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Murakami is both media-shy and simultaneously verging on over-exposed. His fiction is variously described as surrealist, mystical, fatalistic, and melancholic. These are adjectives that I agree with using, but find that by distilling his work into four words, it smoothes out the complex minutiae that recur throughout his oeuvre. I haven’t read all of his work, as I wasn’t introduced to him until late in my university career. I couldn’t indulge in the binge-reading escapades I might have entertained had I been a high schooler when I first read him. The kind of addictive tingles that flooded over me as I read Norwegian Wood have not been replicated since. It was a type of first time, and those are eternally unable to be re-created.
Murakami’s stories are full of unexplained malaise, unexplained mystical or supernatural occurrences; there are often cats, and sometimes they talk; there is often jazz, beer, cigarettes, and food—as both fuel and ritual. The characters within his worlds often exist in somewhat disconnected worlds; worlds that are both very corporeal, with plenty of sex and bodily functions, but perhaps most distinct about these characters is their emotional and social isolation. There is forever a longing that flows out of his characters.
Last month, Murakami’s earliest works were translated into English for, largely, the first time. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are the first two books of what is referred to as “The Rat Trilogy”. With A Wild Sheep Chase concluding the series, each story follows the fortunes and misadventure of the same nameless narrator, and his friend “the Rat”. They were first published in 1979, 1980, and 1982 respectively, and while A Wild Sheep Chase has been published in English since 1989, the first two stories’ translations were not widely available until now, at Murakami’s insistence.
Wind/Pinball: Two Novels combines the two stories, and in a somewhat appropriate twist, are printed in different orientations—a surreal book experience. These are Murakami’s first stories; they were the product of an epiphany that, myth has it, occurred during a baseball match. It was 1978 at Jingu Stadium, and Murakami was watching the game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp, when an American, Dave Hilton stepped up to bat. The moment he hit a double, the story goes, Murakami realised he could write a novel, and began doing so that very night. This epiphany is the basis for the introduction to the two novels, as he contextualises this period in his late twenties.
The stories of the unnamed narrator, and his friend the Rat, find them drinking at J’s bar, frequently; beers and cigarettes fill the cracks of the stories. There are beautiful musings that occur in the same beat as a distinctly real image of drinking beer or playing pinball. The anonymity of the narrator seems like an explorative venture in ascertaining who is telling the story; Murakami seems to be enacting a question around the act of narratives.
In the first book, the unnamed narrator is 21 and returning from college for summer, he listens to the radio, drinks, thinks about the girls he has slept with, and pursues a relationship with a girl who doesn’t remember meeting him.
By the next book, the same character has moved to Tokyo to start a translating company, where he finds himself living with twins while the Rat didn’t make the move—we still hear his stories, and the unnamed narrator begins to become obsessed with the days he spent with the Rat playing pinball at J’s bar.
In all honesty, the story didn’t seem to stick—as I read through the brief chapters and then the following novel, I felt like I slipped through it, never finding a footing or something to grab hold of. You can see the beginning of so much in this book.
It seems perhaps Murakami is opening up—the beginning of the year saw his website engage with fans through the Agony Uncle persona, which allowed fans to ask of Murakami their biggest and smallest fascinations about him and his work, or simply seek his advice. He recently created a virtual tour of his desk, where you can see the many hundreds of records that don his wall, the very particular pencils he uses, and the baseball bobble head he prides—it’s a guide to Murakami organised really neatly.
The introduction to Wind/Pinball meditates on his reluctance to translate these into English—he explains his feelings of discomfort that they aren’t as sophisticated as his later work, he is embarrassed by them; they’re his first. In this way, both the introduction, and the stories themselves, reveal a glimpse behind the curtain of someone who has so avoided the media.
Definitely worth a read for all those Murakami fans out there: it’s not his best, nor does it need to be.
Translated by: Ted Goossen
Publisher: Random House