Sad, Wise Writing About Japan

A searing essay about the tsunami's surprising survivor; a long talk with Murakami

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The essay that will break your heart this weekend begins this way:

Later, lost far at sea, when you're trying to forget all you've left behind, the memory will bubble up unbidden: a village that once lay by the ocean.

That's the start of Michael Paterniti's tale in GQ of Hiromitsu Shinkawa, the man who survived the March tsunami in Japan by floating five miles out to sea on the roof of his own house. It doesn't spoil the story to know that he lived. How he lived is the story. The regret and sadness he now lives with is also the story. And the telling is beautiful.

In this cage lie the chuckling pigeons, and in this barn of theirs, your happiness. Against the wall are full bags of rice seed—and from outside you can hear your wife's voice calling your name. Hiromitsu. Night falls—and in the bedroom you lie beside her. You will remember this later when trying to keep yourself alive: falling asleep one last time by the body of your wife in your house, beneath its roof of white tin, in the shadow of the sea.

Then this: Haruki Murakami, on why the writer needs his strength. A long, engaging interview in the Guardian:

His habit of repetition, whether a stylistic tic or a side-effect of translation from the Japanese, has the effect of making everything Murakami says sound infinitely profound. He has written about the metaphorical importance of his running; that to complete an action every day sets a kind of karmic example for his writing. "Yes," he says. "Mmmmm." He makes a long contemplative sound. "I need strength because I have to open the door." He mimes heaving open a door. "Every day I go to my study and sit at my desk and put the computer on. At that moment, I have to open the door. It's a big, heavy door. You have to go into the Other Room. Metaphorically, of course. And you have to come back to this side of the room. And you have to shut the door. So it's literally physical strength to open and shut the door. So if I lose that strength, I cannot write a novel any more. I can write some short stories, but not a novel."

Is there an element of fear to overcome in those actions every morning?

"It's just routine," he says and laughs loudly. "It's kind of boring. It's a routine. But the routine is so important."

Because there's chaos within?

"Yeah. I go to my subconsciousness. I have to go into that chaos. But the act of going and coming back is kind of routine. You have to be practical. So every time I say, if you want to write a novel you have to be practical, people get bored. They are disappointed." He laughs again. "They are expecting a more dynamic, creative, artistic thing to say. What I want to say is: you have to be practical."

He also has a provocative comparison to make between the tsunami that devastated Japan ("a turning point" for the country, he says) and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.

He likens it to 9/11, which, he says, changed the course of world history. From a novelist's perspective it is a "miraculous event", too improbable to be true. "When I see those videos of the two planes crashing into the buildings, it seems like a miracle to me. It's not politically correct to say that it's beautiful, but I have to say that there is a kind of beauty in it. It's awful, it's a tragedy, but still there is a beauty in it. It seems too perfect. I cannot believe it happened, really. Sometimes I wonder if those two planes hadn't crashed into the building, the world would be so different from what it is now."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.