Why we read Murakami
Whether or not we think of him as a genius, the publication of a Murakami book is an epic event
What do we talk about when we talk about Haruki Murakami? His cult-like celebrity-hood? Those immaculately designed book covers? The gazillion websites collecting “Murakami music”? Where does one begin? Sometimes, through all the glitz and glamour, it’s difficult to glimpse the words on the page.
It doesn’t matter whether you find his work unadulterated genius or shrilly overrated. The publication of a Murakami book—new, or, in this case, old—is an event of epic proportions.
Hear The Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball (1980) have previously only been available to English readers in two obscure translations from the 1980s. So this newly translated volume by Ted Goosen is a treat for fans eager to trace Murakami’s literary journey, hoping to catch indications of a development of his style and tone. Something, I imagine, like looking through the other end of a telescope, peering into the past.
What surprised me was how these novellas don’t so much show, as novelist Ian Sansom calls it in The Guardian, a “Murakami-in-the-making” as a Murakami arrived, settled, and encamped. The writing, if not technically masterful, is bold, confident, assured. Hardly evident of a young writer tentatively testing his literary muscle.
In his (charmingly titled) introduction, “The Birth Of My Kitchen-Table Fiction”, Murakami mentions how he decided to write in English as an experiment. The result was “rough, uncultivated prose” which slowly began to develop a distinctive rhythm unencumbered by the vocabulary and patterns of Japanese. A language stripped to a certain linguistic bareness and beauty that’s remained characteristically Murakami-esque.
Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball are no different. Like many of Murakami’s (usually male-centric) coming-of-age novels, they both feature a young, unnamed male loner who flits from one unsatisfying relationship to the next with elusive, mercurial women, and encounters something extraordinary. Think Toru Okada and the “magical” well in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or the schoolboy in The Strange Library who becomes the prisoner of a strange old man and his oddball minions.
In Wind, the protagonist, a biology student home on a semester break, embarks on a relationship with a girl he finds unconscious in a bar—in true quirky Murakami style, she has only nine fingers—and weaves around this his musings on life, sex, the nature of writing, pop music, and ex-girlfriends (one of whom has killed herself). Even at 21, the narrator is an old soul—“still plenty young, but not as young as I used to be.”
In Pinball, the protagonist founds a translation company, is obsessed with pinball, and sleeps with twin sisters who drift into his life and move into his apartment, from out of nowhere. The plot, admittedly, isn’t entirely riveting—it works as several vignettes strung together rather than an overarching narrative—but you linger over images that fall on the page, startling and beautiful. “There are wells, deep wells, dug in our hearts. Birds fly over them.” The dreams of his dead grandmother vanish without a sound, “like a summer shower on a hot pavement”. A line of willow trees end abruptly, “as if teeth had been knocked from their sockets”.
Written a year later as a sequel, Pinball displays greater narrative depth—and the glimmerings of Murakami’s ability to make the strangest of events moving. There’s a particularly poignant funeral held for a household switchboard, for example. And Murakami also writes of a tender “relationship” between the protagonist and a pinball machine. A hunt for the elusive collectible leads him to a deserted warehouse, where a “reunion” between the two conjures up an oddly delicate moment: “memories remained, warm memories that remained with me like light from the past. And I would carry those lights in the brief interval before death grabbed me and tossed me back into the crucible of nothingness.”
Much as I was enamoured, though, I was also left discomfited. Sensing what 19th century French artist Paul Cézanne, master of form and visual structure, might have felt when gazing at an Impressionist painting—that somehow this was flimsy. Art historians have a term for it: paradoxical history. The idea that influence works against chronology, where it extends backward in time. History builds meaning. In the same way, Wind and Pinball have gathered meaning over time. Via the act of looking back at them through Murakami’s astronomical rise in popularity since the 1980s.
In Pinball, the twins barely serve any purpose apart from making the protagonist tea, curling up on either side of him at night, and cooking him meals. In Wind, the lady with nine fingers remains one-dimensionally so. And more annoying than the many jazz and classical music titles peppering the pages, is the fact that our unnamed protagonist’s preferred bedtime reading is Immanuel Kant’s (famously obscure and complex) Critique Of Pure Reason. Of all the tricks Murakami might have pulled off successfully, this certainly isn’t one of them.
I wonder if this is why we sense a slight hesitance in Murakami’s introduction to these novellas. He says that though they “played an important role in what I have accomplished”, they are “much like friends from long ago”. Would he have preferred that they slide into obscurity rather than be resurrected 30 years hence? We’ll never know.
But the thing with friends from long ago is that we outgrow them. Much like many may feel they’ve outgrown Murakami.
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats On Land: A Collection Of Short Stories and Seahorse: A Novel.
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