TOKYO – Japanese writer Haruki Murakami says walls are increasingly built and dividing people and countries after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic fueled fear and skepticism.
“With feelings of suspicion replacing mutual trust, walls are continually being erected around us,” Murakami said in late April at Wellesley College. That speech, “Writing Fiction in the Time of Pandemic and War,” was released Wednesday in The Shincho Monthly literary magazine published by Shinchosha Co.
“Everybody seems to be confronted with a choice — to hide behind the walls, preserving safety and the status quo or, knowing the risks, to emerge beyond the walls in search of a freer value system,” he said.
Like the protagonist in his new novel.
“The City and Its Uncertain Walls” was released in April in Japan and an English translation is expected in 2024. The protagonist, as Murakami described, faces a tough choice between two worlds: an isolated walled city of tranquility with no desire or suffering, and the real world beyond the walls filled with pain and desire and contradictions.
The novel is based on a story he wrote for a magazine soon after becoming a novelist but was never published in book form. He said he knew it had important ideas and put it aside because he wanted to rewrite it.
Some 40 years later, he discovered “this tale fits perfectly with the age we live in now.”
Murakami started rewriting the book in March 2020, soon after COVID-19 began spreading around the world, and finished it two years later, as the war in Ukraine passed its one-year mark.
"The two big events combined and changed the world in dramatic ways,” he said.
The sense of safety that came with a common belief in globalism and mutual economic and cultural dependency "crumbled with Russia’s sudden invasion of Ukraine,” Murakami said, spreading fear of similar invasions elsewhere. Many countries, including his home Japan, have since bolstered their military preparedness and budgets.
As the war continues without an end in sight, so do the high walls being built around people, between countries and individuals, Murakami said. “It seems to me that the psychic condition — if someone isn’t your ally, he is your enemy — continues to spread."
“Can our trust in each other once more overcome our suspicions? Can wisdom conquer fear? The answers to these questions are entrusted to our hands. And rather than an instant answer, we are being required to undergo a deep investigation that will take time,” Murakami said.
He says that, while there's not much a novelist can do, “I sincerely hope that novels and stories can lend their power to such an investigation. It’s something that we novelists dearly hope for.”
Murakami has made other efforts to encourage people to think, combat fear or tear down walls. He hosted the radio show “Music to put an end to war” a month after Russia’ invaded Ukraine. His Japanese translation of “The Last Flower,” a 1939 parable of war and peace by American humorist and former New Yorker cartoonist James Thurber, will be released later this month from Poplar Sha.
Did the protagonist stay inside the walls? “Please try reading the book yourselves,” Murakami said.