The (prize-winning) Wind-Up Novelist

12 November, 2013

Amanda Lewis has written a hagiography of the novelist Haruki Murakami, and apparently believes he deserves the Nobel prize. Let’s overlook that the prize is historically a badge of ephemerality, of middle-brow worthiness, of mediocrity.

Lewis believes Haruki Murakami became a more important writer when he got a message to convey. She helpfully summarises his message: individuals are more important than groups, individual perception is more important than historical truth or fact, violence is caused by depersonalisation of individuals. Well, that’s handy. Now we have the message, we don’t need to read the books.

One point of Haruki Murakami’s that Lewis emphasises near the end of her essay is that fact is near-worthless next to hearsay. It is somehow more “true”. Well, of course we are familiar with the idea that a poetic truth has more value, or is more profound than a mundane fact of reality. But it’s not necessarily true. Things that we call profound SEEM important; their actual importance is another thing.

For example, in Murakami’s “After the quake” he says (says Lewis) that the only person emotionally affected by news of a distant earthquake is a four-year-old girl, who has “hysterical fits” after watching news reports, because she has not yet learned the apathy of adults. Wow, what a deep truth about the innocence of childhood and moral degradation of adulthood. Except that a girl who had such fits would be extremely unusual, as four-year-olds feel very little empathy except for people who are close to them. The author’s great “truth” is a cheap poetic device conceived by someone who doesn’t know much about how people’s minds really work. The fact that he is “socially conscious” does not vindicate him. His “truth” is vacuous and inane.

At the end of the essay, Lewis relates some anecdotes about encountering the “Japanese mind”, but is unable to relate this to Haruki Murakami’s thesis in the obvious way: he has developed concern for the value of overlooked individual experience, contrasted with his previous self-professed contempt for the “masses”. But Lewis’s anecdotes show that most people don’t want to be individuals as much as they want to be like everyone else.

Instead of delivering a message, Murakami should be asking questions: What is the value of the individuality of a person who despises this quality in themselves? Of what value is that person, compared with a person who does not think their opinions and beliefs have universal qualities? And is “individuals have value” enough of a take-home message to entitle the novelist to a prize?
 

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