Friday, October 30, 2009

Murakami...About Running: A Book Review

by Drew Martin

When I was studying art in college, my peers and I were gathered one day to hear a visiting Italian artist talk about a project he needed assistants for. With much enthusiasm he revealed to us that his undertaking was to honor the Stadium. We all fidgeted in our seats and looked at each other with "Who let this guy in here?" expressions. Sports and the arts? It seemed like mixing oil and water. Though discus throwers, wrestlers, runners, boxers and rowers have been themes of classical art and for the realists; and, there was something in cycling for artists of the first half of the twentieth century, the arts have pretty much ignored sports as an inspired theme. The perfectly machined and symmetrical body in its neoclassical state seems fascistic. The athlete just seems too clean, plain and healthy for the creative soul.

Haruki Murakami, author of After Dark, The Elephant Vanishes, A Wild Sheep Chase (to name a few), however, writes about long distance running in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (published by Knopf, 2008). As a renowned fiction writer (most recently winning the Franz Kafka Prize) and marathon runner (at least 26 under his belt) and triathlete, the 60 year old Murakami brings the life of an athlete and artist into a comfortable existence and even plays with stereotypes:

"You live such a healthy life every day, Mr. Murakami, so don't you think you'll one day find yourself unable to write novels anymore?" People don't say this much when I'm abroad, but a lot of people in Japan seem to hold the view that writing novels is an unhealthy activity, that novelists are somewhat degenerate and have to live hazardous lives in order to write....Basically I agree with the view that writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the from the start, artistic activity contains elements that are unhealthy and antisocial.

A page later he offers:

To deal with something unhealthy, a person needs to be as healthy as possible...In other words, an unhealthy soul requires a healthy body...the healthy and the unhealthy are not necessarily at opposite ends of the spectrum. They don't stand in opposition to each other, but rather complement each other, and in some cases even band together.

Though What I Talk About...leans too much towards a physical journal and musings on the limitations of aging in the final chapters, Murakami's writing is always filtered through a literary discussing pain, he at times sounds like he is concluding Kafka's The Penal Colony:

I'm a physical, not intellectual...Only when I am given an actual physical burden and my muscles start to groan (and sometimes scream) does my comprehension meter shoot upward and I'm finally able to grasp something.

I love Murakami's simplest and most humble thoughts:

I don't necessarily write down what I'm thinking; it's just that as I write I think about things. As I write, I arrange my thoughts.

Or this morsel, bursting the horror vacui bubble:

I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.

If not words to contemplate for one's own life,
perhaps this last quote here is something to mull over this Sunday during the New York City Marathon:

The end of the race is just a temporary marker without much significance. It's the same with our lives. Just because there's an end doesn't mean existence has meaning. An end point is simply set up as a temporary marker, or perhaps as an indirect metaphor for the fleeting nature of existence. It's very philosophical - not that at this point I'm thinking how philosophical it is. I just vaguely experience this idea, not with words, but as a physical sensation.