Last week, I got the chance to attend an afternoon of readings and on-stage interviews with Haruki Murakami in Møn, Denmark. Although the interviewers were fairly unimaginative and failed to probe below the surface or pursue any of the interesting points made by the author, Murakami was such a charming, unpretentious and earnestly thoughtful speaker that it nevertheless turned out a great session.

I’m fairly new to Murakami’s work, having only read a couple of his novels and short stories, but found it pretty compelling — if perhaps unsurprising — how his work process and whole approach to writing, as he described it, so closely mirrors the way his protagonists experience life and events. Murakami described the creative process as descending into the subbasement of a house and letting the darkness dictate the writing. He emphasised that he avoids research entirely when writing his first draught, only turning to source material and implementing factual corrections from the second draught onward.

He said that he starts with a word or an image, from which the story unfolds, but doesn’t plan anything out ahead. “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta”, is the opening sentence of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami described how his first question would then be, ‘who’s on the phone?’ and then he would go with the idea that came to him, worrying about who the anonymous woman he has talking sex to the protagonist is and what her call means later — or not at all, as the work may dictate.

He further described this state as an open one, as unbiased a possible, with the writer acting as a conduit more than an arbitrator. Some arbitration surely comes in as the work progresses — he doesn’t, after all, write stream-of-consciousness — but it still goes a long way toward explaining the unresolved nature of his stories and the sense of occluded determination that guides them. His protagonists tend to reflect himself as he works: passive, at times even detached, but observant, open to whatever may happen. There’s a lack of judgement in their behaviour, as if their first impulse is to roll with the turn of events, however bizarre it may be. There’s a curious lack of questioning, of search for sense, to their choices and actions. However, things nevertheless end up a certain way because of them.

While never really admitting it to himself, or us, the first-person protagonist of the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle lets his unencumbered love for his lost wife dictate his path through the narrative, indirectly but clearly curbing the largely obscure evil personified by her brother, Noburo Wataya. Ultimately, however, we sense that he is powerless to affect the world in any decisive way, something that is indicated by the heartbreaking story told to him by the ageing Lieutenant Mamiya and his vain efforts to stop the evil that is poisoning the world around him.

One therefore understands why the very analogous protagonist of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, torn between being a pawn in the workings of external reality and an immortal demiurge in the beautiful, but fading, lifeless internal one to which he is being condemned without his consent, ends up choosing the latter. Murakami’s great insight, as far as I can tell, is his sense that reality is an ever-changing condition, over which we have little control, but which we can actively observe and live with. Alone.

Image from Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.