Garnet Nagato

Remember when stealing books was still magical? I'm not advocating stealing books but, at one time, people thought they were worth stealing.

When I worked at a bookstore, there were two authors whose books ranked amongst the most stolen: Chuck Palahniuk, Murakami Haruki, and the bible, who's authorship I will not speculate but you get the idea.

“Murakami’s writing perfectly captures the way surreal, even seemingly supernatural, encounters can subtly alter the terrain of everyday life.”
- The Washington Post Book World

“In that instant, for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel. “I can still recall the exact sensation. It felt as if something had come fluttering down from the sky, and I had caught it cleanly in my hands. I had no idea why it had changed to fall into my grasp. I didn’t know then and I don’t’ know now. Whatever the reason, it had taken place. It was like a revelation. Or maybe ‘epiphany’ is a better word. All I can say is that my life was drastically and permanently altered in that instant – when Dave Hilton belted that beautiful, ringing double at Jingu Stadium.”
- from Haruki Murakami

In the spring of 1978, a young Haruki Murakami sat down at his kitchen table and began to write. The result: two remarkable short novels-Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973-that launched the career of one of the most acclaimed authors of our time. These powerful, at times surreal, works about two young men coming of age- the unnamed narrator and his friend the Rat-are stories of loneliness, obsession and eroticism. They bear all the hallmarks of Murakami’s later books, and form the first two-thirds, with a Wild Sheep Chase, of the trilogy of the Rat. Widely available in English for the first time ever, newly translated, and featuring a new introduction by Murakami himself, Wind/Pinball gives us a fascinating insight into a great writer’s beginnings.

Hardcover| 256 pages| Knopf (August 2015)| World literature| Coming of age.

The reasons, I could only surmise, were based on their proximity to youth culture, counter culture, lord knows what culture really, but frankly paying to read these books? Pfffft. Yeah, that culture. So the books were hidden. But if you wanted to read Murakami’s earliest works, the joke was on you; we didn’t have it. Nobody had it. That is unless you were willing to spend enormous amounts to buy the Alfred Birnbaum translations from the Kodansha collection in Japan (via eBay). These were expensive; you could end up paying over $100 for books that weren’t even the size of Archie comics.

But not anymore!

The earliest novellas, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 (dubbed ‘Wind/Pinball’), were released on this continent, with a translation by Ted Goossen (a York University professor, for our local bragging rights). They form the first two sections of the Rat narrative – a trilogy in four books - that would continue into A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance. The stories follow an unnamed ‘boku’ and his friend Rat, and narrate a quiescent state of dispassion and isolation, all of this smothered in jazz and literary references, as Murakami is wont to do. They are introspective, retrospective (if there is a difference), and set up the more plot driven narratives of a WSC and DDD. Hear the Wind Sing is framed within the context of the works of a fictional author – Derek Heartfield – who provides the glimpses of the surreal world that would characterize Murakami’s later works (like the wells!). Pinball 1973 is centered on the pinball machine as metaphor for a futile life lived:

“The object of pinball lies not in the self expression, but in self-revolt. Not in the expansion of the ego, but in its compression. Not in in extractive analysis, but in inclusive subsumption.”

And ultimately we are looking at a man stuck between the memories of his adolescent life (though still young) and the expectations of a staid adulthood.

In these novellas are the various idiosyncratic quirks that would characterize his later works. There is Murakami’s unease with the ideological. There is the anonymous narrator – the modern man – literate, competent at work. These are taciturn men, who only express things when explicitly asked, because what, you think they’re vain? Then there are the women. Oh lord, the women. Women who impose themselves on men, tell them who they are, remove them from the onerous burden of talking about themselves. Women who and are ultimately irrational, inexorably drawn to the male protagonists they imagine for no apparent reason. It feels like anime in this regard. Like Sword Art Online. Even my mother is embarrassed by the Murakami on my bookshelves.

But for all his faults though, we are always aware that we are dealing with a master writer here.

Few can bring the paralyzing nostalgia, the isolation of sitting in a pub, quite the way Murakami does. There is enough smoking in this book to give me cancer. I can even imagine tinted 70’s era glasses, cheap whiskey and pants hemmed a little too high. When it comes to atmosphere, Murakami does to the dingy pub what Makoto Shinkai does to high-school classrooms. There is the Salinger-esque charm in his writing and usually a simile or two that would elicit at least a smirk from the reader (though perhaps tedium after a while). It is hard to overlook the nascent talent, the ability to do that which seems almost impossible. That is, to write a story that feels like it takes place in a dream, a talent that would be fully realized in the Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Wind/Pinball feels a bit like a warm up sketch on manila paper, perhaps fleshed out a little and for this reason might not be the best introduction to Murakami’s works. Yet, in spite of the brevity of the stories, there is plenty of evidence for the endless imagination and writing talent that he would use in tackling heavier subjects in his subsequent novels.

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