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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism / biography

Haruki Murakami and
the Music of Words

Jay Rubin

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To purchase Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words

Title: Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words
Author: Jay Rubin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2002
Length: 289 pages
Availability: Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words - US
Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words - UK
Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words - Canada
Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words - India
Murakami und die Melodie des Lebens - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : useful background information, and glimpses of what is unavailable to English-speaking audiences

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Far Eastern Econ. Rev. . 5/12/2002 Brian Keeley
The Guardian . 13/4/2002 Steven Poole
The Independent A 27/4/2003 James Urquhart
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 19/1/2005 Leopold Federmair

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) friendly guide to the extraordinary Japanese novelist's life and works that at least manages to demonstrate how irrelevant biography is to good criticism. Most of the text is either plot summary or the mere skeleton of an external life (.....) By the end, despite the inviting title, just how Murakami's "music of words" operates remains a mystery. Rubin's style is mostly pleasant, and Murakami fans cannot fail to find some nuggets of interest herein." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Rubin's great achievement is in demonstrating how the complexities of memory and meaning surface again and again in Murakami's oeuvre. His astute readings give sufficient insight to tease out the continuity that coheres this great writer's wackier extravagances. (...) Rubin's chronology of a distinguished career is exciting and coherent, but he is at his best threading together the rich images in Murakami's prose." - James Urquhart, The Independent

  • "Jay Rubins Murakami-Monographie ermöglicht es dem des Japanischen unkundigen Leser, diesen Blick auf Murakamis schillerndes Unternehmen wenigstens nachzuvollziehen." - Leopold Federmair, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Murakami Haruki is currently surely the internationally most widely-read Japanese author. Despite the fact that a considerable number of his works have been translated into English -- and that he lived in the US for several years -- relatively little is known about the man behind the books in the English-speaking world. In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words Jay Rubin, who has translated several of Murakami's works, offers the first thorough study of the man and his work in English (though he assures readers that there is a veritable Murakami-industry in Japanese).
       Rubin's own work with Murakami's texts, his familiarity with Murakami's untranslated work, and his conversations with the author and others make for an insightful if incomplete introduction, providing the reader with much new information about Murakami and yet also leaving a great deal that one wishes he would have explored in more depth. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words isn't a very long book, but Rubin is fairly ambitious: it is not merely (or even mainly) biography, but rather focusses on literary criticism and analysis, which Rubin uses fairly effectively in tracing Murakami's life and career. In addition, there are also longer excerpts from Murakami's work, including some not previously (or readily) available in English. Of particular interest is a two-part appendix of "Translating Murakami", and there is also a helpful Murakami-bibliography.
       Part of the problem in discussing Murakami's work is the state in which it is available in English. Two early novels, the prize-winning Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and the follow-up, Pinball, 1973, were both translated by Alfred Birnbaum, (in 1987 and 1985, respectively) but were only published in the Kodansha English Library editions which were only made available in Japan. Norwegian Wood (1987), meanwhile, was translated twice -- by Alfred Birnbaum in 1989 in another Kodansha edition distributed only in Japan, and by Jay Rubin in 2000. Major works like Underground, published in two volumes in Japan, were drastically cut in translation, and Rubin mentions the extensive cuts he made in his translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (while mentioning that he also handed in an entirely uncut translation, a version Knopf declined to publish). (Regarding The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Rubin writes that Knopf had: "stipulated in Murakami's contract that the books should not exceed a certain length" -- a clause so outrageous and ridiculous it's hard to believe any author would accept it.)
       Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words offers a welcome glimpse at the two earliest novels, in particular, as Rubin describes how Murakami came to be a writer and how his early career developed. Discussing the texts Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 at some length -- and offering excerpts -- helps fill in what has been a tremendous gap for English-language readers. The story of Murakami's early jazz-club owning days and his particular interests are perhaps familiar to some readers, but Rubin fills in a great amount of detail. While many of Murakami's protagonists resemble the author, Rubin usefully distinguishes fact and fiction.
       Rubin also discusses the books that are readily available in the US and UK, offering both biographical background (how and under what circumstances Murakami came to write them) as well as a closer reading of the texts themselves. He is particularly good in giving a sense for where Murakami stands in relation to the Japanese literary scene generally.
       Murakami's stays abroad, his friendships (including encounters with Raymond Carver and John Irving, both of whose work he translated), the difficulties of living with his sort of success in Japan, and personal quirks (including practically never appearing on television) are all mentioned in an engaging, casual (occasionally too much so) overview. Rubin is a Murakami fan, and occasionally his wide-eyed enthusiasm goes a bit too far. Not everyone, surely, is similarly impressed when he writes:

     Discipline. Concentration. When Murakami makes up his mind to do something, he does it. Once, cross-country skiing in New Hampshire, he lost his balance going down a small incline and went face-first into an icy snowdrift. (...) After a few dabs with an alcohol swab, Murakami trudged uphill and tried again -- and again -- and again, until he got it right. It was an impressive display of determination.
       Fortunately, such passages are the exception rather than the rule -- though awkward statements ("If literature is dead, someone forgot to invite Haruki Murakami to the funeral") do pop up throughout the book.
       For the most part Rubin balances scholarly thoroughness with a light tone that makes this book accessible for a wide audience (basically anyone who can get through a Murakami-novel). Rubin quotes Murakami:
Rather than writing that requires complex interpretation and footnotes, I want to write words that actually move people like this.
       Rubin conveys this well, while at the same time offering at least basic interpretation -- and a whole lot of footnotes (amusingly enough, the sentence cited above ends with a footnote, number 273 of a total of 443).
       Murakami has translated a great deal of work from the English. The bibliography lists the works (essentially all of Raymond Carver's works, as well as numerous other authors), and Rubin does discuss this aspect of Murakami's work fairly well. A great deal else is missing, however, especially of the casual non-fiction and reporting Murakami has done, with Rubin mentioning only in passing such books as Sydney ! ("a delightful book on the Sydney Olympics") and not discussing much of the other work at all.
       Among the most interesting sections of the book is Rubin's appendix on "Translating Murakami". There Rubin discusses issues of translating from the Japanese. He mentions the scandal in Germany regarding the re-translation of two Murakami books (translated into German from English translations, rather than directly from the Japanese; see also our discussion of this in Twice Removed) -- suggesting that Murakami isn't quite so outraged by such liberties (as well as cuts occurring in translations), and quoting him as saying "I kind of like re-translation" (though in an interview by Ulrike Haak in Die Zeit he says he would not have permitted re-translation if he had been aware of the possibility of it occurring).
       Rubin also offers some insight into the difficulties there are in translating from the Japanese, and compares the approaches the three different Murakami-translators (Birnbaum, Gabriel, and Rubin himself) have taken. The discussion -- and, in particular, the example of "literal" translation -- is a bit too simplistic, but at least offers some insight into the difficulties of presenting Japanese texts to an English-speaking audience.

       Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words can certainly be recommended to anyone interested in Murakami and his work. It discusses works inaccessible to most English-speaking readers and offers a decent biographical overview of the author. A quick, packed read, Rubin presents his material accessibly while still being fairly thorough (at least regarding those parts of Murakami's life and works that he actually touches on).

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Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words: Reviews: Jay Rubin: Murakami Haruki: Books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Japanese literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Jay Rubin teaches at Harvard University. He has translated several of Murakami Haruki's works.

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