Sunday, August 17, 2008

Marathon Man

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


He used to own a jazz bar in Tokyo. He competes in at least one marathon a year, and has completed more than a few triathlons, too. And his books, with their cool, surreal take on reality, have a passionate, devoted following.

Is Haruki Murakami, as The Times (UK) recently informed us, “the coolest writer in the world”?

The matter-of-fact, sometimes commonplace nature of his new memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, would seem to belie that observation. To be frank, this is really a long essay, padded out into book length by repetition and the inclusion of two earlier articles by Murakami.

Long-distance running, Murakami says, is one of the ideal pursuits for a novelist because of what it has is common with the nature of writing: the need for endurance, focus and sticking to a plan. Now in his late fifties, Murakami began running seriously when he was 33 in order to lose weight after giving up smoking. In a series of interlinked ruminations written in Hawaii, Tokyo and Cambridge, among other places, he takes us through his training schedule, his experience of running in the New York City marathon and the first time he ran 26.2 miles at a stretch, from Marathon to Athens in Greece. Because there are many observational overlaps, after a while you realize that though the scenery is different, the steps are the same.

What makes the book interesting – for Murakami fans, at least – are the insights he offers into his own compulsions. He’s fond of solitude and introspection, and uncomfortable with competition (and competitive sport). There are small nuggets of biographical detail, such as the exact moment when the wish to become a writer arose in him, what he liked and disliked about his experience of running a jazz bar, the mental preparations he has to make before delivering a speech in English and the sort of music he listens to when he runs – the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Daydream and Clapton’s Reptile, along with CCR, Beck and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to mention a few.

Though what’s endearing is a tone of down-to-earth humility throughout, it’s let down, alas, by many banalities -- for example, “In the final analysis we're all the same”, and “I’m the type of person who has to totally commit to whatever I do”. (And you can’t blame the translation because Philip Gabriel has done a sterling job with Murakami’s novels in the past.)

Those looking for the surreal moments associated with Murakami’s fiction will find a few: the dead dogs and cats he spots while running, and his quasi-mystical experience when, in a particularly horrifying feat of endurance, he once ran “an ultramarathon” – that is, 62 miles -- from morning to evening in Hokkaido. As if that last accomplishment wasn’t enough to prove the depth of the writer’s love for long-distance running, he even at one point tells us what he’d like on his gravestone: “At Least He Never Walked”.

All of which is enough to make you sprawl back on the sofa, let the book fall from limp fingers and reach for a large bag of French fries.

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