Chances are that, if you have ever had any personal contact with me, I have ranted to you about my love for Haruki Murakami. To be fair, it is one of my many obsessions I can talk about for hours and hours. Especially once I’ve had some wine. Me and Murakami’s story is simple: I was once scrolling through Tumblr (before it died, obviously) and I came across a photo set of ten books. One of these books was Norwegian Wood. I felt like the book was calling me, luring me in like a siren song. It took me well over a year to buy my copy though. In the summer of 2015, I went to visit my family in Los Angeles. Somewhere along the trip I dragged my aunt to Barnes & Noble and there she bought me the book that had been haunting me. I am not the type of person who believes in destiny and spiritual stuff like that, but I am thankful to the person who reblogged that photoset to my dashboard, and even more to my aunt for actually buying me my first copy. Both opened the doors to the hard-boiled wonderland I would like to call Haruki Heaven.
Today is the day I will write down all my thoughts, opinions, and feelings about my 10 favorite books written by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. Holding one of his books in my hands always gives me joy and I feel so refreshed after reading his work. It might sound sappy, but I truly believe the aforementioned event marked a change in my life. I could compare my Murakami-infatuation with the way that pets in The Sims 4 develop obsessions with random objects (such as toilets), but that might just be me. Sit down, throw your feet up and grab a piece of paper to jot down which Murakami books you cannot miss out on, because I am here to educate you on the love of my life. I tried to keep spoilers to a minimum, but be warned.
#1 Norwegian Wood
After my aunt bought me my first copy, I immediately started reading Norwegian Wood. The book was published in 1987 and launched Murakami into the limelight, as it became a big success among Japanese youth. The first segment is based on the story “Firefly” from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (#8). Norwegian Wood is a coming of age novel set in Tokyo during the late 1960s. Student protests serve as the backdrop of the story about our main trio: Toru Watanabe, Naoko, and Midori. Watanabe is our troubled male protagonist, Naoko used to be his best-friend’s girlfriend, and Midori is a bright and outgoing female student. Their love-triangle has multiple nostalgic touches to it, which is a sentiment that runs through the whole novel.
Prior to my read, I used to be able to read books in a single sitting. I would get lost for hours and devour whichever book I was holding. Norwegian Wood changed me in the sense that ever since I started reading that book, I have been unable to finish something in one go. I wanted to savor the story and bathe in it and never leave. I did not know a story could suck me in like this. I would read a couple pages at a time, because I did not want it to end: that is how beautifully written this story is.
As mentioned before, the overall sentiment of this novel is nostalgia. We read a story that happened eighteen years prior and revolves about unrequited love and student life. However, Norwegian Wood is not your typical love-story. Even though it uses the ‘love-triangle’-trope, it is not cliché. The relationship between Watanabe and Midori is very organic and recognizable. Midori is actually my favorite character. Despite of her sullen childhood, she is very open and outgoing. She also compares life to a box of cookies, which is a mind-blowingly clever comparison if you think about it.
Naoko is very scarred. At a young age, she found the body of her sister after she had committed suicide. Her high-school boyfriend, who coincidently was Watanabe’s best friend, also committed suicide. Both events caused Naoko to become severely depressed. Watanabe falls in love with her and tries everything to help her get better. The dynamics between Watanabe and Naoko result in lines like “Our faces were no more than ten inches apart, but she was light-years away from me”. When reading, you get overwhelmed by Watanabe’s love and you feel sad because he knows that Naoko is unable to reciprocate.
It goes without saying that Murakami must be a genius in order to accomplish the amalgamation of feelings that are exuded through reading Norwegian Wood. It is a rollercoaster ride that makes you long for someone to love you the way Watanabe loves these women. This book is different from his other works, but it still explores the themes of identity and becoming. It is a valuable and emotional story which I recommend to everyone in a heartbeat. If you have not read it yet, you really should.
#2 Kafka on the Shore
“If you remember me, then I don’t care if everyone else forgets” was my personal Instragram bio for a solid 2 years. When I first put it in there, I knew it was a Murakami quote, but I was unaware of its source. A year later, I was reading Kafka on the Shore and there it was. The quote always had a nostalgic meaning to me, so it made sense that it is a quote from this book. Kafka on the Shore was published in 2002, making it one of the more recent Murakami’s. I have spoken to multiple people who consider Kafka on the Shore their favorite. This book is definitely on the ‘must-read-this-Murakami’-list, mainly because of the magical realism, but also because of its cleverness.
There are two narratives. We follow a boy called Kafka, who has oedipal-issues: a complex relationship with his father, never really knew his mother and sister, and eventually runs away to search for them. The other narrative is about an older man called Nakata who searches for lost cats. He is also able to talk to cats. And he is illiterate. Reading Kafka on the Shore is like solving a puzzle. Every chapter gives you a new important piece that is relevant to the whole plot, so if I were to tell you more about the book, I would be spoiling the fun of it. What I can say, however, is that multiple questionable things happen (that is questionable as in odd, not problematic). The book gets very metaphysical sometimes, so also be prepared for some internal and existential crises while reading it.
Kafka on the Shore is a bigger Murakami, but it does not read as if it is a drag to get through. However, that does not mean it is an easy read: the story keeps you thinking. I remember finishing the book while I was on the tram. I was sad that the journey was over, because it was so cleverly written and put together. Every chapter is a new surprise filled with unimaginable occurrences and sharp references. Most importantly, you can relate to both Kafka and Nakata, even though they are two very different people. As a total cat-lover, I also adore the abundance of cats present in the story. Murakami elevates the animal to a human level, which is fun to read. A lot happens, which might make it complicated to draw a conclusion, but that is the fun part. Every single time you read Kafka on the Shore, you might end up with a different read, which makes the story infinite and truly magical.
#3 Sputnik Sweetheart
It is the 28th of December 2017. After having a great party with some friends, I am standing at Waterstones in Amsterdam, holding what now is my personal copy of Sputnik Sweetheart (1999). I was standing in line when a man asked me if I had read more of Murakami. I smiled and nodded. In the week that followed, I completely devoured the book. We follow K, our male main-character, who is in love with Sumire (a female writer). Sumire falls in love with an ethnically Korean woman, Miu, who is 17 years older. Miu hires Sumire to work with her and takes her to Greece, where Sumire vanishes.
Based on that short description, you might think Sputnik Sweetheart revolves around yet another love-triangle, but this is not the case. The main theme is unrequited love. Murakami writes about the inner turmoil of K, and the seemingly asexual life of Sumire. K drops everything he has to go find Sumire, just like Sumire abandons writing to follow Miu. Another theme is self-discovery. Just as any other Murakami novel, Sputnik Sweetheart is open to any interpretation. K comes to believe that Sumire has disappeared to a different world, one parallel to the narrative. I believe that this other world is where Sumire rediscovers herself and comes to peace with her past. The same happens to K when he physically moves from Japan to Greece, a different country, and learns more about himself.
What is lovely about Sputnik Sweetheart are the dynamics between characters. You can feel the affection between characters and see how they grow into their final form. Sputnik Sweetheart is a powerful book that teaches you about human interaction and life. After I finished reading it, I felt that a change had occurred in the way I see both people and the world.
#4 The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Another big favorite among acquaintances and critics is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-5). This is a big and elaborate story containing multiple narratives, characters, and themes. The book is so big that three full chapters were omitted from the English translation. It is also another one I read while riding the trams of Amsterdam. The story follows Toru Okada, another average male Murakami character who has a bad relationship with his wife. Their cat disappears, he meets the sisters Malta and Creta while trying to find his cat, goes to a fortune teller called Mr. Honda who dies and leaves him an empty box, meets Lieutenant Mamiya who tells him horrid stories about war, and Toru becomes friends with his neighbor teenage girl May. Obviously, a lot more happens, but that is for you to (re)discover.
It is Toru’s relationship with May that I, in particular, enjoy the most. May does not go to school, because she does not want to. Instead, she tries to earn her coin by sitting at metro stations and counting bald men. May prefers to talk about death in a very cheerful way, which is an interesting juxtaposition that characterizes her. The other storyline from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that has stuck with me is Lieutenant Mamiya’s story on how he once saw some Russians skin a man alive. It is a very gory scene, so take this spoiler as a warning. In case you were wondering where all the well-jokes come from, this is the book that contains characters contemplating life while being stuck at the bottom of an empty well.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has many elements that form the ultimate Murakami novel. It is in that sense that I truly enjoy reading this book. There are cats and train stations playing major roles, we explore Tokyo by night, have a historical flashback and mysterious women and unexpected phone calls and jazz music, our cat vanishes, our teen is precocious, and our protagonist suffers from urban ennui. To be honest, that is probably not even all of the spaces from the famous Haruki Murakami Bingo prevalent in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. What I am trying to say is that this book is a staple Murakami and a really fun ride to hop on. You go through several stages of alienation and solitude, experiencing the different ways in which someone can be lonely without necessarily being alone: “Living like an empty shell is not really living, no matter how many years it may go on. The heart and flesh of an empty shell give birth to nothing more than the life of an empty shell.”
Are you planning on going to Osaka (Japan) anytime in the future? Lo and behold, I am going to introduce you to a restaurant you HAVE to visit. It is not a restaurant that only offers the fantastic spaghetti recipes mentioned in Murakami’s novels, but Tokumasa Udon Morinomiya does offer an amazing curry udon. The restaurant is located nearby the Osaka Castle, so you have no excuse to skip out on a meal that you will not forget anytime soon.
#5 After the Quake
In 2000, Murakami’s second short-story collection was published. After the Quake contains six stories, of which two have been originally published in English in The New Yorker (“UFO in Kushiro” and “Honey Pie”). All stories, contrary to Murakami’s signature narrative style, are told in third person and revolve around and are set between the Kobe earthquake and Tokyo gas attacks of February 1995. Together with Underground (not on the list) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (#4), After the Quake is an attempt by Murakami to incorporate more of historical and contemporary Japan into his literature. What is also remarkable is the lack of supernatural elements within the stories of this collection, which evidently shows how versatile Murakami’s writing is.
My favorite story from this collection, however, is the one story that does contain his signature supernatural elements. A big, talking frog, that is. “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is, as the title of the story suggests, set in Tokyo. Our main character (Katagiri) is an ugly, lone wolf who works at a bank. A couple days after the earthquake in Kobe, a big, talking, actual Frog comes to visit him at his office and tells him there is a big Worm underneath Tokyo who wants to cause another earthquake to destroy the metropole. Katagiri is the only person who can help Frog battle against Worm and save the city. Katagiri has to cheer Frog on, but gets shot and ends up in the hospital. Katagiri wakes up at the hospital and finds out he was actually never shot. Frog visits him and tells him he battled Worm and succeeded, but he was severely hurt and ended up combusting in the hospital room.
This story is a classic rendition of the ‘dream-in-a-dream’ trope. Usually, stories with this trope are, in my opinion, bad. However, it is the sense of humor and element of absurdity of “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” that makes it a treat to read. I kept shaking my head and laughing while reading this story. It just sticks with you. What is also beautiful is that nobody living in Tokyo besides Katagiri knows that the city was in danger. Even though his life is bland and a rut, Katagiri still chose to help Frog save Tokyo. This story teaches the reader the importance of selflessness, and that not all good acts will be recognized, but it is important to think about the greater good nonetheless. I bet John Stuart Mill is proud.
#6: A Wild Sheep Chase
A Wild Sheep Chase is the third book from the “Trilogy of the Rat.” It also is the third book written by Murakami, and the most recent one that I have read. The story follows Hear the Wind Sing (#7) and Pinball, 1973 (not on the list). Dance Dance Dance (#9) could be considered an epilogue, but it could also be considered a separate book. More about that one later. All characters lack a real name, which is emphasized in the book through a passage in which the protagonist’s cat is named ‘Kipper’. This naming issue already points to the question of identity, which is an ongoing theme throughout the whole storyline. A Wild Sheep Chase reads as if it is a detective novel with surreal elements: like a classic Murakami.
The story is about an unnamed protagonist who recently got a divorce. He works together with his alcoholic best friend and they own a little advertisement company. One day, after our protagonist publishes an ad with a photo sent to him by The Rat, his old best friend, a strange, almost robotic, man comes to visit him and threatens him to go on a quest to find one of the sheep pictured on this photo. I cannot tell you why this sheep is so important, but I can tell you that our protagonist travels to the north of Japan and goes through a lot trying to find the animal.
To sum it up: we have a lonely and unnamed protagonist who owns a house, does not have a good relationship with his spouse, owns a cat, runs, likes to drink and cook, is a chain-smoker, listens to jazz music, has an ear fetish, and encounters an influential stranger. Our protagonist is a mediocre man doing a mediocre job in a big city where he does not stand out. All of these elements first occur together in A Wild Sheep Chase, and I think that is what makes this an important piece. It is through this book that Murakami, in my opinion, starts to develop into the legendary author he is today. A Wild Sheep Chase marks the beginning of his style and tone.
#7 Hear the Wind Sing
The story behind the publishing of Hear the Wind Sing (1979), the first part of “Trilogy of The Rat,” is very touching. In the Preface, Murakami describes how he came to writing. He went to a baseball game and experienced the following:
In the bottom of the first inning, Hilton slammed Sotokoba’s first pitch into left field for a clean double. The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.
What actually inspires me, and what I think makes this Preface so genuine, is how Murakami himself was not too confident in his writing and only produced one copy which he sent to the publisher with an ‘we will see’-attitude. If he had not sent that manuscript and quitted writing, his other works would not have been written and spread. It is amazing, if you think about it, how one small decision as a result of an even smaller occurrence could have meant the end of a whole set of valuable world literature.
Hear the Wind Sing revolves around an unnamed protagonist and follows his early years at his hometown, where he spends his days at a bar, J’s bar, together with his best friend, nicknamed ‘The Rat,’ drinking beer. The setting is the summer of 1970. A total of forty chapters describe various topics such as love, loss, and life at university. Our main character introduces us to the struggle of being a student, which I think is spot on. It is a simple debut novel in which you can already recognize elements of Murakami’s writing that later become his essence. To get a clear understanding of his writing, I believe this, too, is an essential Murakami.
Looking for a good restaurant to grab a meal at while in Kyoto (Japan)? I highly recommend visiting Spice Chamber, a small restaurant with only one item on their menu: Japanese curry. You can smell the food from a block away and the restaurant itself could fit right in a Murakami novel. I would not be surprised if he himself even dines here sometimes.
#8 Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Want to hear a fun fact? Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was first published in English in 2006 before it was published in Japanese in 2009. The short-story collection includes a total of 24 stories, of which 17 stories had been previously published in English (10 out of 17 in The New Yorker). One of the more famous short stories included in this collection is “Birthday Girl”, which is a story about a girl who has to work at a fancy restaurant on her twentieth birthday. Want to hear another fun fact? I own three copies of this specific story.
Allow me to highlight “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes,” one of my favorite stories from the collection. Our protagonist finds an advertisement which asks people to compete in a competition in which they have to create a new recipe for sharpie cakes. The winner is rewarded with 2 million Japanese yen. The protagonist makes some cakes and passes the first round: he is invited to the headquarters where his cakes are fed to the judges, whom consist solely of crows. The younger generation crows love the cakes, while the older generation hates them. The protagonist is presented to the consequence of this divide: he sees a room filled with crow guts and cake remains, a sight which makes him walk away from the scene and competition.
This short-story is the most absurd and shocking one. My retelling does not do it much justice, as the way Murakami has written “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” is far more vivid and animated. The story explores the unexpected and contains elements of mystery. Even though it sounds crazy, you start to wonder about how big decisions are made at big companies. Does the elite have really twisted and odd ways to determine the outcome of internal questions? You might want to shake your head and call me crazy for even thinking about that possibility, but what do we know? I am obviously kidding, but the thought will pass through your mind at least a couple times after you read “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes.”
#9 Dance Dance Dance
Contrary to what might seem like its topic, Dance Dance Dance (1988) is not about dancing. The book is an unofficial sequel to the aforementioned “Trilogy of The Rat.” The story follows our still unnamed protagonist who is single and lost again. Somewhere along the road he finds himself stuck in a circumstantial murder investigation and a complicated friendship with a troubled thirteen-year-old girl. Another interesting character is a poet who only has one arm. And the Sheep Man returns.
I read Dance Dance Dance before the trilogy, so a lot did not make sense to me back then. Even though I have not had the chance to reread it yet, I do feel like a lot more has become clear to me. I highly recommend everyone to read Dance Dance Dance AFTER reading the trilogy. I think the whole set of four books from this trilogy are about death. This might sound obvious, especially considering the scene with the six skeletons, but there is more to my theory. I think our protagonist has been dead all along: that would explain how the whole storyline evolves from being very realistic in Hear the Wind Sing (#6) to spiritual in Dance Dance Dance. Admittedly, this is a theory that would require in-depth analysis and more rereading, but I do think I am onto something.
#10 After Dark
Published in 2004, After Dark is one of the more experimental Murakamis. You either love it or hate it. The story follows a real-life timeline and includes many characters who each have their own complex lives. It is set in Tokyo and spans over one night. The overall impression of the story is grim and confusing as characters go on living their seemingly separate but actually intertwined lives. After Dark is odd and short while it explores the possibility of having multiple realities.
I am very tentative about After Dark. It left me confused, because you have no clear ending. The story is very different from what you would typically expect from Murakami. It is challenging to read and lacks a clear conclusion. However, this ending makes sense to me, as the story is about one single night that flows into a new day we readers are unaware of. The eerie vibe and dark undertones of Tokyo at night make you feel slightly uneasy, as if you are a voyeur peeking into the lives of the characters. As if you are watching them on a TV, even. This book is a different experience that shows more of Murakami’s versatility and leaves you thinking: “Is action merely the incidental product of thought, or is thought the consequential product of action?”
#? 1Q84 and others
One novel that is obviously missing from my list is 1Q84. In case you were wondering, I have not read that one yet for no other reason than it being very big and me not having had the time to sit down and dive into it. With that being said, you can put your raw eggs away now and refrain from throwing them on me. I have also not read the famed What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is one of Murakami’s non-fiction works. Do not worry, it is on my list. Books that I have read but did not make my top 10 are Pinball, 1973 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. It is not that I do not like these two, but they are in my opinion not as top-notch as the ones I have mentioned. Not to say I did not enjoy reading them: every Murakami is worthy of your time. Sometimes you just have to prioritize.
The thing about Murakami is that his writing style is very easy to follow and his stories are even easier to get lost in. He is capable of writing stories filled with emotions and unexpected twists that still make sense and do not feel out of place. Reading a Murakami gives me a thrill. He manages to teach his readers about the various phases of life without making these lessons taste bland, cliché, or obvious. His idea of romance is not toe-curling or sappy, but very organic and relatable. He creates characters that have multiple dimensions to them despite the fact that he presents them as very plain. Minor female characters like May or even bigger female characters such as Midori have stolen my heart because of their quirkiness and vision. Murakami makes me feel when I read and appreciate the details of life, which is why I consider him one of my heroes.