ARTS & CULTURE
08/12/2015 09:52 am ET

Haruki Murakami’s Early Stories Aren’t Just For Superfans

Cats, jazz and wild dreams make up the writer’s beautiful novellas.

Knopf

At a season opener for an unpopular baseball team, Haruki Murakami lounged in the sparsely populated bleachers with a beer. In the first inning, the new guy on the team hit a clean double with the crack of his bat, and wham! An epiphany landed cleanly in the mind of the now-beloved author. He was going to write a novel.

It wouldn’t be easy, he conceded. He worked late, taxing nights at the jazz bar he’d opened with his wife a few years earlier. But he was accustomed to hard work. Averse to the idea of an office job, he’d raised the money to open the bar by working as many as four odd jobs at a time until his dream was realized. And now he had a new one.

This kind of epiphany -- vague and dreamlike, coming seemingly from nowhere -- has become a staple of Murakami’s stories, so it’s fitting that a bizarre occurrence is what got him writing in the first place. He relates this scene in the introduction to his two newly published short novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. Written in 1978, they’re his first two shots at fiction, and have recently been translated into English.

The author refers to them as his kitchen table novels, crafted at late hours after clocking out of his day job. “They are totally irreplaceable, much like friends from long ago,” he writes. “They warmed my heart, and encouraged me on my way.” In speaking of these works so preciously, Murakami is being humble. While they’re sure to delight fans, they’re beautiful stand-alone works in their own right.

The first, Hear the Wind Sing, is a strange and funny meditation on impermanence. The narrator returns from university in Tokyo to his hometown for the summer, and becomes fast friends with a man who’s very much his opposite: a curmudgeonly, wealthy, cliché-slinging dropout named the Rat, who’d sooner drink himself silly than pick up a book. Beer, he posits, is beautiful in its ability to move through you without changing you permanently -- “easy in, easy out.” Over the course of the summer, they switch roles, their values and realities swapped in a 1Q84-like manner -- simultaneously plausible and surreal. While the Rat starts lugging around heavy texts, the narrator spends a few (literally) forgettable nights out with a mysterious, four-fingered woman. The pair chat about biology -- for what’s a Murakami novel without a reference to cats? -- eat stew, and reflect on their past relationships.

It’s a prosaic story related in what would become the author’s token plain language. But beyond that, it has embedded in it the philosophies on art that would shape Murakami’s works going forward. The narrator cautions the reader, “If it’s art of literature you’re interested in, I suggest you read the Greeks. [...] 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.” He continues to call his story a “measuring stick” that can be used to calculate the gulf between what we attempt to perceive and what we can actually perceive -- a manifesto for connecting through storytelling.

The second novella in the two-book collection, Pinball, 1973, is set in the same sleepy hometown of the narrator, whose life whizzes by before he’s able to notice. A founder of a translation company, he makes good money but doesn’t question the meaning of his work, instead getting caught up in the puzzle-like quality of it. It’s in this state of mind that he stumbles upon a pinball machine at a local bar, and slowly grows obsessed with the game before his machine of choice is whisked away. A rare model, it’s never seen again. Using his fiction to thinly veil his artistic opinions, he writes, “Almost nothing can be gained from pinball. The only payoff is a numerical substitution for pride.” He continues, adding that a pinball machine is only good for self-expression and ego-expansion; a clear parallel to certain types of literary writing.

So, the two strange, meandering stories are sure to please fans of the authors’ later work, as they provide insight into what, exactly, he hopes to accomplish with his clean language and dreamlike plots.

But, much like a game of pinball, they’re also addicting stories with fulfilling, if not inherently meaningful, conclusions.

The bottom line:

Murakami’s early novels are illustrative of his early ideas about writing, but they’re also engaging stand-alone works of fiction.

Who wrote it:

Haruki Murakami is the author of The Windup Bird Chronicle, 1Q84, Kafka on the Shore, and many other novels.

Who will read it:

Those interested in surreal works of fiction. Those who dig a pulpy approach to storytelling. Anyone interested in '70s culture.

Opening lines:

“There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing, just as there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” So said a writer I bumped into back when I was a university student. It wasn’t until much later that I could grasp his full meaning, but I still found consolation in his words -- that there’s no such thing as perfect writing.”

Notable passage:

“It had been a long time since I felt the fragrance of summer: the scent of the ocean, a distant train whistle, the touch of a girl’s skin, the lemony perfume of her hair, the evening wind, faint glimmers of hope, summer dreams.

But none of these were the way they once had been; they were all somehow off, as if copied with tracing paper that kept slipping out of place.”

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