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Wednesday, 26 July 2006

Murakami: “No to radical nationalism”

The Japanese writer attacks the governor of Tokyo who has imposed flag-raising in schools and denounces revisionism of WWII.

Translation of an article by Giovanna Zucconi that appeared in Italian journal La Stampa, 10 July.

Either by coincidence or out of obstinacy the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami evokes the same, identical scene, and with the same, identical displeasure, in his most famous novel, which is from almost twenty years ago and is being republished now in Italian, and in his more recent declarations: it’s the scene of the flag-raising. For him, the worst of the worst. The fifth novel by Murakami appeared in 1987, had a formidable success, was translated by Feltrinelli as Tokyo Blues and reappears from Einaudi as Norwegian Wood: which is the original title, but it is also the title of the Beatles song that, acting like a sonorous madeleine on the now thirty-seven-year-old protagonist, flings him into the memory of his delayed adolescence — a suicide friend, an eccentric room-mate, so much loneliness, so many books, two girls to chose between. In the beginning, as soon as the spark of memory shoots out, a landscape reappears, in the landscape a young girl whose face is now lost and a well that still calls up vivid anxieties (there’s always a well in Murakami’s dark universe).

Immediately afterward, the protagonist Toru Watanabe is in his student dormitory, in Tokyo, run disturbingly by people of the far-right: and here, “the days at college started always with the solemn ceremony of the flag-raising”. Every morning always at the same time two strange men dressed always in the same way appear in the garden, and with unchanging gestures one extracts the flag from its case and hoists it up the pole, the other turns on the tape recorder with the national anthem, then both straighten their backs and, with heads high, look straight at the flag waving in the breeze. The scene is short, dry — and makes you shudder.

A few days ago, twenty years after writing Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami granted an interview that ran in the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post, saying that he was “very disturbed” by the growth of nationalism in Japan: “As a writer, I feel as if I have to do something,” he said, revealing that his next novel would be in fact about Japanese nationalism. Primary target for Murakami, in the interview, is the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, “a very dangerous man,” famous precisely for having required flag-raising, the singing of the national anthem included, in all public schools in the capital.

The governor hates China, says Murakami, rekindling the polemics of some years ago around the Sino-Japanese war. In China he’s extremely famous (his novels have sold three million copies, since the appearance of Norwegian Wood in 1989), and certainly also very popular for the stance he takes. For him, as he said in another controversial interview, the danger in Japan “isn’t fascism, rather it is nationalism and revisionism. They say there was no massacre at Nanking, no problem with Chinese and Korean women being sexually enslaved by the Japanese army. They rewrite history, and that is very dangerous. Nobody can deny the past, but they are doing it. We shouldn’t be prisoners of the past, but remember is as it was.”

It’s also due to his political radicalism that Murakami, now fifty-five, is still in synch with younger readers, with whom he talks with rare openness (his fans are true fans, stubborn, they argued with him over details in the most recent of his novels translated into English, like Kafka on the Ashore). Murakami is an ‘outsider’ but, then again, as Giorgio Amitrano explains in his introduction to Norwegian Wood, is very good at catching without banality the spirit of the times, at sweeping away stereotypes, at mixing high and pop culture, tradition and sentiment.

It’s possible that this novel intersects, as they say, with Catcher in the Rye and David Copperfield. It is extremely possible that the glance backward that the protagonist makes, toward the Sixties, had its first impulse in another distance, that between Murakami and Japan: when he wrote it he was in Rome, in the suburbs; he saw from his windows the loops of the Tiber and the dust on a soccer field; clouds, wind and rain seemed to him “strange and mysterious”, and for us today mysterious and beautiful his story.

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