Instead of asking yourself which Haruki Murakami book you should try reading, once you’ve plowed through any one of the bestselling Japanese author’s works, you’ll be asking yourself, ‘Which Murakami book should I read next?’
Whether it’s the way Murakami puts words together in such a way that you feel like you’re in the same moment the character’s in, or the actual content of his stories, there’s no denying how good all of Haruki Murakami’s books are. When I came across After Dark while I was at home one summer morning, dreading the monotony of watching another CSI derivative of a TV show, I didn’t know what to expect.
I thought that I’d be introduced to just another author whose books you’d come across on discount shops. But I was dead wrong, and I was glad that I was. Although After Dark isn’t one of my Murakami favorites, it was the first story of his that I’d ever read and it opened up a whole new world of literature to me. It led me to reading Murakami’s best works – some of which I’ll talk about in what follows – but more, it led me to reading Franz Kafka, and into even thinking about reading Proust (which I’m still debating myself on doing because of the insane amount of time it would take).
If you haven’t read any of Haruki Murakami’s stories, I’m part of the crowd that will tell you to do so now, and I promise it will be worth your while.
A Wild Sheep Chase
This was one of the first few books I’d read of Murakami. Aside from Kafka on the Shore which I will also talk about below, I’d say this is one of the author’s finest works of surrealism. Kafka on the Shore is enough to tell you that Murakami was heavily influenced by Franz Kafka, but so will A Wild Sheep Chase. Like the book The Trial written by Kafka, this book contains a parable that’s almost just as good as the main story itself.
And it’s fascinating how one picture containing sheep would drive the whole plot, a similar theme in Killing Commendatore where a painting drives the story. I’ve come to understand now why it was that I was so enraptured by A Wild Sheep Chase – it was written as a detective story, and I was at the time a heavy reader of Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie books.
But the way A Wild Sheep Chase was written was something I had never encountered before and I’d recommend it as a first Murakami read.
If you’d ask me which Murakami book you should read first, I certainly would not recommend reading 1Q84. On the other hand, if I knew you had read two or three books already, then 1Q84 should be on your to-read list. In this book, Murakami once again uses the two-person perspective that alternates the point of view of two main characters between chapters. Moreover, I think this was the best he wrote under that format, and it had fit perfectly.
An additional theme I’d enjoyed while reading 1Q84 was that it tackled a social issue and sometimes even had tones of activism. Murakami would present a similar social issue in his nonfiction about the Tokyo gas attacks, but I thought he tackled it in 1Q84 quite craftily.
The only reason why I wouldn’t recommend this as a first Murakami read was that it was incredibly long to read. Yes, all Murakami’s books are a joy to read and always bring you to a very relaxing place, but I felt this one required the most patience simply because it was very long.
Men Without Women
Aside from writing novels, Murakami is also known for being a prolific short fiction writer, and my honest opinion is that Men Without Women was his best work in terms of putting short stories together. These were short stories which did not seem to be related to each other, but somehow were written in the same theme – kind of like the Black Mirror series on Netflix.
If there’s beauty to be appreciated in both loneliness and despair, Murakami wrote Men Without Men to capture just that. Once I read the first story, the book was impossible to put down – and I remembered feeling this way when I first read Kafka on the Shore. The collection’s title perfectly hits the mark on the aftermath, emotionally more than anything else, of men in this world when their woman is no longer with them.
Having read Kafka on the Shore, A Wild Sheep Chase and South of the Border, West of the Sun – Killing Commendatore despite being such a wonderful story somehow falls below the greatness of those three I had mentioned. Heck, I was even conflicted on whether I’d rank it above Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. But Killing Commendatore was one of those books where there was this light bulb that went off in my head.
Here was a story, inspired by a classic story, that it makes the classic story a genre unto its own. If you’d read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald before reading Killing Commendatore, you’d know right away upon meeting the mysterious key character living on the other side of the mountain, that it was a story trying to put a Japanese flavor into a very American story.
Killing Commendatore was simply Murakami’s version of The Great Gatsby, and it was the book that inspired me to write my own take of the same genre (if it could be called that). Check out my book Green Light on Amazon if you’re curious.
Kafka on the Shore
It was five or six years ago that I read this book, and despite everything that’s happened in my life and all of the books I’ve read since then, I still consider Kafka on the Shore as one of the greatest works of fiction there is. Again, Murakami uses the alternating two-person perspective as a format, but the highlight of the novel is how Murakami is able to tell you exactly what kind of writer he is, in one book.
If there’s a book that completely defines Haruki Murakami as a writer, it’s Kafka on the Shore, and he sure did justice to using Franz Kafka’s name as part of the title. Kafka on the Shore starts off in such a Catcher in the Rye fashion but ends up being an entirely different story. The ability of Murakami to blend reality with surrealism is on full display on this book, and I wouldn’t mind buying another edition of this book at the bookstore tomorrow.
Practically all of Haruki Murakami’s books are worth reading and are worth your while, and I didn’t want you to miss out on the other good works I failed to mention.
Norwegian Wood – Murakami’s first novel, a quick and simple read which will leave you almost as heartbroken as Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki.
Sputnik Sweetheart – if you didn’t know that Haruki Murakami was a man, then this book would lead you to believe he was a woman.
Pinball, 1973 – I’d probably recommend this as a first read for anyone. It’s short and entertaining, and also a good way to introduce the author.