Why is the Nobel Prize so elusive for Haruki Murakami?


“Harukists” once again held their collective breath, and once again they were left disappointed.

The long-held prayers of die-hard fans of bestselling Japanese author Haruki Murakami went unanswered Thursday when the Swedish Academy awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in literature to Tanzania-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Murakami, who is best known for his 1987 bestseller “Norwegian Wood,” first emerged as a viable contender for the world’s most prestigious literary award around 2007, when prominent betting site Ladbrokes placed him as one of the top contenders. Since then, his name has become something of a fixture on the list of hopefuls, inflating fans’ expectations and turning frenzied speculation about his Nobel possibility into an annual affair.

This year, too, there was a bit of hype surrounding the 72-year-old. A day before the Thursday announcement, Murakami was the second favorite among bookmakers to take the accolade, with Ladbrokes giving him odds of 10 to 1 — on par with acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood, best known for her dystopian 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

But once again the academy went in a different direction, reigniting the question: Why is the Nobel literary award so elusive for the famed author?

Over the years, critics have cited a number of possible reasons, with the most prominent being the lack of political statements in his work.

In recent years, the Swedish Academy has been said to gravitate toward authors whose works are politically laudable, favoring authors who shed light on the downtrodden and those who fight oppressive rulers or tackle contemporary social issues head-on.

Such elements underlie the works of this year’s laureate, too.

Gurnah, whose work focuses on colonialism and the trauma of the refugee experience, bagged the prize “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents,” the Nobel committee said.

It added his novels “recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world.”

In 2015, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich was honored for her “polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” Her reportage-style work covered topics from the 10-year Soviet war in Afghanistan to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

French author Patrick Modiano, who clinched the prize in 2014, was honored for “the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the (Nazi) Occupation.”

“When authors under consideration for the prize write in all these different languages and come from all these different cultural backgrounds, what makes a difference at the end of the day is whether or not their works include some political significance that resonates” with the committee, said Koichiro Sukegawa, a Japanese literature professor at Gifu Women’s University who has long studied Murakami.

Novelist Haruki Murakami attends a news conference in Tokyo in September. | AFP-JIJI

This, he said, gives authors such as Atwood and Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o — another perennial Nobel favorite — a competitive edge over Murakami: Atwood is often associated with feminism, while Ngugi was jailed in the 1970s after penning an anti-establishment play that was thought to pose a threat to the status quo at the time.

“But such elements are rather absent in Murakami’s works,” Sukegawa said.

In fact, Murakami’s recent behavior, the professor said, may give the Swedish Academy the impression that he is drifting further away from his commitment to political rectitude.

In March, the author collaborated with Japanese retail giant Uniqlo, which, amid accusations of forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, had come under fire for allegations that its shirts were made with cotton from the region. Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, has denied its products are tied to any human rights violations.

Murakami has also faced controversy for the way his novels portray women and sex.

His vivid depictions of sex scenes involving a male protagonist and an underage girl in his 2009 three-volume novel “1Q84,” for example, are cited by some critics as a potential red flag for the Swedish Academy.

“The sexualization of an underage girl, as well as detailed descriptions of the voluptuousness of her body, can be considered problematic per today’s literary context,” Sukegawa said.

A line from the trilogy — “a freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike” — later resulted in the novelist being nominated for British magazine Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award, which is designed to expose “the most egregious passage of sexual description in a work of fiction.”

Also palpable in Murakami’s works is a penchant for Western consumer culture. Protagonists in his novels often live stylish lives — listening to Western music, sporting cool clothes and eating pasta and sandwiches.

Sukegawa says the world’s intelligentsia tends to look skeptically at these examples of commercialism, but rather than distance himself from it, Murakami actively pens works that stoke Asian readers’ admiration for it.

“Murakami debuted in an era in which being able to consume these things was considered proof of someone’s social status, and he has thrived on that premise,” Sukegawa said.

“But that era is becoming passe … I think his career is now at a crossroads, in that unless he experiments with something new, the chances of him winning a Nobel will remain slim.”

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