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The International Writers Magazine: Book Review

WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING:
a memoir by Haruki Murakami,
180 pages: Alfred A. Knopf, (USA) 2008,
ISBN: 978-0-307-2919-5
Hardback 192 pages Harvill Secker (UK)2008
ISBN: 9781846552205

Charlie Dickinson

What makes Haruki Murakami--Japanese novelist, often suggested as Japan's next Nobel Prize winner for Literature--run? Here, told in Murakami's irresistible prose style, abundant with droll humor, is the straight skinny on why this man of letters, who turns sixty next year, runs at least one marathon every year. Culled from his runner's journal for August 2005 through October 2006, WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING, is an honest, revealing account of what running has meant to Murakami and how this disciplined lifeway informs the writing of his novels.

One obvious connection between running marathons and writing novels is both activities take focus and endurance. As Murakami notes, writing is a solitary activity and the brain driving the long-distance runner personality is well-suited to finishing novels. In short, Murakami doesn't do quits.

WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING has, of course, the cogent insights into training routines and individual body knowledge the reader would expect. Murakami explores such kinesiologic quirks as why his body balks in a race or why only a masseuse can rebalance his musculature. He talks about diet (no surprise in a book about endurance), resistance training, hitting a schedule of mileage quotas, and then throttling back before the race. In other words--at one level--this memoir reads like a heavy-duty training manual (one incidentally that was shelved in the sports section of our local Barnes & Noble, although the dust jacket labels it Biography).

But at another level (and putting aside the parallels with novel writing), this memoir is about the earned wisdom of a man entering his sixth decade. Told with a certain self-deprecating humor, the story is surprisingly moving as this writer/athlete finds his body inevitably has peaked: Murakami's marathon times will never approach his best, when he was still in his late forties. Closely allied with awareness of the body's decline is Murakami's well-known ability to eye the fact of life called Death, not blink, and take away some consoling perspectives.

Murakami takes issue with cynics who see runners as simply trying to extend their lives with extreme exercise (a dubious proposition at best). For him, running is a discipline with clear goals and an approach that enables one more easily to live life to its fullest. The inevitability of death doesn't cause him to buy into any otherworldly yearning: What's out there in the sky is a "void" to use Murakami's expression (or that deconstructed emptiness the Buddhist calls sunyata). Instead, Murakami says what he should be looking at "is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well.... all I see is my own nature....The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I've carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect." There you have it, Haruki-san says it's simply self-acceptance in this life.

Okay, maybe I'm giving away the ending, but in this memoir, partly a meditation on death, what's more Murakami-ish than for Haruki-san to pick out what his gravestone might say:
Haruki Murakami
1949-20**
Writer (and Runner)
At Least He Never Walked


And that's the point. This is not the life to fritter away, so Murakami lives for the happiness of pursuit. Read WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING for an inspiring account from a literary finisher who doesn't have the word "quit" anywhere in his dictionary.

©  Charlie Dickinson September 1st
rufousfelix at fastmail.net

Charlie Dickinson is presently working on a novel.


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