Haruki Murakami on the Turkish road
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami took a 21-day road trip across Turkey in the late 1980s, visiting lesser known cities such as Brafa, Hakkari, and Cizre.

By Yao Hsiao

Even if you haven’t read Haruki Murakami’s works, you probably have heard of his name or his novels, such as Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84. This Japanese writer, who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature eight times (but hasn’t won), is known for his unique writing style. The frequent use of colloquial language and references to Western pop culture, as well as his focus on the universal topics—love, loneliness, and alienation—make Murakami’s work popular in both Japan and around the world, especially among younger generations. Even in Istanbul, one can easily find a series of his books on bookstores’ front shelves.

As one can see from his earlier work, Murakami was more influenced by world literature and foreign cultures than Japanese traditions. From 1986-1995, he not only spent a fair amount of time sojourning in the US and Southern Europe, but also traveling to various countries, including Turkey. Murakami began to have a strong interest in Turkey after his brief visit to Ephesus because he was attracted to the air of this land—the magic of Turkish air is different from the air elsewhere, as he explained in his travel essay Uten Enten.

After learning basic Turkish and reading many books about the country, Murakami went on a three week road trip with his Japanese photographer friend. The trivia and the writer’s memory fragments about this journey are included in the second part of Uten Enten, titled Turkish Tea, Soldiers, and Sheep. Murakami’s travel writing doesn’t attempt to offer a comprehensive, informative report. Instead, with a natural, honest, and humorous tone, he shares his observations on the local customs and sometimes moans about the frustrating, yet interesting experience he had.

Haruki Murakami by Saydan Akşit

Tales from the road

Although critical of Turkey’s militarism from a traveler’s perspective, Murakami had no bad experiences when facing individual soldiers. The only strained time he and his friend experienced was at the checkpoint near the Turkey-Iran border, but the two Japanese resolved the tension by casually asking to take a picture together. Not unexpectedly, they were then invited to have tea, discussed photography with the lieutenant, and instructed a soldier in karate—the authentic Shotokan style.

Like all visitors in Turkey, Murakami was infected with the contagious tea-drinking habit. He says unlike in Greece, where there were separate cafes for locals and tourists, foreigners here were are always welcomed in teahouses. From time to time, he also mentions how they tried to avoid the endless conversations with strangers and kindly reminds the reader that hospitality and curiosity here can sometimes be overwhelming. The definition of affability in Turkey is different from Europe, Murakami writes: if you ask for directions in Europe, people will tell you; but in Turkey, they will either drive you there or jump into your car and guide you until the end.

Besides the peaceful Black Sea region, which Murakami likes the most, Anatolia is the other focus in the last part of his travel notes. From badly equipped hotels to confusing roads, rude passersby, and food that didn’t agree with him, the two Japanese had a hard time in Southern Turkey. Interestingly, what makes the trip a bit less disturbing were cigarettes. According to Murakami’s observation, “in Turkey, giving cigarettes is the first step of being friendly. Excapcially in the countryside, Marlboro has a high reputation.” No matter whether it was a small thanks for peoples’ kind help, a handy deterrent to brush off an annoying person, or a moderator to ease the tension at checkpoints, in his opinion they were the magical tools.

Although the two travelers were swearing and sweating from morning to night every day, Murakami in certain ways still enjoyed this kind of trouble. For him, Anatolia is a place filled with a sense of real existence: the people have a lively look in their eyes which he couldn’t find in Japan and Europe; things are unpredictable and rules are insignificant; there is nothing but honesty and frankness.

However, the way Murakami wrote about all the foreign, sometimes shocking experiences is rather cool and calm. He never viewed them as inspiring adventures, but merely the unfamiliar ordinary. This approach comes from the writer’s attitude toward traveling in our time, “an age of no more far-off borders, when every place has been mapped and explored.” Scholar Philip Gabriel refers to Murakami’s travel essays as “post-tourism travel writing,” foregrounding limited information and representation. While exoticizing distant lands is no longer the point, Murakami and his writing offers a casual, playful way to explore foreign places. For him, the process of believing one can still create far-off borders in one’s mind is the ultimate definition of traveling in this era, when such faraway lands have disappeared.

Murakami, cat lover

The author is known for loving cats. During the trip in Turkey, the only specific thing on his to-do list is to see the famous swimming Van cats. He saw the cats in carpet stores in Van, but unfortunately he didn’t see them swim.

A schoolboy in an Ottoman library 

The Strange Library (1983), a novella by Murakami, is about a schoolboy who was imprisoned by an old librarian after going to a library to look for books about the Ottoman tax collection system. In the novella, the boy tries to escape with the help of a shepherd and an invisible girl. This bizarre story is a good example of the author’s magical realism style, black humor, and creativity. Available in English and Turkish on D&R.

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