Trip the fan­tas­ti­cal in a lit­tle dis­tance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ven­ero Ar­manno What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning By Haruki Mu­rakami Ran­dom House, 189pp, $ 29.95

THE voice that speaks out of this small mem­oir is so fa­mil­iar from Haruki Mu­rakami’s fic­tion that even in the most or­di­nary pas­sages the reader can’t help ex­pect­ing some fan­tas­ti­cal event is about to hap­pen.

This voice also makes it fairly ob­vi­ous the writer is in some­thing of the mould of the Mu­rakami- ev­ery­man read­ers know and love. In­stead of mys­te­ri­ous cats, even more mys­te­ri­ous goats, or an in­di­vid­ual plunged deep into the bot­tom of a well, how­ever, What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning re­mains per­fectly true to its ti­tle ( a ti­tle ap­pro­pri­ated, with the per­mis­sion of Tess Gal­lagher, from a col­lec­tion of Ray­mond Carver’s short sto­ries).

One might think the sub­ject mat­ter would give this book lim­ited ap­peal, yet as a par­tic­u­lar type of fo­cused mem­oir it ben­e­fits from a num­ber of un­ex­pected fea­tures.

The most ob­vi­ous is that Mu­rakami seems con­gen­i­tally un­able to make even the most pro­saic mo­ment un­in­ter­est­ing. He nar­rates his non­fic­tion with the same de­cep­tively sim­ple prose that makes all his sto­ry­telling so highly read­able. Here, as in his books and short sto­ries, moods are cre­ated and ideas made crys­talline in just a few well- cho­sen words or sen­tences.

For Mu­rakami, win­ter sets in like a ca­pa­ble tax col­lec­tor; young fe­male Har­vard in­ductees run with bounc­ing blonde pony­tails and strong, sharp kicks in their stride; the Rolling Stones, Eric Clap­ton and the Lovin’ Spoon­ful cre­ate the hon­est back­beat for his own run­ning rhythm.

It’s dif­fi­cult to read th­ese pages without want­ing to load up an MP3 player ( Mu­rakami prefers the older Mini­Disc sys­tem) and see what sort of a stride you’ve got left.

What I Talk About is a re­flec­tion on run­ning as pas­time, sport and in­di­ca­tor of in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­ity. As such it can’t help also be­ing a book about writ­ing and the traits and skills nec­es­sary to ac­com­plish both. I’m the kind of per­son who likes to be by him­self, Mu­rakami tells us, who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two ev­ery day run­ning alone, not speak­ing to any­one, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be nei­ther dif­fi­cult or bor­ing. I’ve had this ten­dency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much pre­ferred read­ing books on my own or con­cen­trat­ing on lis­ten­ing to mu­sic over be­ing with some­one else. Most writ­ers will recog­nise th­ese at­tributes in them­selves but few will have mar­ried their writ­ing to the ex­tremes of marathon run­ning, which is what Mu­rakami is able to do.

I say able to do be­cause not every­one can sim­ply de­cide to sub­ject their bodies to so de­mand­ing a regime and get away with it, much less suc­ceed. Yet Mu­rakami ven­tured into run­ning on the same sort of whim that pro­pelled him to write his first book. On both days the thought ‘‘ just struck’’.

His books have tan­ta­lised mil­lions of read­ers and for more than 25 years he’s man­aged to run with min­i­mal in­juries and few bouts of real ex­haus­tion or ill­ness. As he in­forms us, Mu­rakami par­tic­i­pates in a marathon a year. That’s 42.2km. A good time for him is well un­der four hours.

The most poignant pas­sages de­tail how his times in­crease with age no mat­ter how much he pre­pares or trains. He’s also run one ul­tra­ma­rathon, a mur­der­ous 100km. At Lake Saroma in Hokkaido, Ja­pan, Mu­rakami com­pletes the run in 11 hours and 42 min­utes, ex­em­plary for a man of his age ( mid- 50s at the time).

There is one mo­ment of some­thing like Mu­rakami’s well- known ex­cur­sions into the fan­tas­ti­cal. At the 76th kilo­me­tre of the ul­tra­ma­rathon, Mu­rakami ex­pe­ri­ences a sen­sa­tion that he has passed through some kind of wall. This isn’t only the phys­i­cal bar­rier that run­ners will know, but some­thing re­mind­ful of Toru Okada’s mys­ti­cal jour­ney out of the deep well hold­ing him in The Wind- Up Bird Chron­i­cle . From this mo­ment Mu­rakami can view his com­mit­ment to run­ning, and even life, with a lit­tle more dis­tance and slightly less ob­ses­sion.

Then again, you can only hold Mu­rakami down so long. He makes the switch from marathons to what’s ar­guably even more de­mand­ing: the triathlon. You can’t help think­ing the regime fits the writer.

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