My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Wind/Pinball (1979/1980) by Haruki Murakami are his two earliest novellas set in Tokyo, Japan with a nameless narrator roaming the night streets and sleeping with twins while his friend Rat struggles with a daily life filled with an indescribable loneliness.
The first novella, Hear the Wind Sing, won the Gunzo Literary Journal Prize for new writers in the late seventies as a 99-page book, slim and profoundly deep.
In the introduction of the book which features both novellas republished in 2015, Murakami explains how he was able to create his unique voice in the Japanese language and responds to many critics noting his work has the feel of a translation:
“Since the opening passages of my first novella were, quite literally, ‘translated,’” writes Murakami, “the comment is not entirely wrong; it applies merely to my process of writing. What I was seeking by writing first in English and then ‘translating’ into Japanese was no less than the creation of an unadorned ‘neutral’ style that would allow me freer movement…
“It is the inherent right of all writers to experiment with the possibilities of language in every way they can imagine—without that adventurous spirit, nothing new can ever be born” (p xv).
From this quote alone one can tell Murakami had no formal training in creative writing found in MFA programs in the Occidental world, because many such programs—as I found out firsthand—does not respond well to experimentation; a shut-up-and-right-this-way approach dominates much of the creative writing pedagogy in the north Americas, and any deviation from this norm is often viewed as egotistical and arrogant.
In the Orient, MFAs have popped up in recent years but are not widely accepted as a practical degree. In 2015, City University of Hong Kong—the university where I currently teach writing and literature as a Visiting Fellow—banned the MFA and canceled the popular degree despite making a profit. The Asian world, it seems to the administration at CityU, is not ready for creative writers and artists who exhibit too much free expression.
Despite this lack of formal training, Murakami’s approach, to write in a second language then translate back into his native language, worked extremely well by allowing him to trim down the language naturally through his limited vocabulary, and this created the ‘neutral’ tone he sought.
“I got out of bed, washed up, got dressed, and went for a walk with my wife. Just when we were passing the local elementary school, I noticed a passenger pigeon hiding in the shrubbery. When I picked it up I saw that it seemed to have a broken wing…
“As I walked there along the side streets of Harajuku, the warmth of the wounded pigeon sank into my hands. I felt it quivering. That Sunday was bright and clear, and the trees, the buildings, and the shopwindows sparkled beautifully in the spring sunlight.
“That’s when it hit me. I was going to win the prize. And I was going to go on to become a novelist who would enjoy some degree of success. It was an audacious presumption, but I was sure at that moment that it would happen. Completely sure. Not in a theoretical way, but directly and intuitively” (p xvi).
Despite the fact that passenger pigeons became extinct in 1914—one can be forgiving—if Murakami had written this statement before he won the prize, much of the populous would have taken him as an arrogant writer who lacks a restrained ego—and this happens too often in the literary universe fueled by shy writers and artists afraid to express themselves freely. Regardless, Murakami felt the Universe at work within his introns and he won the prize, and ever-after his work has held a respect for the ever-working powers of the Universe hidden behind perceived reality.
“A gulf separates what we attempt to perceive from what we are actually able to perceive,” writes Murakami in the opening pages of Hear the Wind Sing, “It is so deep that it can never be calculated, however long our measuring stick. What I can set down here is no more than a list. It’s not a novel or even literature, nor is it art. It’s just a notebook with a line drawn down the middle. It may contain something of a moral, though…
“If you’re the sort of guy who raids the refrigerators of silent kitchens at three o’clock in the morning, you can only write accordingly.
“That’s who I am” (p 7).
And so begins the nameless narrator’s adventure, and Murakami’s innate skill at capturing the unexpected details of the young university student’s life sketch what the human condition must be like across the nature of society and culture and language—a man waking up to a strange woman in his bed:
“I finished my smoke and then wasted the next ten minutes attempting to recall her name. The problem was I couldn’t remember if she’d mentioned it in the first place. Giving up, I yawned and took another look at her body. She was on the skinny side, probably a year or two shy of twenty. Using my open hand, I measured her from head to toe. Eight hand lengths, with a thumb left over for her heel. It added up to precisely five feet three inches.
“There was a coin-sized mark the color of Worcestershire sauce below her right breast. Her delicate pubic hair reminded me of river grass after a flood. To top things off, her left hand had only four fingers” (p 21).
But this is not a love story. Instead, Murakami recreates a Japanese-version of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. The tales capture the angst of youth and the quixotic quest seeking to discover more to what experience can give, but Murakami lacks Updike’s supremacy in the use of the English language, and Murakami comes off reading like a fifth grader attempting to recreate Shakespeare.
“Lies are terrible things,” Murakami writes, “One could say that the greatest sins afflicting modern society are the proliferation of lies and silence. We lie through our teeth, then swallow our tongues.
“All the same, were we to speak only the truth all year round, then the truth might lose its value” (p 84).
“‘Why do people die?’
“‘Because of evolution. An individual organism can’t sustain the amount of energy that evolution requires; evolution has to work its way through generations. That’s just one theory, of course.’
“‘So are we still evolving?’
“‘Bit by bit.’
“‘Why is that necessary?’
“‘Opinions are divided on that, too. The only thing we know for sure is that the universe itself is evolving. We can’t tell if it’s heading in any particular direction, or if some greater force is intervening, but we do know that evolution is for real, and that we are only a part of the process.’ I set my bourbon down and lit a cigarette.
“‘No one knows where that energy comes from,’ I said.
“She stirred the ice in her drink with her finger and studied the white tablecloth.
“‘I guess a hundred years after my death no one will remember I ever existed.’
“‘Probably not,’ I said” (p 86).
“All things pass. None of us can manage to hold on to anything. In that way, we live our lives” (p 97).
Murakami does focus on the coming and going of people throughout the story, that sad repetition of powerlessness which fills the passing seasons of a person’s life as they recognize their inability to truly hold on to anything, and he continues this thread of thought in the sequel called Pinball, 1973 about the same nameless narrator who now works as a translator by day and plays as a pinball pro by night, when he finally returns home to twins who live with him and are also nameless, identified by the numbers 208 and 209 on their sweatshirts.
“One season had opened the door and left, while another had entered through a second door,” Murakami writes, “You might run to the open door and call out, Wait, there’s something I forgot to tell you! But no one is there. When you close the door, you turn around to see the new season sitting in a chair, lighting up a cigarette. If you forgot to tell him something, he says, then why not tell me? I might pass the message along if I get the chance. No, that’s all right, you say. It’s no big deal. The sound of wind fills the room. No, big deal. Just another season dead and gone” (p 131-132).
Murakami captures a sadness that must have filled his own life during the 1970s in a Japan learning to grow and stretch its legs in a bleak world of corporate conformity and mundanity—not too dissimilar to the world we find ourselves in today—while the nameless narrator’s friend Rat contemplates his own life and future filled with a hopeless strife:
“When at last he reached the beacon, the Rat sat down on the end of the pier and studied the sky. It was dark blue as far as the eye could see, with streaks of cloud that looked painted by an artist’s brush. The blue seemed bottomless; its depth made the Rat’s legs tremble in awe. Everything was so vivid, the smell of the ocean, the color of the wind. Taking his time, the Rat drank in the scene that lay before him, then turned around. Now he was looking at his own world, so separate from the deep sea. The white beach and the breakwater, the flattened row of green pines, and, behind them, ranged against the sky, the sharp outlines of the bluish-black mountains…
“When the sky darkened he would take the same path back to his own world. This return, though, was always accompanied by an ineffable sadness. The world awaiting him out there was just too big, too powerful; there seemed to be no place where we could burrow into it” (p 142-143).
“The area turned out to be populated by hordes of dogs, who milled around in the rain like a school of yellowtail in an aquarium. As a result, I spent a lot of time leaning on the horn. The dogs showed no interest whatsoever in either the rain or our car. In fact, they looked downright pissed off by my honking, although they scampered out of the way. It was impossible, of course, for them to avoid the rain. They were all soaked right down to their butt holes—some resembled the otter in Balzac’s story, others reminded me of meditating Buddhist priests.
“One of the twins inserted a cigarette between my lips and lit it. Then she placed her little hand on the inner thigh of my cotton trousers and moved it up and down a few times. It seemed less a caress than an attempt to verify something.
“The rain looked as if it would continue forever. October rains are like that—they just go on and on until every last thing is soaked. The ground was a swamp. It was a chilly, unforgiving world: the trees, the highway, the fields, the cars, the houses, and the dogs, all were drenched.
“We climbed a stretch of mountain road, drove through a thick stand of trees, and there was the reservoir. Because of the rain there wasn’t a soul around. Raindrops rippled the water’s surface as far as the eye could see. The sight of the reservoir in the rain moved me in a way I hadn’t expected…
“‘Now say a prayer,’ one of the twins said.
“‘A prayer?’ I cried in surprise.
“‘It’s a funeral. There’s got to be a prayer.’
“‘But I’m not ready.’ I said. ‘I don’t know any prayers by heart.’
“‘Any old prayer is all right,’ one said.
“‘It’s just formality,’ added the other.
“I stood there, soaked from head to toenails, searching for something appropriate to say. The twins’ eyes traveled back and forth between the switch panel and me. They were obviously worried.
“‘The obligation of philosophy,’ I began, quoting Kant, ‘is to dispel all illusions borne of misunderstanding…Rest in peace, ye switch panel, at the bottom of this reservoir’” (p 175-176).
Murakami, is at times, depressing and overly methodical in his obsession with Kant and philosophy, but this too does seem appropriate for the dark mood of existentialism he presents throughout both novellas.
And so I feel ending on a brighter note is far more appropriate and rewarding than not, despite such endings in real life being far less happy than the ones we find in the books we read.
“On any given day,” Murakami writes, “something can come along and steal our hearts. It may be any old thing: a rosebud, a lost cap, a favorite sweater from childhood, and old Gene Pitney record. A miscellany of trivia with no home to call their own. Lingering for two or three days, that something soon disappears, returning to the darkness. There are wells, deep wells, dug in our hearts. Birds fly over them” (p 182).
Until then, keep reading and smiling…