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Haruki Murakami collage

Today is Haruki Murakami’s birthday, and I’m reminded of when I first plunged into Murakami’s work. I’d just moved to Tokyo, was living in a rather bizarre guesthouse, and a housemate shoved a copy of Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World into my hands.

The novel began with a reasonable sense of reality. The narrator was a contractor of some sort. He was visiting a client for a new job. Very straightforward. But then the client complained of INKlings in the subway. What the heck were INKlings? We were off into a fantastical world that was just real enough for me to believe it.

Perhaps I accepted this jump so easily because I’d already leapt into non-reality with my move to Tokyo. Sure, life everywhere is basically the same. People work, play sports, watch T.V., look after their kids. The Tokyo suburb I’d landed in was no different. But I still experienced the usual culture shocks: clerks who yelled Irrashaimase! (Welcome!) in every store, trains as quiet as libraries, the endless bowing and sumimasen-ing (excuse me, sorry, etc.). Life for a new expatriate always involves a certain amount of strangeness.

And then there was the guesthouse. The owners had given a monkey three cans of paint and some crack, I believe, and then set him loose to do the interior decorating. He painted a red Adam with a mohawk and a green Eve with long white curls, both in diapers. They were picking an apple off a tree whose limbs curled around the living room walls. The individual rooms we rented were loosely themed: a friend’s had shamrocks, mine had trucks. Then the paintings on the third floor were a bit naughty (the effects of the crack?). I could never decide if I was in a Sunday school, kindergarten, or back alley peep show.

But for a monkey, I guess he did a pretty good job, and in retrospect it was the perfect place to read Hardboiled Wonderland. INKlings didn’t seem so out of the ordinary, nor the other oddities Murakami portrayed with such apparent ease. In parallel worlds, the two narrators of the novel negotiated environments that at first seemed ordinary, but grew more peculiar with every turn of the page. I was negotiating my new environment in much the same way.

And with that, I was hooked. Happy Birthday, Mr. Murakami, and thanks for making my life so much more interesting.