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Interesting short memoir of the novelist as runner
on 19 November 2010
This is a strange little book, novella length, half memoir and half meditation on the act of writing, using running as an extended metaphor. The title is an allusion to a Raymond Carver short story (Murakami is, among other things, the Japanese translator of Carver) and, like a Carver character, Murakami has a knack of addressing his real concerns indirectly in the act of talking about something else.
Murakami insists that he is a rather physical and unreflective person, built for the long haul rather than speedy brilliance. As such, he finds in long distance running - marathon and triathlon - an analogy for his writing career. This isn't a technical manual for runners: written episodically over a period of two years as an exercise in self-knowledge, it's aimed at readers who want to know something about the man behind the writing of the novels. But Murakami is clearly uneasy with theory. He'd rather talk about the routines he follows in his life, the patterns and rhythms dictated by his parallel writing and running lives.
He's quite clear about the running as physical conditioning for the writer. Coming to the sport relatively late in life, and not conspicuously talented, he thrives on internal goals rather than external competition. A portrait emerges of a man in his fifties who is slowing down, pacing himself, learning to accept the limits that his ageing body sets while harvesting what he can from his self-imposed discipline.
An English reader who is familiar with Murakami's fiction will recognise his distinctive voice in these musings. It's the voice of a man who, as he says, has no problem with being alone: self-involved and rather dry, but unpretentious. If the book fails it's because Murakami can't decide how much significance to extract from his preoccupations and in the end errs on the side of caution - if it isn't a training diary, it isn't 'Zen and the Art of Running', either. But on balance it is worth reading. There is plenty of insight to be gleaned about the character of a man who decided one day, out of the blue, to write a novel, and through steady application - the kind a distance runner needs - has become Japan's most celebrated contemporary writer.