September 1, 2008 6:31 am

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Harvill Secker £9.99 192 pages
FT Bookshop price: £7.99

Three types of readers will enjoy Haruki Murakami’s latest offering, a slim volume called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Diehard Murakami fans, hungry for biographical information about the publicity-shy Japanese writer, are the first type. Second are long-distance runners, hoping to learn from Murakami’s history of competing in marathons (more than 25 so far), as well as ultra-marathons and triathlons. In the third category are aspiring authors, wishing for wisdom from chapters with headings such as “Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day”.

Murakami is Japan’s most celebrated contemporary author, phenomenally successful at home and widely translated abroad. Since his breakthrough novel, Norwegian Wood, he has acquired fame as a purveyor of tales that underscore the surreal and the mysterious in Japanese daily life. Short story collections such as Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman have cemented his reputation for sparse and quirky storytelling.

There is none of that quirkiness in his latest title (adapted from Raymond Carver’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love ). Instead, we are presented with an earnest and repetitive assortment of Murakami’s thoughts on the agony and the ecstasy of being a pavement-pounder.

He calls it “a kind of memoir centred on the act of running”. In fact, it is more like a training log covering the months before the 2005 New York marathon, into which he weaves musings on physical pain, ageing, endurance, focus, and their importance to his work as a writer of fiction.

“I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.” The book is filled with such sweeping yet frustratingly imprecise declarations. For all his soul-searching, Murakami is too often willing to let Hallmark-card wisdom do the speaking (“You have to wait until tomorrow to find out what tomorrow will bring”).

The best writing in this book is recycled: old texts written after his first run from Athens to Marathon, in 1983, or after completing a 62-mile ultra-marathon in Hokkaido, in 1996.

His groupies may be interested in discovering that the jazz-loving Murakami listens mostly to rock ’n’ roll while training. Running aficionados may take note of the author’s racing paces and finishing times, and will rate themselves on Murakami’s scale of “serious running” (136 miles a week) versus “rigorous running” (186 miles a week). Budding authors may even feel encouraged to lace up their trainers by Murakami’s assertion that “the age when I began my life as a runner ... was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.” Most readers, however, are likely to find this padded-out essay baffling and unsatisfying.

It is a measure of Murakami’s authorial standing that editors allowed him to produce such a book. Anyone wondering why he became a towering name in contemporary fiction is advised to begin elsewhere.

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