For a long time, Haruki Murakami's first two novels seemed to me like peculiar enigmas fitting of the novelist's idiosyncratic style. For decades since their original publications (in the late '70s and early '80s), they were only available in the English language as rare handbooks aimed at Japanese students of English as a second language.
Until these two novels – Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 – were compiled recently as Wind / Pinball (in two new translations by Ted Goossen), A Wild Sheep Chase was the earliest of Murakami's novels commercially available to English-speaking readers, and was, most curiously, the only part (unless you're counting the related novel Dance Dance Dance) of Murakami's “Trilogy of the Rat” available outside of Japan. Sort of appropriately – given A Wild Sheep Chase's playful pastiche of detective fiction – this context adds another layer of mystery to that third part of the trilogy: how, exactly, do the first two “missing novels” relate to this absurdist story about an elusive, otherworldly sheep? Why is Murakami seemingly opposed to these novels receiving international exposure? Who is the Rat, outside of his distant role in A Wild Sheep Chase? And who is the protagonist for that matter, who remains nameless throughout?
So many questions. Too many for a couple of skimpy Wikipedia stubs to be able to satisfactorily answer, right?
To expect these two short novels to provide huge revelations is probably to ask too much of them, however. This isn't a criticism, by any means. In fact, what is done within the relatively small scale of these two novels is a large part of what makes them such a joy to read; and, as with the rest of Murakami's work, the appeal lies primarily in the singular atmosphere that he is able to evoke. Even as his narratives have become more sophisticated and mature over the years, dealing with such diverse themes as personal trauma (Kafka on the Shore), the dark spaces of Japanese history (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), and one's ownership of their own mind and identity (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), Murakami's strengths have resided to a great extent within his ability to convey a vivid and highly resonant imaginary space to his readers.
I was quite surprised to see that this 'Murakami feeling' was so present even in these early works. It's not a hundred percent there, but it's undeniably present. Even though Hear the Wind Sing is more or less a series of breezily comic and whimsically contemplative episodes in the life of a university student who spends most of his Summer drinking with his downbeat university dropout friend, the Rat; Murakami proves himself to be a writer with an almost supernatural ability to richly evoke nostalgia, melancholy, and solitude on the page. What struck me most was how comparatively innocent this novel feels: it's certainly not without its dark moments, but they tend more to deliberately juxtapose the self-deprecating humour and chilled-out introspection that characterises much of the book; like dark clouds on the horizon of a bright blue sky.
As Summer gives way to Autumn in Pinball 1973, so too does the general mood begin to grow colder and more depressed. In this novel, the things that once brought comfort and warmth start to become vaguely oppressive to its main characters. For example, as the novel progresses, the protagonist's tendency towards nostalgia leads to a series of bizarre emotional connections with inanimate objects: he holds a funeral for his old telephone switch board, and searches obsessively for an old pinball machine that he used to play in more innocent times. As for the Rat, he becomes besieged by anxieties, vague feelings of emptiness, and a worry that he's become trapped in a town that holds nothing for him. These themes of alienation – like the novel's more overt surreal elements, such as the twin girls who, one morning, appear inexplicably in the protagonist's apartment – would, of course, become a cornerstone of Murakami's writing.
Though Murakami has distanced himself somewhat from his first two works, and states that A Wild Sheep Chase is his “true” beginning as a writer, anybody with a love of the writer's work will relish this opportunity to see how the seeds of his literary world are sewn over the course of these two short novels. I'd even contest Murakami's claim that A Wild Sheep Chase was the novel that truly inspired his decision to go from writing to becoming a writer... all I can say to back that up is that the process of writing one particular staggeringly dreamlike episode towards the end of Pinball 1973 would certainly have inspired me to dedicate my life to writing fiction.
I'm looking forward now to soon returning again to A Wild Sheep Chase, and reading it with a new set of eyes... to see see it as the treacherous existential Winter to the nostalgic, lazy Summer of Hear the Wind Sing and to the anxious, depressed Autumn of Pinball 1973...
Further Reading / Watching...
- Blog about Let's Meet In A Dream on Yomuka!
This blogger has written about (and kindly translated some of) this early curio; a book of short pieces written by both Murakami and Shigesato Itoi (possibly best-known for his work on the cult Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound). The translated parts highlight Murakami's lighter side: there are some goofy short poems, and a (hopefully true) story about Murakami's own pinball habit.
- A 1981 film adaptation of Hear the Wind Sing
- I've not actually watched this yet, but it certainly seems interesting. It's a film adaptation of Hear the Wind Sing, directed by Kazuki Ōmori. Given how the novel's pacing and style can be compared to films by - for example - Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, and Yasujirō Ozu, it should be interesting to see how the novel actually translates to the cinematic form in Ōmori's adaptation
- The BBC documentary Haruki Murakami: In Search of This Elusive Writer
- A documentary made for the BBC's Imagine strand. It's
actually a really good introduction for the uninitiated, which goes
into some interesting analysis of Murakami's personal philosophies
as a writer, how his own life and the world around him has
influenced his work, and why this work resonates with so many
readers around the world. Last but certainly not least, there's a
bit where Alan Yentob has a natter with a cat.
- A documentary made for the BBC's Imagine strand. It's actually a really good introduction for the uninitiated, which goes into some interesting analysis of Murakami's personal philosophies as a writer, how his own life and the world around him has influenced his work, and why this work resonates with so many readers around the world. Last but certainly not least, there's a bit where Alan Yentob has a natter with a cat.