Shortly after meeting Haruki Murakami in London, I wandered down Piccadilly to Waterstone's, the bookshop through which the great author's publicity hurricane was blowing. I already knew Murakami was a big deal in Japan, where fans snapped up a million copies of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage, his 13th novel, in its first fortnight of being released. But even in London, the response seemed only a mite less fanatical. The first readers through the door had been queuing since the previous evening, and were joined in the morning by more than 600 others. Apart from J.K. Rowling, said one shell-shocked member of staff, the only people who'd drawn similar crowds for their books were the Clintons. "And David Beckham."
It's hard to square this megastar reputation with the modest and unassuming 65-year-old I had faced over his publisher's boardroom table. In person, Murakami looks about a decade younger than he is, the result of a rigorous daily regime of running and swimming that he's kept up, he says, "for more than 30 years. I'm running almost the same distances as when I was younger, but the times are getting worse."
Affable and polite, he is also given to long silences and the kind of sidelong, suggestive pronouncements that characterise his novels. "Everything is biography," he says, "but at the same time I have changed everything into fiction."
At another point: "I like to find out what's going to happen in the next book; it would solve for me why I'm here." Most disconcertingly, perhaps, he gives the impression of being just as baffled by his own wayward, metaphysical fiction as his readers are. "It's very spontaneous, you know," he shrugged at one point. "I write what I want to write, and I'll find what I want to write while I'm writing."
The latest Murakami work to appear in English is The Strange Library, an odd squib of a book that originally appeared as a short story in a Japanese magazine 30 years ago.
Revised in 2008, it is padded out with an extensive collage of illustrations drawn from old books in the London Library. Like much of Murakami's work, it's simultaneously whimsical, meandering and sinister: a surrealistic tale notionally aimed at the young, but shot through with brutality, punishment and loss.
Visiting the library in search of a book about Ottoman taxation, its unnamed child narrator is herded down into the stacks and imprisoned by a tyrannical old man with a frightening dog. At the end of a few months, he is told, "the top of your head'll be sawed off and all your brains'll get slurped right up". A strange woolly hominid called the Sheep Man - a recurring figure in several of Murakami's novels - comes to visit him and cooks him doughnuts. So does a mute girl who communicates with hand gestures. The whole thing ends abruptly, amid vistas of desolation and sadness.
Slight as it is, The Strange Library shares a number of characteristics with other Murakami works: not just the Sheep Man, but the protagonist plunged into a topsy-turvy Kafkaesque world, the mysterious spirit-like woman who haunts him and the perpetual fascination with underground spaces. Theme-spotting is a hobby for Murakami fans, since his unearthly, unspooling novels creak with repeated obsessions. People make lists of them. Jazz. Old records. Spaghetti. A fixation with ears and fingers.
But Murakami, by his own admission, is not the man to come to for enlightenment here. "In America, or in Europe," he says apologetically, "people say my writing is kind of post-modernism, or magical realism. But I'm not interested in those kind of things. I'm not a great reader of Thomas Pynchon or so-called post-modernist writers."
He disagrees? "Probably," he says. "I like Marquez. But I don't think his style is magical realism, you know. It's just his style. I suspect he was just writing his own realism; the world he wrote was just very natural and realistic to him, I guess. What I'm doing is writing my realism, my real world. If an unpredictable thing happens, it proves that you are doing something good, something true. So if the Sheep Man comes up, he's real to me, you know. No symbol. No metaphor. Just he and I."
Make sense who may, then; but the symbolic burials of his characters are surely significant. Shortly before we met, Murakami told the audience at a book festival that his "lifetime dream" was to be sitting at the bottom of a well. "Yes," he says, nodding. "I always feel that I go to the dark places when I write. Only in the darkness can I see the story. I don't think I have a special gift or a very special talent. I don't think that way. But I can go down to the darkness. So, um, ah ... "
He trails off, then brightens. "It's a basement!" he says. "And ... it's a double basement in my case, I guess. Many people can go down to the basement, I think, but in my case I have a basement of that basement."
He looks at me mournfully. "It is so dark. So when I wrote The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle [his breakthrough book in English] I wrote about the deep well, and the protagonist is sitting at the bottom of the well in darkness and silence and isolation. That's just what I'm doing every day when I write novels."
Disentangling the work, he says, is as much a task for the writer as it is for the reader. "My main interest to write novels and stories," he says, "is to find what I am. I'm 65 years old, but I'm still curious what I am. What I have in me. What I'm going to be. You know, I'm a writer. I'm kind of famous. I've been writing for 35 years, I'm kind of successful and I have readers worldwide but I don't understand why that happened. It seems to me like a miracle. I don't think I'm a great person, a smart person, a talented person, but I could write. I just want to find out why that happened to me. Not to other people, just to me."
Fans have been more than willing to help. When Murakami wrote his novel Kafka On The Shore, he briefly ran a website on which fans could share their theories and pose questions to the author - a sort of gigantic Ask Me Anything that was later published in Japan as a book.
"I felt it was kind of democratic," he says now. "People meeting at the agora, in the Ancient Greek polis, you know. I was interested in talking with my readers. But I got tired of it, I said, 'that's enough'. I think true understanding is the accumulation of misunderstandings. That was my discovery.
"Each reader sent me their opinions. Many of them were just not the right opinions - they were kind of misunderstandings. But when I read a thousand of them, I felt 'They understand me!' I trust the readers ... but I don't trust each reader."
A Murakami novel, he says, will start from a single paragraph, "or a sentence, or a beginning visual scene. Sometimes it's just like video footage. I see it every day, maybe 100 times, or 1000, over and over. Then all of a sudden, I say, 'Okay, I can write this one.'"
The books alternate, he says, "like Beethoven symphonies. Odd-numbered ones and even-numbered ones. The odd-numbered ones are masculine, big, ambitious; the even numbers are kind of gentle and modest." And short stories fit in between. "I can use various voices, persons and styles, and enjoy doing it, and at the same time it's a kind of practice."
What's more, he says, he doesn't like thinking of himself as creative. "I've always admired routine and sticking to it," he says. "However depressed I am, however lonely or sad, routine work helps me. I love it. Basically I think of myself as an engineer or a gardener or something like that. Not a creator, that's too heavy for me. I'm not that kind of person. I just stick to the routine work. I've been running for 30 years, and it gave me very special things in 30 years. If you do the same thing every day, that'll give you something."
He'll be sitting down to the next book soon, he says, but when I spoke to him, he didn't know what it was going to be about.
"I have so many first paragraphs in my drawer. It will be an odd number, so maybe a big book, I guess." Then he beams. "I hope so. Adventures!"
Haruki Murakami will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 13-17; tickets are on sale now.