Carolyn Percy examines the works of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, whose works are beginning to receive more attention internationally.
To read a Murakami novel is to cross the threshold into another reality – a reality that looks like this one, where surreal phenomena goes unexplained, dreams may not just be dreams and wherein pervades an often unquantifiable sense of ennui, nostalgia or alienation – as easily as immersing yourself in a warm bath. Or, as Tsukuru Tazaki, protagonist of Murakami’s latest novel, contemplates, ‘easier than swallowing down a slick, raw egg.’
I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that, in terms of following, Haruki Murakami is something of a literary superstar. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and Years of Pilgrimage became Amazon.co.jp’s fastest selling book of 2013 – with ten thousand pre-orders within only eleven days of the publication date being announced and one million copies printed seven days after release – and was met with similar anticipation when it was published in English just over a year later. The English edition was released in paperback in July this year, and then in August, Murakami’s English-speaking fans were rewarded with another release. His first two novellas – Hear the Wind Sing & Pinball, 1973, originally published in 1979 & 1980 respectively – were to be published in English for the first time outside of Japan in a reversible hardback edition entitled Wind/Pinball, with an introduction written by Murakami himself, talking about the unique gestation of these, his ‘kitchen table’ novels (as in they were written, literally, at the kitchen table) and their impact on his career as a writer.
The two books, along with A Wild Sheep Chase published in 1982 (the book Murakami himself, and a lot of his fans, consider to be the true start of his writing career) comprise a loose trilogy, linked by character, known as ‘the trilogy of the Rat’ (it’s not necessary to have read the former in order to understand the latter, or vice versa, but, for those who have read A Wild Sheep Chase, Wind/Pinball will probably offer up some illuminating ‘aha’ moments), and though they may lack some of the technical and narrative proficiency of his later work, you can see in them the DNA for what would become known as a ‘Murakami novel’.
Hear the Wind Sing follows its unnamed narrator through the summer of 1970 as he spends his nights in J’s bar drinking and smoking with his friend – known only by the nickname ‘the Rat’ – and his days ruminating about writing, the women he’s slept with and pursuing a relationship with a mysterious woman with nine fingers. Pinball, 1973 takes place three years later, the narrator having moved to Tokyo, when he becomes obsessed down tracking the exact model of pinball machine that he used to play. Meanwhile the Rat has been left behind in their hometown, despite his best efforts to leave it behind.
Both the narrator and the Rat are instantly recognisable as typical Murakami type characters. The narrator is his male everyman protagonist: decent but often alienated and somewhat detached, which can be seen all through his work, right up to Tsukuru Tazaki, who – because he doesn’t, unlike the other members of his once close circle of friends, have a colour in his name – feels himself to be lacking substance in comparison, an empty vessel: colourless, and therefore worthless.
The Rat is charismatic and cynical, seemingly marked for trouble or tragedy, characteristics that can be seen in characters such as Kafka – titular protagonist of Kafka on the Shore – and his alter ego the boy named Crow, 1Q84’s Komatsu and Colorless Tsukuru’s Shiro (Miss White).
The female characters in Wind/Pinball are also templates for a lot (though not all) of the female characters in Murakami’s later works: they are essentially mysterious, having no proper names other than some identifying characteristic – the girl with nine fingers in Hear the Wind Sing is known only as this and the twins in Pinball, 1973 are only ever known by the numbers on their shirts, 208 & 209 – and often exert a strange magnetic influence over the male characters. This, and the fact that Murakami isn’t shy about showing his male characters’ sexual attraction to these women – with matter-of-fact descriptions of breasts, other body parts and intercourse itself – has led him to labelled sexist by some.
Now, as a female who has never felt any of the Murakami books I’ve read to be sexist, I would like to take a moment to present my argument. Firstly, to paraphrase Jonathan Franzen – another author often accused of sexism – in a recent Guardian interview, he ‘can’t help being a man’. Sexual desire is, for the most part, a perfectly natural and healthy thing for men, for anyone, to express, and though he doesn’t explore female sexual desire as often, explore it he does, Aomame – the female protagonist in 1Q84 – being a prime example.
Secondly, his female characters aren’t objects, something that only has any meaning or relevance when it’s on the stage where we can see it. Most of them do have names and they all have lives of their own, independent from the chains of narrative events their male counterparts are often a slave to – Sara, from Colorless Tsukuru, for example, works as a travel agent, and while she does all she can to help Tsukuru, it soon becomes apparent that, whilst she likes him, she doesn’t need Tsukuru the way he comes to need her. Their mystery is the one we all know and face: the mystery of other human beings. And yes, their lives may take place mostly off screen, but off-screen or not it is they who wield the influence – whether it be sexual, emotional or psychological – over the men, not the other way around.
Being his first, Hear the Wind Sing is, unsurpringly, the least technically accomplished of the two, with
very little moving the plot forward it could almost be a series of vignettes. Pinball, 1973 is much more dynamic, with the narrator’s quest to find the three flipper spaceship pinball machine and, to a lesser extent, the Rat’s attempts to leave his girlfriend and the town, moving the story forward and providing a much more cohesively complete narrative like that of Colorless Tsukuru. Despite this technical unevenness however, both novellas contain imagery as striking as in any of his later works – the image of the beacon on the shore in Pinball, for example, dividing the Rat’s world into the one he knows and a mysterious possibility, is just as haunting as Tsukuru’s dream in which a woman offers him her heart or her body and he is forced to choose between them.
In his introduction to Wind/Pinball Murakami mentions a Hungarian writer, Agota Kristof, who developed her unique style in a similar way to his own of initially writing everything down in his limited English and then translating, or ‘transplanting’, it back into Japanese. He describes her novels as being ‘cloaked in an air of mystery that suggested important matters hidden beneath the surface’, which is, and I’m sure most would agree with me, also a brilliant way to describe his own. And long may they continue to be so.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is available from Penguin Books.
Wind/Pinball is also available from Penguin Books.
Carolyn Percy is a critic and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.