“Writing Fiction in the Time of Pandemic and War”: Murakami Haruki Discusses His New Novel at Wellesley

Culture Society

Murakami Haruki’s The City and Its Uncertain Walls has been a bestseller since it hit Japanese bookstores in April. Useful hints on possible interpretations of the deeper message behind the novelist’s distinctive fictional world come from a talk he gave recently at Wellesley College in the United States.

Visiting Professor at Wellesley

Murakami spent several months, from mid-January to mid-May this year, as a visiting professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a prestigious women’s college whose alumnae include two Secretaries of State in Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Albright. The Japanese magazine Shinchō includes the transcript of a talk Murakami gave there to an audience of some 900 people in a lecture hall at the university on April 27, containing the original text together with a Japanese translation of Murakami’s speech, given in English.

In a preface to the transcript, published under the title “Writing Fiction in the Time of Pandemic and War,” the author writes as follows.

I did feel some misgivings that perhaps I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But I thought, if an author is going to speak in front of an audience at a time like this, what more suitable subject could there be to address than this?

The speech offered some fascinating hints for a deeper understanding of the fictional world of the author’s latest work, and provided insights into how the author sees our strife-torn world of “pandemic and war.” In what follows, I want to outline the basic content of the speech for readers who may not yet have had a chance to see Murakami’s remarks.

The City and Its Uncertain Walls is a story in which the protagonist moves back and forth between two worlds, which are the real world of his daily life and a (presumably fictional) city surrounded by high walls. The novel marks a return for Murakami to a subject he first treated in a novella published some 40 years ago. In the talk at Wellesley, having given a broad overview of the story setting of the novel, he reflected on its surprising relevance to the current age:

Once I had largely rewritten the story, I was surprised to discover an important truth: this tale fits perfectly with the age we live in now.

What Can a Novelist Do?

Discussing the apparently unconnected events of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Murakami says that, “in the end these two big events combined and changed the world in dramatic ways.” Firstly, the coronavirus pandemic curtailed our daily activities for three years, and heavy reliance on the internet became the norm. “These conditions have continued for about three years. They must have had a huge impact on our psyche,” he writes. “Our spirits,” he also comments, “having survived three years of COVID, had surely sustained some form of damage. And we need to heal from that injury.”

The invasion of Ukraine, coming in the midst of the pandemic, shattered the idea of a kind of trust network between the main countries of the world due to their close connections and mutual dependence. As a result of this loss of trust, many countries—“including my own,” Murakami notes—are drastically increasing their level of military preparedness and their military budgets.

With feelings of suspicion replacing mutual trust, walls are continually being erected around us. Everybody seems to be confronted with a choice—to hide behind the walls, preserving safety and the status quo or, knowing the risks, to emerge beyond the walls in search of a freer value system.

Then he moves on to discuss his new novel.

In my new novel, the protagonist has trouble making a decision: should he remain with the walls or should he return to the real world? . . . he comes to sense something unnatural. Something not so right. But he cannot point out where the fault lies in the system of the town and so he is not able to decide to leave. Even if he wanted to go beyond the walls, he doesn’t know how to do it. Caught in a state of indecision, he splits into two: a man and his shadow. Then the two halves of the protagonist head down different paths.

He goes on to discuss the story of the novel in more depth, but for this I would really encourage readers to read Murakami’s words for themselves. The novel’s powerful message is one that will surely strike a chord in many readers.

Finally, in concluding his speech, Murakami asks “Under such conditions, what can a novelist do?” His answer is not on the face of it particularly optimistic. “My first answer would be ‘there isn’t much a novel can do.’ I say this because unfortunately, a novel does not take effect immediately.” Even so he sees the job as worthwhile.

However, I believe that the strongest virtue of the novel is that it takes time to write and to read. There are such things in this world that can only be created if one takes time and can only be appreciated if one takes time.

Even in a high-paced world marked by a constant swirling rush of instant information, there are still readers who will take the time to read novels and draw sustenance from them.

In this age of a global pandemic and war . . . Can our trust in each other once more overcome our suspicions? Can wisdom conquer fear? The answers to these questions are entrusted to our hands. And rather than an instant answer, we are being required to undergo a deep investigation that will take time.

I sincerely hope that novels and stories can lend their power to such an investigation. It’s something that we novelists dearly hope for. Please take the time to read novels.

One hopes that the words of this bestselling author will be taken to heart by his legions of fans around the world.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The cover of the July, 2023, issue of Shinchō, containing the transcript of Murakami Haruki’s talk on “Writing Fiction in the Time of Pandemic and War.” Courtesy of Shinchōsha.)

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