I can’t remember exactly when I first discovered Haruki Murakami but it must have been sometime around 2000. There was a video game magazine that I used to read that had a monthly feature on Japanese culture and one of his books – After the Quake – was reviewed in it. I picked a copy up and enjoyed it so a while later I decided to try one of his novels. I bought Norwegian Wood and loved it so much that I started to work my way through his other books.
Having read so much of his work – he takes up almost one full shelf – I decided to try some other Japanese writers too. These are some of the other Japanese books and writers that I have discovered that I think are really good.
I didn’t discover Kobo Abe, someone just posted him through my door. An old friend sent me a copy of The Kangaroo Notebook because they thought I would like it. It was about a man who wakes up to discover he has radishes growing out of his legs, which makes him into a kind of self-sustaining eco-system, and gets sent to a health spa by his doctor. I can’t remember where I heard this but someone said that Kobo Abe writes the kind of books that other people think Kafka wrote. Kangaroo Notebook was weird and had the kind of ambiguous not-what-you-thought-it-was kind of ending that I like, so I read a few others. The one that really did it for me was The Woman in the Dunes. I think this is his most famous book. An entomologist (something of a recurring theme in his characters) accidentally falls down a dune and can’t get back out. There are shadowy figures watching him from above, and a woman living in a house at the bottom. Together the man and the woman spend their days sweeping away the sand that falls down the dune and into their home. So weird, but so good.
Kawakami has written three books, and the fact that there is a third is news to me. I just looked her up and found she has had a new one come out that I didn’t know about. Her other two, Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop are both very gentle novels. Strange Weather in Tokyo is about a a slow budding romance between a woman and an older man who used to be her teacher. Nakano Thrift Shop centres on the lives of a group of people working in a little junk shop. Her writing is lovely and delicate and the books have a really sleepy pace that I find so pleasing to read. Can’t wait to read the third, which is called Record of a Night Too Brief.
I have only read a couple by Yoko Ogawa but The Housekeeper and the Professor really stands out. It is about a housekeeper who looks after the home of a mathematics professor who suffers from acute short term memory loss. He can only remember the last eighty minutes. The story seems to spiral around and around, getting nowhere, but slowly the effect of this arrangement on the housekeeper and on her son, who somehow manages to form a friendship with him, emerges. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking book.
There are also a number of one-offs that I have read that I liked enough that I will likely read some more by these writers again in the future. There is Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, an enormous, Steig Larssen-esque crime novel. It’s like a police procedural but from the perspective of an officer working in the press-office. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino is about the murder of two prostitutes. A novel that seems like it is going to a bit of a pulpy crime novel, but that turns into quite a thoughtful, deeper book than it might seem like it’s going to be. There is Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto, a couple of short novels in one that is reminiscent of the Hiromi Kawakami novels I already talked about, and some of the shorter, gentler books that Murakami wrote, like South of the Border, West of the Sun, or Sputnik Sweetheart.
So there you are, if you like Haruki Murakami and want to try some other Japanese writers, maybe give some of those a go.