Haruki Murakami, Memory, and the Seven-Year Novel

Throughout my adult life, I’ve been drawn to the novels of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. For some reason, his novels, and the experiences that I’ve had while reading them, remain quite vivid in my mind. There was the time in the summer of 2009 when I sat poolside, watching the lap-swimmers paddle from one end to the next, as I read Kafka by the Shore. Later, in the fall of that year, I devoured The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle while I rode the commuter train home from College Park. In my first year of graduate school, a colleague gave me a copy of What I Think About When I Think About Running, Murakami’s memoir about running and homage to Raymond Carver whom Murakami, himself, translated into Japanese. There is something about Murakami’s writing, the interiority of his fiction and the nostalgia of his prose that has made me associate memory with his works.Screen Shot 2020-04-15 at 11.34.44 PM

For as long as I have considered myself a reader, Murakami has been there, with a ringing payphone ready to send me and his protagonists into a shadow realm or an elevator to the recesses of consciousness. In this way, reading Murakami makes me think of memory in the way that Toni Morrison writes about memory and the Mississippi River: “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it always was.” Murakami is the “flood,” he’s the writer whose work flows back into my life at various moments, marking the time the way the water expands the banks of a river, a tributary, a stream, or an insignificant rivulet of running water.

These past few weeks, I’ve been returning to books that I’ve set aside, their pages marked with a rectangular placeholder, either a business card or a bookmark. For almost eight months, I’ve had a bookmark I purchased at a Tennessee craft fair placed two thirds of the way through Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, his three-part novel about an alternative 1984. In the past year and change I’ve carried this book from bedroom to living room more times than I can count. The book has traveled with me to conferences, on vacations, to my brother’s bachelor party, and to at least two of last year’s six weddings. From January 2019-May 2019 I read the first two of the three-book series in stolen time between waking and lesson planning, at night before I fell asleep with the book splayed on top of me, and in small snippets of time waiting for a plane, a travel companion to ready themselves, or for the day to start in earnest. But, to be completely honest, my journey with 1Q84 began seven years ago, when I bought it to reward myself for finishing my senior year of college.1Q84

I first started 1Q84 the day before my last exam of my final semester of undergrad. Exam week was always one of my favorite times of the semester because, as an English and French major, most of my exams were already done by the time exam week arrived, all I had to do was hit send on an already composed final paper. Because of this, I was able to immediately turn to my neglected stack of books to be read that I had accumulated during the semester. I often started reading a new book to distract from the stress of any in-person exams I needed to sit for, usually a French course, but sometimes a science or math course. I would read these books on my commute on the DC Metro, giving myself about 45 minutes of solid reading time in each direction a day. I relied on this reading to keep myself balanced and ready to take my exams, but the act of rewarding myself helped me ease into a winter or summer vacation rhythm where things would be inevitably less hectic.

I remember that I couldn’t wait for my commute to begin 1Q84, so I started the evening before, reading the first hundred or so pages of the book that night. As I headed to my exam in the morning, I carried the heavy multi-volume tome with me, reading it along the way. But then, for some reason, after our exam, which wasn’t so much an exam as it was a presentation of our final projects, I stopped reading 1Q84. I don’t even really remember what caused me to stop reading, I enjoyed the prose, the intrigue. Everything about the start of the novel reminded me of why I loved reading Haruki Murakami. Was it that I was starting graduate school in the fall? Was it that I was reeling from my mercurial relationship at the time? I can’t remember.

All I know is that reading Murakami changed for me then and his writing means something different to me seven years later. I started re-reading 1Q84 last spring when I first started applying for academic jobs, when the possibility of finishing my PhD became a reality; I picked 1Q84 back up this spring when the possibility of finishing my PhD became a reality once more. Although I managed to complete the novel this spring, I now know that reading Murakami is more about returning to a feeling, a rhythm, a memory. Murakami helps me with periods of transition and allows me to escape to his strange realms and imagined worlds. Murakami’s writing is for me like Morrison writes about water, “forever trying to get back to where it always was.”


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