Haruki Murakami has often been criticised in Japan for his preoccupation with Western culture; indeed, he has been called a “butter-stinker”, a vivid term for one who follows a Western diet, although in his case it indicates a devotion to Kafka and Borges rather than dairy products. I have a hunch, therefore, that the title of his latest collection of short stories is intended as something of a two-fingered salute to the Japanese literary establishment.
In his introduction to the recent Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, Murakami claimed to be “allergic” to “Japan’s so-called ‘I novel’ – the form of autobiographical writing that has been at the forefront of Japan’s modern fiction since the turn of the 20th century”. The “I novel”, although it employs the narrative techniques of fiction, is expected to adhere closely to the actual events of the author’s life.
And although Murakami’s stories often appear superficially to be “I novels” – they are usually narrated by characters who share much of Murakami’s biographical history and many of his interests, such as his fondness for jazz, cats and whiskey – they are not meant to be taken as straight autobiography, a fact frequently underlined by the intrusion of an element of the surreal.
So, this book’s title may be intended to emphasise Murakami’s ongoing project to reclaim the first person singular for those who want to write about, say, an encounter with a talking frog.
It is true that one story in this book seems to follow the Japanese “I” model, being an apparently straightforward reminiscence of the author’s youthful enthusiasm for baseball (and a very good one, too, worthy to be anthologised alongside Philip Roth’s “My Baseball Years”). The remaining seven range from the fairly rum to the outright batty.
Every one of them has a first-person narrator difficult to distinguish from the narrators of any number of Murakami’s other stories. He (it’s always he) never reveals his name, and drifts about with seemingly little agency over his life; and when events inevitably take a strange turn, he accepts them with his customary passivity.