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REVIEW: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.

A review I wrote ages ago finally got published in The Star. Well, that review had a crazy journey from my keyboard to print, but I shall not dwell on the matter.

This review was published in The Star on 28 August 2009.

Marathon chronicles
Review by TED MAHSUN

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Harvill Secker, 180 pages

PEOPLE don’t usually associate running marathons with writing novels. Not Haruki Murakami. For this award-winning Japanese author, the act of training and eventually taking part in a marathon is no different from the arduous task of writing a novel.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is Murakami’s attempt to coagulate and combine his thoughts on these two seemingly unrelated activities into one book. As a result, this book ends up being a memoir as much as it is about running and writing.

The book is divided into chapters that are essentially journal entries, chronicling Murakami’s progress as he prepares himself for the New York Marathon in 2005. The journal entries note his moods, thoughts and observations while he trains and how he reconciles the lessons learnt during the training with the art of writing.

For example, Murakami notes that pacing is important in writing novels, as much as it is in running, and he uses this to carry his “enthusiasm” over from day to day: “Right now I’m increasing the distance I run, so speed is less of an issue. As long as I can run a certain distance, that’s all I care about. Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same sort of tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly.”

Before I had read this book, a writer friend had told me that he didn’t think it was that good. He felt that it was an essay extended too far and too long. Having read the book, I can tell you that what my friend said was true, in a way. The book does feel a little padded in some places. There are sections where Murakami goes wildly off tangent. While he’s talking about running, he might wander off to talk about the weather and global warming. It doesn’t help that that particular passage doesn’t reflect the best of his writing: “There were torrential rains in parts of the country, and a lot of people died. They say it’s all about global warming. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Some experts claim it is, some claim it isn’t. There’s some proof that it is, some that it isn’t.”

This wishy-washiness could be the translator’s fault but I doubt it. I personally like this sort of thing, even if it is a bit strange and badly worded. To me, this sort of strangeness is exactly what appeals to me in a Murakami book, be it fiction or non-fiction. He’s a master of strange non-sequiturs and to be honest, I’m glad this book is not just a dry book about running with some thoughts about writing thrown in for good measure.

It’s great that the weirdness that is the trademark of his novels can also be found in this non-fiction.

But the real treasure in this book is Murakami’s thoughts on writing (although running fans might disagree). I’m always fascinated with what published authors have to say about their writing and here I am not disappointed. Murakami thinks of literature as “... something more spontaneous, more cohesive, something with a kind of natural, positive vitality. For me, writing a novel is like climbing a steep mountain, struggling up the face of the cliff, reaching the summit after a long and arduous ordeal. You overcome your limitations, or you don’t, one or the other. I always keep that inner image with me as I write.”

This is a difficult book to recommend. Sure, marathon fans will love reading the details of Murakami’s training and preparations. But they might be turned off by the detours into writing and other wild tangents. Likewise, budding authors would love to hear Murakami’s thoughts on writing but would they wade through all that talk about running? Perhaps not.

This book is obviously not for everyone. But it might just be the fix loyal Murakami fans need right now since there’s no word yet when (or even whether) there will be an English translation of his massive, double-volume 1Q84, released to great acclaim in Japan in May.

Comments

  1. Hi Ted - I've been thinking about getting this book as I started running this year so it was good to read your review. Thanks for sharing that!

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