TOKYO – Haruki Murakami wrote a story of a walled city when he was fresh off his debut. More than four decades later, as a seasoned and acclaimed novelist, he gave it a new life as “The City and Its Uncertain Walls.”
It was three years ago when he felt the time had come to revisit the story that he thought was imperfect but had important elements, such as the wall and the shadow, and tackle them again based on what he was feeling on his skin.
“Because of the coronavirus … I hardly went out and stayed home most of the time, and I tended to look at my inner self. Then I thought, perhaps it’s time to write that story,” Murakami said. And he did, “as if recovering it from the back of a drawer.”
He started writing it in January 2020 and finished in December 2022, years that overlapped with multiple earthshattering events. “When I write a novel, I just know it’s time,” he said.
There were also Russia’s war on Ukraine, shaken globalism and the Pandora's box of social media, Murakami noted.
“In an age when society is going through rattling changes, whether to stay holed up inside the wall or to go to the other side of the wall has become a greater proposition than ever,” Murakami said in an interview ahead of the book release in Tokyo with selected journalists including The Associated Press.
“The City and Its Uncertain Walls” was released Thursday in print and in digital formats by Shinchosha Publishing Co. The availability of an English translation is not yet known. It's his first novel since the 2017 bestseller, “Killing Commendatore.”
Murakami wasn't in Japan when the book was released. He has been holding seminars about female protagonists in his stories at Wellesley College, the women’s school in Massachusetts once attended by former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Initially, Murakami’s intention was to rewrite the 1980 story “The City, and Its Uncertain Walls” to improve it. But the story didn’t end there, and Murakami kept writing. The version published in the “Bungakukai” literary magazine was rewritten, then became the first chapter of what turned into a three-part, 672-page novel.
In Part 2, the protagonist gets a job as head of a library in a small town in Fukushima, where he meets his mysterious predecessor and a teenage boy as the story leads up to the final section.
Dozens of enthusiasts of Murakami novels celebrated the release of his new book outside a landmark bookstore in downtown Tokyo at a midnight countdown event Wednesday, and many who didn’t make it showed up for a special early morning sale Thursday.
“I’m so excited,” said Kaori Otoh, a longtime fan of Murakami's work, as she gently held her new purchase. “I have to fight my temptation of reading the book at work." Kotaro Watanabe, 32, said he planned to read all night at a café with his friends. He has read the two previous stories of the walled city and said: “I really look forward to finding out how this story ends differently.”
Going to the other side of the wall requires determination, belief and physical strength, Murakami says. “You have to squeeze out all your might, or you can’t go to the other side of the world.”
His stories are “by no means pessimistic,” he says. "Despite many bizarre things and a dark side, my stories are fundamentally positive,” he said. “I think stories must be positive.”
In some of his earlier stories, protagonists travel between two worlds, through a wall, a well or a cave.
“I think that sliding through a wall, a process that involves going to the other side of the world and coming back from there, is an extremely important step,” Murakami said.
There are many kinds of walls — between conscious and unconscious, real and unreal, and the physical walls that separate societies, like what used to stand in Berlin and the barriers between Israel and the Palestinian territories, he said.
He kept thinking about the meaning of the wall in this story while writing it, Murakami said. Walls can carry different meanings and purpose, depending on who are inside, he said.
Equally important to Murakami and his stories is the shadow. He says the shadow is a form of his subconscious, or an alter ego, which resembles his negative side and helps him to know himself.
“Writing a novel, for me, is to dig down to that depth,” he said. The distinction between the main body and the shadow becomes blurry in the book, which broadened its scope of the story. He said it was a difficult process and he had to rewrite many times.
“I’m now in my mid-70s, and I don’t know how many more novels I can write. So I strongly felt that I must write this story with affection, and spend ample time to do so," he said.
Murakami, who debuted with a 1979 story “Hear the Wind Sing,” says the original version of his new novel contained the key elements of the wall and the shadow but it also had potential that was too complex for a second-year novelist to handle.
It then evolved as part of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” a 1985 bestseller of two intertwined stories of pop and action-filled science fiction and an imaginary world of a secluded walled city of the dead.
Looking back, Murakami said even that attempt was premature. He shelved a rewriting attempt for another 35 years, though the story stayed on his mind, “like a tiny fishbone stuck in the throat,” he said.
Murakami said he started feeling confident about his storytelling ability in midcareer, around 2000, just before he wrote “Kafka on the Shore,” the bestselling novel released in 2002. “From there I have come thus far, I thought perhaps now I can finally rewrite the incomplete work of ’The City and Its Uncertain Walls.’”
Twice as old now at age 74, Murakami says he is more intrigued by the tranquility as in the “End of the World” part of the 1985 novel than the pop and action depicted in the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland" side of that novel.
“You can’t help it, and I think it’s only natural,” he says, but he never tires of balancing writing novels, translating his favorite Western literature and in recent years hosting his own radio show. “I really enjoy writing. It’s fun to write, and rewriting is more fun.”
The driving force for his multiformat operation, he says, is running. It's his daily morning routine and he has run 40 marathons. “Translation, running, and collecting used records,” he said, citing his hobbies. “I don’t have time for a night life, which might have been a good thing.”