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Edging Toward Japan: A Straight Line leads from Dicken's London to Murakami's Tokyo

Charles Dickens

By Damian Flanagan

The enormously popular Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami this year turned 70, prompting retrospectives on his long career. Murakami is Marmite -- he provokes both unfettered love and undisguised revulsion. In fact, I'm always surprised when I write anything about Murakami just how many people can't stand him.

Recently reading some of Murakami's post-2000 works, however, I was surprised to discover that they are routinely different to the ways in which they are described in book reviews, as if his style and content is all about hip modernity. In fact, in the most unexpected ways, Murakami is in profound dialogue with the writers of the past. Allusions to Japanese writers abound of course, and to American writers (translating modern American literature is a Murakami speciality). But what you might not anticipate is the deep engagement, both direct and indirect, with that mid-Victorian British literary titan, Charles Dickens.

I was fascinated to see for example how Murakami adopted many of the elements of the structure and themes of "Bleak House" for his 2002 novel, "Kafka on the Shore." There is the twinning of a third-person and first-person narrative and the labyrinthine interlinking of two seemingly different milieus, Nakano, Tokyo and Takamatsu in "Kafka on the Shore," and Bleak House and Chesney Wold in "Bleak House." The journey in "Bleak House" concerns unravelling the mysterious secret of the middle-aged, dead-to-the-world Lady Deadlock just as in "Kafka on the Shore," the mysterious spiritually-dead-but-still-living figure is the middle-aged Miss Saeki. Murakami in fact effects an extremely interesting psychological transformation of many of the themes of "Bleak House."

Murakami approaches Dickens not just directly, but indirectly through the prism of Kafka. Dickens was a major influence on the Czech novelist, who crafted his fictions of the torturous trial process and impenetrable fortresses of administrative power stimulated by Dickens' wild satire on the decades-long, bankrupting, all-consuming legal processes of "Chancery" in "Bleak House" and the unfathomable workings of the government's "Circumlocution Office" in "Little Dorrit."

I became so fascinated by Murakami's engagement with Dickens in "Kafka on the Shore," that I began to wonder whether I wasn't imagining it until I hit upon this sentence carefully dropped into the book:

"(It was) a shabby, miserable sort of building. The kind where shabby people spend one shabby day after another doing their shabby work. The kind of fallen-from-grace sort of building you find in any city, the kind Charles Dickens could spend ten pages describing."

Murakami has repeatedly remarked how much he enjoys reading Dickens, even if commentaries on Murakami -- obsessed with quirkiness and Americanized style -- rarely draw out the importance of that connection. Actually, though there is a straight line running from Dickens' London through Kafka's Prague and on to Murakami's Tokyo.

Someone told me recently that Murakami periodically reaches out to literary critics and asks them to send him books and articles they have written about him. I can't help thinking that he must be quite disappointed with the quality of the analysis that comes in to him. Murakami strikes me as a far richer and deeper author -- a man profoundly obsessed with other writers, literary heritage and the literary process itself -- than many commentators seem to comprehend.


(This is Part 16 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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