crafted, stoop-shouldered, tidy, and the giant, howling Wind-Up Bird Chronicle scared her. She called it confused and messy and filled with “portentous red herrings.”

The only thing I can say about Ms. Kakutani’s criticisms is that they’re all true-and they don’t matter a whit. There are many big things wrong with Great Expectations , too. I read this book as what J. D. Salinger called an “amateur reader,” thankful to wander around in a powerful storyteller’s hold. And unlike the stuffy juggernauts that Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon wheeled out this year, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle lacks mannerism. It is written in plain speech and contains passages that are simply transcendent.

I’ll try to convey one. The book is set in present-day Tokyo with flashbacks to Manchuria and Mongolia. In 1938 in the wilderness, a Mongolian patrol captures a band of Japanese spies. Corporal Honda, who is psychic, murmurs to Lieutenant Mamiya that he will survive. Then, stripped naked in the cold, Mamiya is forced to watch as his leader, Yamamoto, is skinned alive by a Mongol shepherd.

“The man started by slitting open Yamamoto’s shoulder and proceeded to peel off the skin of his right arm from the top down-slowly, carefully, almost lovingly. As the Russian officer had said, it was something like a work of art. One would never have imagined there was any pain involved if it weren’t for the screams.”

Mamiya survives the night, to be dropped by the Mongolians (and pissed on) at the bottom of a deep well. Until Honda rescues him some days later, he is in complete darkness but for moments when the sun suddenly shines straight down.

“I feel as if, in the intense light that shone for a mere 10 or 15 seconds a day in the bottom of the well, I burned up the very core of my life until there was nothing left. That is how mysterious that light was to me. I can’t explain it very well, but as honestly and simply as I can state it, no matter what I have encountered, no matter what I have experienced since then, I ceased to feel anything in the bottom of my heart … That was the time for me to die. But … I did not die there. Or perhaps I should say that I could not die there.”

A well is Haruki Murakami’s metaphor for the limits of individual consciousness. There is a whole other world surrounding us that we are only dimly aware of. That’s where his work tries to go. I suppose it bears mentioning that Mr. Murakami’s father, from whom he is estranged, was a teacher of Japanese literature and that Buddhist priests run in the family. Also, that his work is utterly lacking in psychological insight. That’s just not his area.

Mr. Murakami is lately resettled in Japan after years of living in Europe and the United States. I met him in 1991 when he was teaching at Princeton. He was a small, formal, shy man who told me that he had left Japan in large part to escape fame. For a time, he had run a jazz bar; then, after the publication of his most accessible book, Norwegian Wood , he became so famous that people invited him everywhere and resented him when he failed to appear.

“People despise you and are pulling your legs, it’s a Japanese expression,” he said. “That was the most unhappy period of my life. I was happy when I was not so much famous.”

At Princeton, he led a quiet life, researching the war chapters of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle . I went to a class on Japanese literature where Mr. Murakami answered questions about his first book, Hear the Wind Sing . He told the class he always sought to make his books fun.

“What do you mean by fun?” a student asked earnestly.

Haruki Murakami got a faintly puzzled look. “Fun-is fun.”

When I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , I wrote a letter to Robert Gottlieb to thank him for bringing the author to me. In 1990, when he was editor of The New Yorker, Mr. Gottlieb had run a strange story by Mr. Murakami, “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” that had hooked me. After that, I’d gone to the Strand and found a shelf full of A Wild Sheep Chase , the wiggy page-turner that was Mr. Murakami’s first American publication, by Kodansha International, with a photograph of him on the back cover holding a white cat in a Turkish rug bazaar. Then, in the old Zen bookstore at 521 Fifth Avenue, I’d found hand-sized English editions of other Murakami books published only in Japan, sold here like contraband.

Mr. Gottlieb wrote a polite note back on Knopf stationery saying he was flattered. “Yes, it was I who brought Murakami to The New Yorker ,” he said. Then I faxed him, and he called me at home.

He said he’d stumbled on Mr. Murakami many years ago when he judged a translation contest at Columbia and read Pinball , 1973. “It was wild, it was crazy, it piqued everyone’s interest. But it didn’t win.” Then Mr. Gottlieb came to A Wild Sheep Chase . “I read it and absolutely loved it, as who would not.”

The writer was “obviously prodigious,” Mr. Gottlieb said. I asked who he would compare him to.

“If what I’m reading is good, I usually don’t think of comparison. What you respond to if you’re a good reader is an original voice that isn’t like anything else. It’s like itself.”

I went to midtown to buy the Japanese-published translations of Norwegian Wood as a Christmas present for a friend. But at Kinokuniya on West 49th Street, the sales manager said they won’t sell the edition in the States because Haruki Murakami dislikes the translation and asked them not to. Later, I found the pretty little green- and red-covered volumes, complete with bookmarks that say, “Enjoy Reading English!” at Asahiya, on Vanderbilt Avenue. Still, I was struck by Mr. Murakami’s integrity, that he would forgo sales because he cared so much about his words. (And Ms. Urban, his agent, said that he has lately recovered the rights to the book with an eye to having it retranslated.)

Later, Haruki Murakami’s translator, Jay Rubin, a professor of Japanese literature at Harvard, made a related point. Mr. Murakami is so devoted to Raymond Carver that he has translated his collected stories into Japanese, “a handsome eight-volume uniform library.” He is now working on the poems. Letters may be next. “In other words, Carver is more accessible in Japanese than in English,” Professor Rubin said.

Do you understand the shame in that? Here is one of our modern masters, yet the Japanese are more interested in “Reimondo Kava” than we are.

This is the state of books in popular culture. Maybe it’s lamentable, but it’s just true. Publishers buy books without reading them through, then so does the public. Serious books are sold widely now only by being compared to famous predecessors or by being made into promotional paradigms or events. Don DeLillo’s breakout book. Or, So-and-so’s Underworld . And has anyone even read it? Then a stunning work of art comes along that bears no comparison, and nobody cares. Forget DeLillo and Pynchon-Murakami’s the Guy for Me