why haruki murakami is the next king of magical realism
The death of Gabriel García Márquez last April surprised no one. Yet at age 87, when he succumbed to cancer, his passing was nothing short of a tragedy that reverberated throughout the entire literary world, permeating the cores of devout fans, critical scholars, and casual readers alike. International news and homages flooded the media with headlines praising him as a “conjurer of literary magic,” a “literary colossus,” and a “titan of Spanish literature.” As a champion of imagination, creativity and originality, García Márquez, with his works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love In The Time Of Cholera, upended the world of fiction and redefined the concept of a novel. The true tragedy of García Márquez’s death is the fracture he left in the fantastically powerful literary genre he dominated: magical realism.
In the magical realism genre, magic and reality are smoothly blended together as though what we would consider “magic” is actually part of the ordinary, and neither the real nor the unreal is emphasized in order to assimilate both the believable and the unbelievable into the same stream of thought. Unlike in science fiction and fantasy, where the fantastical takes center stage, in magical realism the real vastly outweighs the magic. Typically, perfectly commonplace happenings will dominate the scene, with only a small feature of magical flair that renders the supernatural natural.
In García Márquez’s short story “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” ordinary citizens come upon a man with, well, giant wings. When these people find him, they act as though they have stumbled upon a stray puppy. García Márquez offers no explanation as to where the man came from or why he has wings; the story simply continues from there. García Márquez blends the magical with reality through a very straightforward and even tone. Whoever the narrator may be, he or she always maintains a uniform tenor throughout the story, letting García Márquez’s own brilliant locution and detail carry the emotion of the work.
The success and popularity of this genre has mostly fallen in the hands of Latin American writers. Authors such as Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Toni Morrison have been noted as the American vanguards of magical realism, but have arguably failed to make the same impression on the genre. Now the spotlight is sweeping up and over the US, skipping across the Pacific. Poised to assume the role as the next giant of the magical realism genre is Haruki Murakami, the Japanese author of wildly popular works such as 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which, among others, have sold millions of copies worldwide. Additionally, The New Yorker has often featured Murakami’s work and Time Magazine recently named him “the world’s most popular working literary author.”
Using the same technique of taking ordinary, real life scenarios and adding small fantastical elements, Murakami artfully crafts what seem like alternate universes within Tokyo. Descending staircases into grand underground spaces, mysterious wells and wormhole-like wrinkles in time are recurring themes in his work.
In this excerpt, Nakata, the protagonist of Kafka On The Shore, is meeting a neighborhood cat for the first time:
“My name’s Nakata,” Nakata said, introducing himself. “And your name would be?”
“Ain’t got one,” the tabby said brusquely.
“How about Okawa? Do you mind if I call you that?”
“Well then, Mr. Okawa,” Nakata said, “as a token of our meeting each other, would you care for some dried sardines?”
“Sounds good. One of my favorites, sardines.”
Nakata took a saran-wrapped sardine from his bag and opened it up for Okawa. He always had a few sardines with him, just in case. Okawa gobbled down the sardine, stripping it from head to tail, then cleaned his face.
“That hit the spot. Much obliged. I’d be happy to lick you somewhere, if you’d like.”
Murakami’s simple articulation and direct descriptions offer nothing but the facts. There is no discussion about why the cat talks. Without dawdling on the abnormality, the fantastical becomes the normal and this we are forced to accept.
García Márquez and Murakami both contribute to a deeper understanding of reality by blurring lines between the real and the surreal. Thus they open alternative solutions and unconsidered possibilities of what can happen in a story.
In García Márquez’s most famous book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning One Hundred Years of Solitude, the author distorts time to emphasize one of the novel’s main themes—the repetition of history. In the story, characters age unconventionally and live long past normal lifespans. Time flows in magical ways, zigzagging through present, past, and future. By exaggerating the function of time, García Márquez emphasizes the repetitive nature of history and drives home the maddening, cyclic, destructive nature of human beings, in possibly a much more powerful way than by simply obeying the laws of reality.
Similarly, Murakami employs the fantastic to underscore powerful conclusions and provoke meaningful questions. In his large collection of novels, which spans from the gargantuan 1Q84 to smaller, short stories like “Scheherazade,” Murakami challenges the limits of reality. However, unlike García Márquez, he does this through incredibly simple, almost elementary, diction. He leaves the elaborate complexity and intensity of García Márquez in favor of simpler and easier-to-follow language. Despite the presence of strange and chaotic events, Murakami cuts his literature to the bare bone, leaving only what he wants the reader to explicitly know. Major criticisms of Murakami’s work taunt a lack of sophistication and consistently underline robotic dialogue, awkward phrasing, and terse descriptions. Yet The Atlantic has professed his Norwegian Wood to be the Japanese The Catcher in the Rye, likening Murakami’s style to J.D. Salinger’s colloquial straightforwardness and first-person intimacy with the main character.
While we can debate the merits of Murakami’s unique detached and simplistic style, many recognize this style as an effect of the translation from Murakami’s native Japanese to English. Though translation always risks compromising the integrity and cultural interpretation of any work, the simplistic and discomfited style seems to be as Murakami actually intended it. According to the New Yorker, Murakami wrote the introduction to his first novel, Hear The Wind Sing, in English, then translated it back into Japanese because he liked how it sounded. For the 1000-plus paged 1Q84, two scholars teamed up to tackle the translation that took a little under a year to finish and an overarching editor smoothed out the final product. For most of his works, Murakami plays an active role in the translations, engaging in regular correspondence and offering to clarify and explain passages as needed. Nevertheless, Murakami’s straightforward narrative approach serves an important purpose: smoothly shuttling readers from one magically realistic world to the next.
But the true genius of Murakami and what seals his status as the next virtuoso of the genre lies not in his sentence-to-sentence literary value, but in his ability to surreptitiously capture his readers’ interest and focus, as though he were vacuuming readers into his personal dreams and sending them unknowingly, yet happily, along for a winding ride through his daring imagination. In this clear space between the known and unknown, the expected and unexpected, we uncover our infancy in understanding the world. Grappling with this realization is cathartic; reflections such as these inspire us to be truer to ourselves and the world. Murakami helps us ask ourselves over and over again: Who are we really, and what does it means to be human?
Though Gabriel García Márquez can never be replaced, the captivating genre of magical realism rests safely in the mind and pen of Haruki Murakami. Dive into one of his mesmerizing worlds and allow yourself the pleasure of experiencing one of the greatest literary minds of our time. Forget everything around you—anything is possible.
Suggestions for further reading:
By Gabriel García Márquez:
One Hundred Years of Solitude
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings
The Handsomest Drowned Man In The World
By Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle