In his rigorous new book, Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami, David Karashima examines how Haruki Murakami came to be one of the most beloved writers on the planet. The excerpt below chronicles the U.S. publication of Murakami’s first book to appear stateside, A Wild Sheep Chase.
On May 10, 1989, Haruki Murakami’s editor at Kodansha International, Elmer Luke, sent Murakami a fax reporting on the sale of U.S. paperback rights to A Wild Sheep Chase (to Plume for fifty-five thousand dollars) and asking him to take part in the promotional activities that were scheduled in New York that fall. Murakami declined. Several months later, Luke and Murakami met in person for the first time in Tokyo (together with another editor from KI), and on August 14, just three days before a copy of A Wild Sheep Chase arrived at the Murakamis’ home, Luke again asked Murakami to join him in New York. Murakami once again declined. On September 24, Luke asked again, saying that Murakami’s translator Alfred Birnbaum had become unable to attend, and that they had also managed to arrange an interview with the New York Times. Murakami finally relented.
Murakami and his wife, Yoko, landed in New York on October 21, and Luke and Tetsu Shirai, the head of Kodansha’s New York offices, picked them up at the airport. Shirai remembers handing Murakami a copy of that day’s New York Times folded open to a story in the arts section about him and A Wild Sheep Chase. The headline, “Young and Slangy Mix of the U.S. and Japan,” was followed by a tagline: “A best-selling novelist makes his American debut with a quest story.” “Of course, it was something that had been in the works,” Shirai tells me, “but I was surprised by how well the timing worked out.”
Shirai and Luke had chosen a hotel on the Upper East Side, thinking Murakami, an avid runner, would like to be near Central Park. Ten years later, Murakami would write in an essay for the women’s magazine an an that, while he preferred the Village and SoHo with its many bookshops and secondhand record stores, he ends up staying uptown in New York because “the appeal of running in Central Park in the morning is too great.”
Of the boutique hotels close to Central Park, the team at KI decided on the Stanhope Hotel. Luke says that he suggested the Stanhope, “which might seem odd (uptown, old-world-ish, maybe even stuffy, not hip or cool),” because it was the setting for The Hotel New Hampshire, by John Irving. When Murakami had visited the U.S. in 1984 at the invitation of the Department of Defense, he had interviewed Irving while jogging through Central Park with him. Two years later he had also translated Irving’s debut novel, Setting Free the Bears, into Japanese.
Murakami spent eleven days promoting his book in New York. Many of the interviews were conducted in KI-U.S.A.’s new office, which had a large poster of the cover of A Wild Sheep Chase on one of its walls. Anne Cheng, the publicist for KI-U.S.A., says that her most vivid memory of working on the book was “me trying to get this huge, glossy, bigger than life, poster reproduction of the book cover—that startling peacock blue background and the sheep in the foreground—to hang in our beautiful glass offices, next to the fresh ikebana arrangement that Mr. Shirai ordered for the entryway every week. There were a bunch of logistic and mundane details, but when the poster (almost five feet tall) was finally hung up, it was breathtaking and felt like a symbolic tribute to a book that was also larger than life.”
At the time, Murakami was already known for avoiding media attention. But during his time in New York, he agreed to an interview with Asahi Shimbun/Aera in which he told the reporter that he wanted to publish English translations of three of his novels, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, and Dance Dance Dance, “at the rate of one book every year” as well as “short stories in magazines.”
In addition to individual interviews, Cheng thinks that there may also have been a book party at the Helmsley Palace Hotel. “I may not be getting the details right … I seem to remember—please double check with Mr. Shirai—we had a row of seven sushi chefs making exquisite fresh sushi to order. It was a wonderful event.”
Shirai has no recollection of the Helmsley Palace event, but tells me it may simply have been that he hadn’t attended and that KI-U.S.A.’s business manager, Stephanie Levi, would have a better idea. Levi says that she does remember a big party at the Helmsley Palace, but isn’t sure either whether it was for A Wild Sheep Chase or not. When I ask Luke about this, he laughs. “No way! Really? Would be amazing if it were true. True, they could have had it and I wasn’t there. I mean, the Helmsley Palace was a pretty big deal back then. If Gillian [Jolis, marketing director for KI-U.S.A.] were alive, she’d be the one to know. The Seven Sushi Chefs. Sounds like a parody of a Japanese film.”
A private party was also held at the Levis’ apartment, attended by the Murakamis, Kodansha staff, and researchers from Columbia, as well as the editor Gary Fisketjon and the literary agent Andrew Wylie, who, according to Stephanie’s husband, Jonathan Levi, were “the only two Americans [he] knew who had heard of Murakami” and who were “both very keen to work with him.” One guest recalls coming back into the living room after being given a tour of the Levis’ apartment to find Andrew Wylie still talking to Murakami. The Murakamis left the party early, saying they had plans to go to a jazz club.
Luke also accompanied the Murakamis on visits to bookstores. A Wild Sheep Chase, he says, was prominently displayed in Three Lives, “a terrific independent store in Greenwich Village that was my favorite—and that, many years later, would host midnight opening parties on publication dates of Murakami books.” Luke says that Murakami may have signed books, but that no public events were planned. It would be another couple of years before Murakami would do his first ever public event with Jay McInerney at the PEN America Center.
“Haruki was excited, though guardedly, not effusively, in his Haruki way … We (KI) were careful about overdosing him with publicity, and he was a bit shy about availing himself, but he was willing to participate. Not as guarded as he is now.”
In the afterword of his 1990 collection of travel writing, Tōi taiko (Far-off Drums), Murakami shared his impressions of the New York trip, writing that although it had been some time since he had last visited the city, he “did not feel especially out of sorts,” and that while he would never want to live in New York, the fact that people were direct “in some ways made it less uncomfortable than Tokyo.” Nearly thirty years later, Murakami tells me that he “remembers the response in New York being especially big.” When I show him the New York Times review with his photo on it, he laughs and says, “I was a lot younger back then.”
The New York Times review that appeared on the day of the Murakamis’ arrival in the city had been written by Herbert Mitgang, who had been at the paper since immediately after World War II. Mitgang wrote that A Wild Sheep Chase was a “bold new advance in a category of international fiction that could be called the trans-Pacific novel.” He continued:
This isn’t the traditional fiction of Kōbō Abe (“The Woman in the Dunes”), Yukio Mishima (“The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea”) or Japan’s only Nobel laureate in literature, Yasunari Kawabata (“Snow Country”). Mr. Murakami’s style and imagination are closer to that of Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver and John Irving.
Mitgang also emphasized that “there isn’t a kimono to be found in ‘A Wild Sheep Chase.’ ” Actually, a kimono does appear in the novel, when the protagonist visits the Boss’s residence and an “elderly maid in kimono entered the room, set down a glass of grape juice, and left without a word.” But there is a chance that Mitgang was influenced by the description on the book jacket: “The setting is Japan—minus the kimono.”
Mitgang concludes by stating that “what makes ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ so appealing is the author’s ability to strike common chords between the modern Japanese and American middle classes, especially the younger generation, and to do so in stylish, swinging language. Mr. Murakami’s novel is a welcome debut by a talented writer who should be discovered by readers on this end of the Pacific.” After Mitgang’s review appeared, Yomiuri Shim-bun—the Japanese broadsheet with the largest circulation in the world—published an article headlined “US Newspaper New York Times Lauds Haruki Murakami.”
Mitgang’s was the first of many reviews that placed Murakami in contrast to the “Big Three” postwar writers in Japan: Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. In the Washington Post, the novelist and journalist Alan Ryan wrote, “Readers who treasure the refined sensibilities of Kawabata and Tanizaki, the grand but precisely etched visions of Mishima, or even the dark formalities of Kōbō Abe, are in for a surprise when they read Murakami,” and went on to say that he was not surprised to learn that Murakami had translated authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Theroux, Raymond Carver, and John Irving. Ryan also suggests that “Murakami echoes the state of mind of the ordinary Japanese, caught between a fading old world and a new one still being invented, willing to find magic but uncertain where to look.”
Not everyone was thrilled by Murakami’s arrival on American shores. One of the least enthusiastic reviews was by another Japanese novelist. Foumiko Kometani had received the Akutagawa Prize (an award for emerging writers that Murakami was short-listed for twice but never won) in 1986 for Sugikoshi no matsuri (translated into English by the author as The Passover). In her Los Angeles Times review, “Help! His Best Friend Is Turning Into a Sheep!,” Kometani criticized the narrative voice of A Wild Sheep Chase for “sound[ing] more like a black Raymond Carver or a recycled Raymond Chandler or some new ghetto private eye than a contemporary Japanese novelist” and suggested that his readers in Japan are “people who have taken their places sheep-like on the conveyor belt of Japanese society as salaried men and housewives, but still like to harbor images of themselves as cool and hip and laid-back, sophisticated and aware, and, yes, above all, Western.”
Kometani was a translator herself (she translated not only her own novel into English but also her husband’s nonfiction books into Japanese), and her otherwise scathing review is kind to the translator: “Not that Alfred Birnbaum’s excellent translation has not gotten Murakami’s sentences down exactly right.”
Many of the other reviewers were also complimentary about the translation. In the New York Times, Mitgang noted that “the novel is racily translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum.” Ann Arensberg went further in the New York Times Book Review: “Without question, [Murakami] has help from Alfred Birnbaum, who seems more like his spiritual twin than merely his translator.” When I ask Birnbaum what his initial reaction had been on reading these positive reviews, he says, “Disbelief, but I more keenly remember one bad review that cited ‘Birnbaum’s tin ear.’ ” (I was unable to locate this particular review, but a review in the Washington Post stated that “Alfred Birnbaum’s translation constantly jars with its odd sentence structures, punning chapter titles, colloquial Americanisms, Britishisms, and at least one Boston-ism.”)
One review seemed almost to predict what lay in store for Murakami. In The New Yorker, the novelist and poet Brad Leithauser wrote that the book “lingers in the mind with the special glow that attends an improbable success” and that “[i]t is difficult not to regard A Wild Sheep Chase as an event larger even than its considerable virtues merit … Many years have elapsed, after all, since any Japanese novelist was enthusiastically taken up by the American reading public—and this may soon be Murakami’s destiny.”
Leithauser, who has published eight novels and six poetry collections with Knopf and is currently a professor at Johns Hopkins, had lived in Kyoto in the early eighties. He tells me that he “wasn’t terribly surprised” by Murakami’s success. “It seemed clear to me from the first that he was bringing something new to Japanese literature. There’s a peculiar lightness in what he’s doing that should not be confused with any lack of seriousness … I think to Western eyes Japanese literature is apt to seem light in another sense—in its sparsity. This is certainly true of Kawabata. And this sparsity is for me one of the great appeals of Japanese literature. But I’m talking here of a different kind of lightness, an antic and lyrical and sunny quality. I tend to love writers who have this quality. Calvino (one such writer) is much more articulate than I’m being in his essay on lightness versus heaviness. I’m thinking he (Calvino) would have admired him (Murakami).”
David Karashima has translated a range of contemporary Japanese authors into English, including Hitomi Kanehara, Hisaki Matsuura, and Shinji Ishii. He coedited the anthology March Was Made of Yarn: Writers Respond to the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Meltdown and is the coeditor of Pushkin Press’s Contemporary Japanese Novellas series and Stranger Press’s Keshiki series. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Copyright © 2020 by David Karashima, from Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami. Excerpted by permission of Soft Skull Press.