What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami – An Inspirational Read

Haruki Murakami's Running

Recently, I have started reading the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s works and I love them immensely.  The rather long short stories collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” and the rather short full length novel “After Dark”.  When I saw his [rather short] memoir on the book shelf using running as a central theme, as someone who enjoys jogging once in a blue moon, I bought the book thinking that I may like it.  In fact, more than so, I love “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”.

I often wonder who this person Haruki Murakami is behind the books that are written with such mystery, dreamy abstraction, darkness, and loneliness.  The shocking revelation is that Murakami is someone whom I can relate to.  In his memoir, he talks about him being a workhorse and not a racehorse; on why he prefers sports and activities that he can set his own goals; on the good things derives from “life is not fair”; and amongst other life philosophy of his.  Besides a glimpse of what kind of music he listens to, what products he uses – all in relationship to jogging of course – at the age of 60 (which he did not even mention in his memoir), he has run and completed more marathons and triathlons than most people I know.  Majority of the contents evolve around how he prepares for all these races, mantras that he has derived, and some of the jogging journals – success or failure, official or unofficial (such as running from the Greece town Marathon to Athens – the original marathon in reverse direction as well as an ultramarathon) – all of which are inspirational even if you are not a runner.

“Running” is not your typical page turner.  Some parts on how much pain he suffered and overcame are rather painful to read.  In fact, reading “Running” reminds me of my own rather painful experience back in Mount Kinabalu trip whereby some are touched by my personal journal.  If you enjoy running and or writing, “Running” is a strong recommendation.  In his book, Murakami shares the quality and attributes a novelist should possess.  A humbly written memoir, this book certainly touches me.  I especially admire how he would like his gravestone to say.  And I won’t spoil your reading pleasant by sharing it here.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami – A Dark Beauty of Novelette Filled With Dualism

After reading the short story collection of “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman“, I was left with the feeling of wanting more.  The synopsis of “After Dark” (paperback 201 pages) intrigues me.  It is midnight hour when Mari sips coffee, a young musician walks in, and they have a conversation.  Later, as Mari is alone again, a girl from a love hotel walks in, and they both head to the hotel.  A Chinese prostitute is hurt badly by her client.  Meanwhile, parallel to the main story, Mari’s sister Eri is at home, sleeping so perfectly pure.  Something is subtly wrong with this picture.  The world of imagery meets with the world of reality and how these two concepts morph into something so beautifully, something so surreal, and something so dark in the ending chapter.

Each chapter begins with a clock that tells the time spinning a story that lasts from 11:56pm to 6:52am.  The main story of Mari is engaging and the side story of Eri is surreal.  I mention dualism because if carefully observed, most characters have a two-side.  The story has the light and the dark running side by side too.  The dialogues are lively and when it comes to words that describe the vision.  They are beautiful.  An excerpt as follows (the beginning chapter).

Eyes mark the shape of the city.

Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair.  In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature – or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms.  Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old.  To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm.  Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of the activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city’s moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.

The influence of the Western culture, particularly Western music and literature, continues to exhibit in Haruki Murakami’s work.  It is full of vision and sound and a worthwhile book to read if you enjoy stories that are dark and artistic.  At times, you will find yourself living inside the story, short of interacting with the characters.  Almost read like watching a short film.  For best result, start reading “After Dark” at 11:56pm – the exact time when the story begins.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami – Surreal and Beautifully Written Short Stories

I would be lying to say that I wasn’t stopped by this rather sexy book cover (which later found out that it is rather relevant to the leading story).  But there are plenty of sexy book covers out there to grab attention.  I liked the book title but was not familiar with the author’s name.  I am naturally attracted to foreign writers but shall I invest my time to read an unfamiliar author’s work and to broaden my exposure when my personal reading preference flavors depth than breadth?  I flipped the book open and started reading it, inside a library.

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy.  If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.  The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure.  The green foliage of the trees casts a pleasant shade over the earth, and the wind rustles the leaves, which are sometimes dyed a brilliant gold.  Meanwhile, in the garden, buds appear on flowers, and colourful petals attract bees and butterflies, reminding us of the subtle transition from one season to the next.” – Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, vii.

I love to write and I couldn’t agree with him more.  I have attempted to write both novels and short stories and I often find myself torn between the two.  Why?  Haruki Murakami couldn’t have said it better.

I personally enjoy reading short stories; not used to in the beginning but I have grown accustomed to, and now fall in love with.  On that count, I simply cannot, for instance, get enough of Italo Calvino’s work – an Italian author who wrote lots of great short stories.

“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” is a collection of short stories written in the period of 1981 to 2005.  And they are translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin.  I can’t really pinpoint a common theme across all these 25 stories (334 pages, hardcover).  All I can say is that Haruki Murakami has a keen sense of observation at the most minute detail.  You can actually see the story as you read it.  And Haruki Murakami’s stories are mostly surreal, at times metaphoric.  I sense that some stories are inspired by certain bizarre news that most people disregard.  Some stories are written using himself as the main character so I gather that these stories relate to people in his real life and are told with a certain dose of imagination.  Some supposedly fictional characters read almost like the author himself with a changed name.  Some fictional characters are, I believe, purely fictional.

In short, there are no ordinary stories when told by Haruki Murakami, even those with plots that do not resolve into any dramatic ending.

Out of these 25 stories, some leave a deeper impression than others.  The four and a half pages long short story “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos”, for instance, is one of my favorites.  The author wrote about a man bringing his girlfriend who wanted to see a baby kangaroo to visit a zoo.  “Man-Eating Cats” started with a piece of news reporting on an old woman who died in her apartment and the hungry cats locked inside had nothing to eat but to feed on the dead body .  The story itself is nothing gross to that extend but a good metaphor that links the main character with an, perhaps, imaginary lover?  The story “Firefly” is a beautiful love story of perpetual waiting while “Chance Traveller” is an emotional story between the two estranged siblings.  “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is a carefully crafted story that is told within a story and the last chapter “A Shinagawa Monkey” exposes our very own psychological subconciousness and identity with the help of a … talking monkey that steals name tags.

The opening chapter “Blind Willows, Sleeping Woman” may as well be a representative piece of work from the book with the same title – a statement of what Haruki Murakami’s unique style is all about, at least for this book.

Certainly, I intend to follow the rabbit hole and dig deep into what Haruki Murakami has to offer.  To end this review, I found this rather interesting dialogue between the main character – an author – and a subject of his affection.

“Writers don’t have any talents to offer.  A pianist could play you a tune.  A painter could draw you a sketch.  A magician could perform a trick or two.  There’s not much a writer can do.” – Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, 293.