Most of us probably have had the unpleasant experience of being collared by a friend who is intent on sharing the details of some passion --- whether it’s golf, stamp collecting or scuba diving --- about which we know little and care less. As a non-runner, I approached Haruki Murakami’s memoir with some of the trepidation that attends those conversations. Instead I found a spritely, engaging story of one writer’s quarter-century encounter with serious running and how that pursuit has threaded its way meaningfully through his life. Focusing in the main on the period from August 2005 through the New York City Marathon on November 6, 2005 (his 24th marathon since 1982), Murakami blends snippets of autobiography, descriptions of his running life and insights on the craft of writing into an entertaining mix.
Murakami, author of critically acclaimed and popular novels like THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE and KAFKA ON THE SHORE, started running at the age of 33, turning to it as casually as he apparently did writing (“One day, out of the blue, I wanted to write a novel. And one day, out of the blue, I started to run --- simply because I wanted to.”). Refreshingly, he’s no proselytizer for the sport, conceding that “I’ve tried my best never to say something like, Running is great. Everybody should try it. If some people have an interest in long-distance running, just leave them be, and they’ll start running on their own.”
Departing from the central time frame of the memoir (the origin of whose title should be readily known to fans of Raymond Carver, for whose work he confesses his admiration and which he has translated into Japanese), Murakami provides a lyrical account of his first “marathon,” one that took him backwards on the original route, from Athens to Marathon (in fact, one mile shorter than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles) in the searing heat of a Greek summer. He describes his single ultramarathon (62 miles, completed in 11 hours and 42 minutes) in such grim detail as to make one question the sanity of anyone running such a race. While doing so, he brings to bear the novelist’s keen eye for detail in describing the closing stretch of the race: “Evening had come on…and the air had a special clarity to it. I could also smell the deep grass of the beginning of summer. I saw a few foxes, too, gathered in a field. They looked at us runners curiously. Thick, meaningful clouds, like something out of a nineteenth century British landscape painting, covered the sky.”
Murakami hasn’t confined his athletic activities to long-distance running. In the 1990s he competed in his first triathlon. His account of the training to overcome the panic he experienced at the beginning of the swimming leg in an event in 2000, ultimately disqualifying him, is both candid and instructive. In the final triathlon described in the book, he makes gentle sport of how the Vaseline he applied to make his swimsuit easier to remove fogged his swimming goggles and how his shoelaces became untied during the running leg.
Although Murakami offers brief glimpses into the subjects that engage him and his view of the writing craft (“manual labor,” as he describes it at one point), there’s no strained effort here to draw parallels between his running and writing lives or to import cosmic lessons from one realm to the other. More by indirection, he hints at the ways in which similar qualities --- dogged persistence, attention to detail, a willingness to press on in a solitary way through extended periods of effort --- inform and enrich both pursuits.
Although he admits to something of a prickly nature, Murakami’s tone throughout is self-effacing, even self-critical at times. He’s a realist about the ravages of age: “Even when I grow old and feeble, when people warn me it’s about time to throw in the towel, I won’t care. As long as my body allows, I’ll keep on running.” And while he hopes to pursue his passions for many years, he has already decided he wants to be buried under a tombstone that reads, in part, “At Least He Never Walked.”
Murakami’s small memoir didn’t inspire me to leap from my chair and lace up my Nikes, but you don’t have to be a runner to enjoy this reflective book by one of Japan’s most prominent contemporary novelists.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 24, 2011