They’ve announced. The Swedish Academy has undertaken its top secret selection process and offered its verdict: the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature will not go to Murakami Haruki. The Swedish Academy added two Japanese physicists and a Japanese chemist to the hall of Nobel Laureates in a two-day span, but Murakami couldn’t pull off the hat trick.
For the past three years, Murakami has been near the top of the odds list for the prize at many bookmakers. Murakami’s coming out party happened in 2006. Ladbrokes in London did not offer odds for Murakami to win the prize in 2005, but in 2006 he opened at 33/1 and closed at 9/1. In 2007, he opened at 10/1, closing at 5/1. The odds aren’t always accurate — Ladbrokes was giving odds of 50/1 on Doris Lessing when she won in 2007, and even popular favorite and eventual winner Orhan Pamuk’s odds were 7/1 in 2006 — but they are an interesting way of examining how Murakami is perceived. This year, his odds opened at 10/1 and closed at 7/1.
Something happened between 2005 and 2006 to put Murakami on the radar for the Nobel. In fact, it was a confluence of events. In the spring of 2006, the Japan Foundation made a major public relations push, gathering over a dozen translators to attend the “International Symposium and Workshop: A Wild Haruki Chase.” In his introduction to a compilation of essays from participants, American translator Jay Rubin noted that the conference was, to a certain extent, “the brainchild of a semi-governmental organization designed to solidify a Japanese author’s claim on the Nobel Prize” (Rubin 9). The foundation held lectures and workshops in Tokyo, Sapporo, and Kobe on a wide range of topics such as film adaptation, translation, and book jacket design.
While this may have influenced the bookmakers, Murakami also won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in September 2006 for Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a broad selection of stories from several points in the writer’s career.
But in the end the Academy cut off Murakami’s sprint towards the finish in 2006, awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Orhan Pamuk, a perhaps more politically interesting selection. Murakami’s prize-and-PR cycle continued apace, notably including his receipt of the Franz Kafka Prize in October 2006 (establishing a connection with other Kafka Prize winners who went on to take the Nobel such as Harold Pinter and Elfriede Jelinek), but the Academy’s 2007 pick of Doris Lessing didn’t exactly help the Murakami momentum (accidental congratulation from one Kobe Library notwithstanding). And now the 2008 prize has gone to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”
Murakami himself, of course, is still writing and still (in the) running. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the 2008 English translation of his memoir about running and writing, Murakami rambles sincerely about his intention to avoid the burnout that some writers experience:
Some writers who in their youth wrote wonderful, beautiful, powerful works find that when they reach a certain age exhaustion suddenly takes over. …
If possible, I’d like to avoid that kind of literary burnout. My idea of literature is 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.
Needless to say, someday you’re going to lose. Over time the body inevitably deteriorates. Sooner or later, it’s defeated and disappears. When the body disintegrates, the spirit also (most likely) is gone too. I’m well aware of that. However, I’d like to postpone, for as long as I possibly can, the point where my vitality is defeated and surpassed by the toxin. That’s my aim as a novelist. (98-99)
Clearly Murakami is determined to maintain commitment to his artistic vision and continue writing as long as he can. Given the growing international interest in his work and his substantial backlog of yet-to-be-translated fiction and nonfiction, he’s obviously not out of the race yet.
It’s just a shame he couldn’t win in 2008 — it is the year of the Rat, after all.