The Subterranean Universes of Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

I sometimes think that people’s hearts are like deep wells. Nobody knows what’s at the bottom. All you can do is guess from what comes to the surface every once in a while.

  • Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow Sleeping Woman

What draws us to Mr. Murakami’s literary works, irrespective of the cultural & social differences? He depicts a way of life that couldn’t be assigned to single place or particular people.  He scrutinizes the big questions we have about our existence: morality, sex, and death. The inner layers of his novel explore the disillusionment, inherent emptiness, alienation, and desire for connection we all feel in this post-modern universe. Amidst the thick references to western culture (jazz records, classical music, etc), there’s also references to pivotal movements or events in Japanese history. From Reconstruction of Japan in the Post-World War II scenario to counter-cultural 60s & rise of radical New Left to economic collapse of 90s to terrorizing doomsday cult organization, there’s distinct Japanese elements in Murakami’s novels. Yet, he evokes the cultural sensibility of a rapidly changing, globalized world which makes his novels emotionally resonate with all urban dwellers.

On March 20, 1995, the spooky cult members of ‘Aum Shinrikyo’ co-ordinated deadly sarin gas attack in the multiple-points at Tokyo subway stations. The acquisition of chemical weapons by a domestic organization and the ensued attack shocked nations around the world. In 1997, Murakami published a non-fiction book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. It was compilation of interviews of people who lived through the sarin gas attack (conducted with rich, contemplative tone). The violence and death that happened under the ground always finds its way in Haruki Murakami’s fictions.

On the surface, Murakami’s fictional universe seems very concrete with every simple detail neatly listed out. Yet, his subterranean world or underground is full of ambiguous elements, which is closely interlinked to the neatly packaged surface world. In Underground, Murakami confides how he is always fascinated by all the hidden, dark things under the ground. He says these obscure spaces fills his head with stories.

An assortment of recurrent motifs in Haruki Murakami’s works (pic courtesy:

Underground springs, dark alleys, tunnels, hidden passageways, caves, subways, and wells are the recurrent motifs in Mr. Murakami’s novels. In fact, the author’s obsession with dry well has created a similar obsession in me, urging to me look down at every single old, dry well I come across. We can find existential truths in theological mythical story, even if we aren’t very fond of religion. Similarly, the mythical narrative structure in Murakami’s novels, especially his journey into the subterranean world makes me take an inward journey to cleanse the sick & overly skeptical part of my soul. Murakami once told to an interviewer that he had to stop himself from using the ‘well’ imagery, after his eighth novel, because the frequency of it is starting to embarrass him (source: New York Times article titled The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami).

On one hand, the hidden dark spaces stand in for the spasms of violence pervading through the gentile social surface from deep within; on the other hand, the subterranean worlds, including the well imagery encounter the neglected traumas that stay within us. Somehow these veiled traumas briefly makes its way to the surface; that’s what made Toru Okada (in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) beat the guitarist to a bloody pulp. Encountering depth of the self and the seemingly constrained urban world is what lies behind Murakami’s motivation for constructing free-flowing magical realism. By plunging deep into the illogical or magical scenario, Haruki Murakami finds very logical truths; the ones which our mind & soul craves for.

One of the greatest pleasures of reading a Murakami novel is how the vividly detailed mundane exercise transforms into a trip down bizarre reality. His characters ride the elevator to their multi-storey corporate office as well as find themselves climbing down dry well for a brief phase of meditation. The radical change, although looks indefinable, if we look closely it’s all triggered by memories or traumatic past, which lay well-concealed beneath the surface. The buildings in Murakami’s novels are always raised above dead, forgotten things. In the subterranean world or alternate reality, Murakami efficiently superimposes the memories of forgotten past. The forgotten past doesn’t have to be relevant to a particular individual (like his/her past relationships); it can also evoke the memories of historical past.

The housing or other structures his characters encounter are left out with traces of violent Japanese history. It may currently symbolize progressive modernization, although the painful past breaks through the underground to the surface. From an individual perspective, all the depression, loneliness and tediousness of leading routine life sparks a psychological or physical affliction, dragging the individual down the subterranean labyrinthine. It’s a trip beyond a person’s consciousness. It’s a trip that relies on instincts and institutions. In Norwegian Wood, Noako’s obsession with a field well and the force that drives her to talk the ‘walk’ are all intricately linked with her psychological trauma.

Eventually, the wells & tunnels not only signify the encounter with deep, darker things, but also lead to a kind of rebirth. Everything from sexual impulse to fear of death is explored in the physical trip down the subterranean. Toru Watanabe in Norwegian Wood says,Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life”. Similarly, Haruki Murakami’s magical undergrounds aren’t the opposite of realistic landscape; it’s just a part of it. And, by probing the depths of one from the other, enlightening existential truths are discovered.

Don’t we all find a figurative well or void, plaguing our sophisticated, urban existence? I observe a void when strolling or scrolling through social media; A void opening during the extended hours of my stay inside the corporate cubicle; sometimes a well looks preferable choice than formal socialization. The dark emptiness is kind of everywhere in this dog-eat-dog world. Only the literature and movies, and few selected no. of individuals give me the grit to fill-out the voids. Therefore, Murakami’s deep subterranean journeys are part of my artillery to fill the existential void.

Those who are longing for a deep inner journey, doesn’t always have to meditate or read inexplicable religious texts or philosophical books. A Haruki Murakami novel could do the same (of course, his recent novels are little intimidating in size & scope).


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