His surreal stories are read by millions but the Japanese novelist is bemused by his celebrity. The eternal Nobel favourite reveals why his books appeal in times of chaos The day before we meet in Manhattan, a woman stopped Haruki Murakami in Central Park, where he had come for his late-morning run. “Excuse me,” she said, “but aren’t you a very famous Japanese novelist?” A faintly odd way of putting the question, but Murakami responded in his usual equable manner. “I said ‘No, really I’m just a writer. But still, it’s nice to meet you!’ And then we shook hands. When people stop me like that, I feel very strange, because I’m just an ordinary guy. I don’t really understand why people want to meet me.” It would be a mistake to interpret this as false modesty, but equally wrong to see it as genuine discomfort with fame: so far as it’s possible to tell, the 69-year-old Murakami neither relishes nor dislikes his global celebrity. His outlook, instead, is that of a curious if slightly bemused spectator – both of the surreal stories that emerge from his subconscious, and of the fact that they are devoured by readers in their millions, in Japanese and in translation. It’s surely no coincidence that the typical Murakami protagonist is a similarly detached observer: a placid, socially withdrawn and often nameless man in his mid-30s, who seems more intrigued than alarmed when an inexplicable phone call, or the search for a lost cat, leads him into a dreamlike parallel universe populated by exploding dogs, men in sheep costumes, enigmatic teenage girls and people with no faces.
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