Trip the fantastical in a little distance
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.