Haruki Murakami/What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

I don’t think that reading two Japanese writers (neither of whom I had read earlier) in close succession can be called “bingeing” on Japanese writers, but that’s what I thought I was doing when I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World, Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go as well as Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running within the span of a couple of months. They are both immensely talented writers, but in different ways. Ishiguro is deeply interior, even dark at times, extremely focussed on the streams of consciousness of his characters; Murakami, based on the one work I have read, has a more playful, teasing, light-hearted and comic style.

What does he think about when he runs, or when he thinks about running? In his typical, teasing style, he says: Nothing. Nothing at all.

“I’m often asked what I think about when I run. Usually, the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.

On cold days I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days . . . And occasionally, hardly ever, really, I get an idea to use in a novel. But really as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning.

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” (16-17).

So what you get is about 180 pages  about this void in a spartan style that is a cross between Raymond Chandler — who inspired the title of this work — and Ernest Hemingway; Zen-like ruminations on the nothingness of everyday life through the lens of a writer and runner. It’s a book that’s as hard to describe as it is to put down.

It then struck me, the other day, that what this book is about is learning to cultivate a certain “stick-with-it-ness,” a dogged digging in of the heels in the face of faint-heartedness. The doggedness with which Murakami runs and his perseverance with running are the “glue” that keep him grounded and take him forward, past adversity and obstacles. It makes me believe that so much success in life derives from this simple lesson:  DO NOT GIVE UP.


In the Margins

I liked Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation tremendously and was delighted to chance upon another book by her at a 0140145494.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_used bookstore in Bangalore some years ago. Finding a used copy of  Exit into History, Hoffman’s memoir of travel through “the new Eastern Europe,”  struck me as an unlikely coincidence — Jewish American autobiography is not something you expect to find other people reading over on this side of the world, but perhaps it had been left behind by a foreign sojourner in India’s IT capital. The copy I picked up had some intrusive underlining and marginal commentary, but the most interesting comment was the one I found around the following passage in the book’s section on Czechoslovakia:

“In one of the most famous essays of his dissident days, Havel asked his countrymen to live “as if” they were free — that is, to act in the spirit of internal freedom, despite their external constraints. But the regime practiced a grotesque inversion of this injunction: the citizens of Czechoslovakia were required to believe and pretend they were free, when they were effectively enslaved; that is, they were supposed to live a lie — and an imperative to live a lie sucks sense out of all activity.”

The previous owner of the book had marked a vertical line against this passage in the margin and had scrawled “my marriage.”

This  gave me pause. I found myself trying to imagine who this person was, whether a man or a woman, what had prompted him or her to made this connection between the citizens of a post-Communist regime and his or her marriage (a fascinating connection, I thought); I wondered whether this person was divorced or still in an oppressive marriage and “living a lie.” It was an intense moment, this unexpected revelation from an earlier reader of the very book I was holding in my hands. Used books draw me for that very reason: through them, you are in conversation not only with the book and its author, but also with the book’s earlier reader(s).