Haruki Murakami and the literary world of music

Murakami is a Japanese author of contemporary fiction – whose novels are taking the literary world by storm. His style is defined by mystical realism; his characters are contemplative and complex beings who engage in a spiritual and material world. The plots are intriguing; they teeter between both real life and pure lunacy. But this is definitely part of their charm and make Murakami’s writing style completely unique. The two books I’ve read – Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore – made a real impression on me, probably because of how introspective and insightful the characters are. But what also drew me in was the importance he gives music in his stories and how much it means to the characters.

Generally speaking, Murakami is a music enthusiast. He estimates that he owns around 10,000 records: a mixture of his favourite genres of classical, jazz, and American pop. There’s actually a public playlist on Spotify titled Haruki Murakami’s Vinyl Collection – which features an extensive list of music – over 250 hours’ worth and around 3,500 songs. Music also forms a part of his literary creation process, he says:

‘’whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music – and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody – which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony – the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow’’.

The way Murakami likens literature to music is quite poetic; for him, music has narrativity – it tells a story.

The first book I read was Norwegian wood, which tells a complex coming-of-age tale between Toru, a quiet and serious young college student, and Naoko, a fascinating and introspective young woman. After the suicide of their old college friend, both characters struggle with mental illness and depression. Both retreat into the forests, where the simplicity of nature and music forms a part of their healing process. More specifically is the prominence of the Beatles song Norwegian Wood, and the link between the song’s ambiguous lyrics and the novel’s allusive nature is quite striking. The most popular interpretation of the lyrics is that it tells the story of a man’s failed relationship, his desire to escape pain, and his longing for a simpler life. Toru and Naoko’s retreat into the forests, where it is just the simplicity of them, music, and nature, parallel this narrative.

Kafka on the Shore explores music as a powerful force for triggering introspection. The novel focuses on young Kafka, a 15-year-old boy who runs away from his father’s dark prophecy, and Nakata, an old man with the ability to talk to cats. Music is used as a communicative medium throughout the novel, whereby characters engage with philosophical questions about the difference between spirit and body. Kafka on the Shore, for example, is a song written by the character Miss Saeki in her youth as an embodiment of her young love for her boyfriend. When hearing this music, Kafka as well as Miss Saeki are transported back to a time when he was alive; they both transcend their body and feel the presence of his spirit. Classical music also features heavily, which is used as a literary device for self-reflection. While recklessly driving, Oshima declares he would die peacefully if he was listening to a Schubert Piano Sonata, for its calming nature would transcend the physical brutality he would go through if he crashed. The character of Hoshino too, having never taken an interest in music before, is transfixed by a Beethoven sonata. He can’t explain what is it, but there is something in the music which speaks to him.

In an accessible way, Murakami’s novels praise music’s physical and nonphysical natures. Music is one of our simple pleasures in life, and like in Norwegian Wood, listening to music can heal and bring us happiness and hope. But it can also transport us into reflective and introspective states. I think Murakami’s incorporation of music into his literature makes for really insightful reads.

Featured image by Jennilyn Rescuber  

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