Last week's Southern Media Weekly (Life edition) interviewed Lin Shaohua, known for his translations of Haruki Murakami's works.
Lin begins the interview by addressing the common impression among Chinese readers that Murakami's works are nothing more than soft, bourgeois sentiment, an misconception he hopes to correct. Arguing that Murakami's later works are more involved with society, he segues into a discussion of Sino-Japanese relations.
Lin Shaohua: Haruki Murakami as Warrior
Interview by Luo Xiaoyan / SMW
Norwegian Wood has been popular in China for eighteen years, and because of this, Japanese author Haruki Murakami is known in all households. Translator Lin Shaohua is also well-known in China to Murakami fans.
On 29 June, Lin Shaohua came to Guangzhou expressly to take part in a gathering for readers of Norwegian Wood. Our interview took place at a restaurant table, but the mess of glasses and plates had no effect on the conversation that covered bourgeois sentiment and high literature. Lin Shaohua wore a smile the entire time, the modest and polite kind. He carefully answered every question, and when he got excited he spoke with his body. His widened eyes were limpid pools.
Lin Shaohua, who has translated 32 of Murakami's works, is dedicating himself to changing Chinese readers' traditional view of Murakami's books as pink "bourgeois sentiment." "Deep reading" is his new emphasis. He has half-finished a book of criticism on Murakami, to be sent to press before long. Lin Shaohua hopes to be able to use his efforts to bring Chinese readers to an understanding of Murakami's strong, warrior side.
Southern Metropolis Weekly: You've come to Guangzhou this time to give two talks. One of them is about Haruki Murakami. What does it concern?
Lin Shaohua: How to transcend the "bourgeois" level, to do a deeper reading of Murakami's works, and to understand another side of Murakami.
SMW: So does this mean that "bourgeois" is a misreading of Murakami?
Lin: It's not a misreading. Murakami's works have been in China for eighteen years, but readers still linger on their first "bourgeois" impression. This should not be sufficient. Chiense readers think quite a bit of Norwegian Wood, but Europe and America are not like this. In the US, the most popular are Kafka on the Shore and A Wild Sheep Chase. Apart from their bourgeois "softness," Murakami's works have another side; his later works focus on the hard, rigid aspects of being a warrior. This does not seem to have been given enough attention among domestic readers.
SMW: What, specifically, is the concept of this stiffness? How is it experienced?
Lin: Murakami has said, "I only write my own experiences"; in his first decade, his works mainly concerned themselves with the experience of the city, painstakingly cultivating the backyard of an individual's spirit. This is what we all call "bourgeois" sentiment. The second decade, taking The Wind-up Bird Chronicle as the turning point, emphasized a "burden" or sense of responsibility, and was taken up with carrying out the investigation and exposure of Japanese history, particularly the violent and depraved history of the Second World War, including the War of Aggression Against China, and with digging into the sources and traditions of violent elements in Japanese culture, so as to reflect and ruminate on the future of the Japanese nation. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and After Dark belong to this category. But Murakami has not been fully appreciated on this front by our readers, nor has there been much relevant criticism.
Murakami once spoke a sentence in English: Violence, the key to Japan. He is unique among contemporary writers to dare to put it this way; even Kenzaburo Ōe never expressed it so clearly. This requires courage and a conscience.
SMW: Chinese people in Murakami's works are always positive characters. What sort of judgment do you think Murakami actually has of Chinese people?
Lin: When I met Murakami in 2003, I asked him about the source of the good feeling toward Chinese people who appear in his works. He explained that when his father was studying at Kyoto University, he had been recruited into the army as a civilian. After the defeat, when he returned to Japan, he would often talk to him of China. Later, when he attended high school in Kobe, there were many Chinese visitors and overseas Chinese, and he counted many Chinese people among his friends. Murakami feels that Chinese elements have been a part of him since an early age.
I feel that perhaps this is Murakami's expression of a sense of penitence, and perhaps it is one of the things that spurs him to look directly at the violence and depravity of the Japanese people during that period of history. Previously, he "did not get involved" in social problems; with 1994's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, he began transitioning to "getting involved." From abandoning responsibility to accepting responsibility, from focusing on the soul of the individual to being concerned about the whole of society. He believes that modern Japan is sick, and he will make every effort to uncover how Japan fell sick and where the root of the sickness lies.
SWM: So do you believe that this transition demonstrates that Murakami's novels are more weighty? Chinese readers have always defined Murakami as a bourgeois novelist, and perhaps this is related to the relative "lightness" of his early works. These later works have not yet been completely digested by Chinese readers.
Lin: This is indeed the case. This is also related to circulation. His early works are easy to understand; Norwegian Wood alone sold 1.5 million copies. Of his later works, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle runs to 500,000 characters in the Chinese edition, and a serious issue like reflecting on the source and heritage of violence is difficult for modern readers in their fast-paced lives. At present, only 50,000 copies are in circulation, so you can imagine what sort of influence it has had.
SMW: But from a literary perspective, Norwegian Wood should not be the equal of his later works.
Lin: Of course, I most admire his later works; Murakami himself does not think much of Norwegian Wood. Norwegian Wood is in a different class from the rest of Murakami's works; it is the only time he used realistic techniques to write long fiction, and it contains substantial personal elements. Most of the rest of his works are bewildering and complex.
SMW: You met with Murakami in 2003. What impression did he leave you with?
Lin: Murakami is a very low-key person. I have only met him once. He is not the type of person who just casually meets people for drinks; we met in his office, one cup of tea apiece, and sat down to chat. The office had three rooms and a sitting area, rented, with two women as secretaries responsible for foreign and domestic copyrights, respectively.
I felt that he was very similar to the protagonist of Norwegian Wood, a little taciturn. If you don't ask him questions, he won't take the initiative to speak. When you've asked, he'll speak with assurance, clearly and methodically, his voice calm. He does not look at people when he speaks; he'll look at the table, as if he is looking at his own train of thought. His manner of speech and his vocabulary are basically identical to that of his protagonist.
SMW: What has Murakami been doing recently?
Lin: The past few years he has done literary translations mostly, such as Catcher in the Rye and The Long Goodbye. Last September he revealed in an interview with Hong Kong media that he is very concerned about the rise of nationalism in Japan, and criticized right-wing member Ishihara Shintaro for being hostile to China. He said that his next work would concern this subject matter. Then he gave an interview with Chinese media in which he said that individual rights and freedoms were to be highly respected, like an egg smashed colliding with a wall. If he had to choose, he would stand on the side of the egg.
SMW: This attitude is most likely lacking among Chinese authors.
Lin: Right. We Chinese writers always stand on the side of the wall, adding fuel to the fire and hitting people when they are down. Of course, sometimes you're not permitted to stand on the side of the egg; if you stand with the smashed egg, then you too will be smashed.
SMW: The relationship between China and Japan is particularly sensitive. Nationalist feelings run high on both sides. You lived a few years in Japan - are there many misunderstandings between China and Japan?
Lin: Yes, things deviate quite widely. For example, we believe that pursuing the issue of the Yasukuni Shrine visits is absolutely justifiable. For Japan did bad things, but the Chinese people did not seek compensation from Japan, but rather took in orphans from the war and raised them. But not only did Japan not try to repay this kindness, but it was not even willing to acknowledge it. Japanese people do not think this way. They feel that they've apologized so many times that there is no more need to apologize. The issue today is how to go beyond the problem, and this has everyone perplexed.
SMW: Is this type of misunderstanding related to the fact that there is an insufficient degree of cultural interchange and communication? For example, before 1949, there were many great masters in China who had returned from studying abroad in Japan - the Zhou brothers, for instance, and Yu Dafu and Guo Moruo. At the time, Japan perhaps had many authors, such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Junichirô Tanizaki who had traveled in China. Are exchanges today not up to the level of the Republican period?
Lin: That is one side. Another side is that Japanese schools do not tell their students true history. I've asked a Japanese high school history teacher whether he had taught his students about the Japanese army's invasion of China. He said he had not taught it, and circumstances were quite coincidental: every time his lectures reached the [second] Sino-Japanese war, the semester ended. Practically all schools were that way. And even if they lectured on it, the class time was quite short. This would be the careful plan of Japanese government agencies. Japanese contemporary literature, too, basically avoids touching on that period of history. So many Japanese young people do not understand history, and they are mystified at the opposition of the Chinese people when they visit the Yasukuni Shrine.
SMW: Does Japanese culture lack true depth of self-reflection? Under such circumstances, isn't it even more commendable that Murakami's novels are concerned with the violence of the Japanese nation?
Lin: Yes, his works mention the war of aggression against China; for example, in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, he speaks through the mouth of a soldier about the Nanjing Massacre: "We threw dozens of people into a well and dropped hand grenades in after them. Some of the things we did I couldn't bring myself to talk about" [Jay Rubin's translation]. While this is not the main content of the work, it is still something that the majority of Japanese writers have not written about.
SMW: So when Murakami writes about these things, what is the reaction from Japanese readers and the literary world?
Lin: Toward this sensitive subject matter, most of the Japanese literary world elects to adopt an attitude of ignorance. This should have been an opportunity for Japanese intelligentsia and critics to reflect on history, but the world of Japanese criticism basically avoided it; there was a collective silence. Japanese readers seemed not to have paid attention to this matter at all.
SMW: What is your view of the nationalist sentiments toward Japan that are current in China?
Lin: I only have to mention Japan on my blog and I am subject to frequent abuse. I feel that angry youth are extreme in their sentiment; as the intelligentsia, we ought to look at the whole picture, the good and the bad. We have a responsibility to present a relatively complete Japan. The birth of certain extreme feelings is due in part to the fact that the intelligentsia has not carried out its responsibilities to the full, it has not introduced a complete, objective Japan. As intellectuals, we too have the problem of silence. I feel sad for our intellectuals; in the past they were not permitted their own voice under the pressure of ideology, but it's the commodity economy amid a rising tide that seduces them. There is no moral integrity, no perseverance. Of course we cannot tar them all with one brush; sober intellectuals with a conscience still exist, but in the clamor of the mob, their influence grows ever smaller.
SMW: Can you recommend some domestic scholars and books that present a relatively objective introduction to conditions in Japan?
Lin: In general, books and studies intended to present a whole, objective introduction to Japan are rather rare. The scholar Sun Ge has studied the issue from a literary perspective - rather unique - but she has also been widely criticized for leaning toward Japan. The greater environment in the country means that it is not easy for scholars to speak out. As soon as I put up a post dealing with Japan on my blog, I am subject to savage abuse, and my click rates are incredibly high. However, not everyone is cursing, and as time goes on, the abusers get fewer in number. I feel that this is progress.
For further reading, blogger Bimuyu has a critique of Lin Shaohua's translation of Kafka on the Shore.
And this week's New York Times has an essay, "Jazz Messenger" by Murakami (translated by Jay Rubin) in which he talks about his writing style.
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