Kirk's Book Reviews
Kirk's Book Reviews
|Posted on September 2, 2015 at 4:20 PM|
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Haruki Murakami fans have been waiting for three decades for English translations of his first two novels. If you’re anything like me, you probably feel deprived of a secret masterpiece, a bit like a Beatles fan who knows there’s a Lennon & McCartney recording out there not available to the masses. Part of this is to do with the author’s ambivalence about his early output; but Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are also predecessors to his 1982 masterpiece, A Wild Sheep Chase – no wonder his English-speaking admirers have been clamouring for an urgent print run.
The question is do these two ‘kitchen table novels’ (as the author calls them) have as much literary merit as his greatest works? I would not hesitate to say “yes.” Put it this way: Murakami’s minor novels are better than most modern masterpieces. The fact he now distances himself from these amateurish efforts only confirms my worst thought – I might as well pack up and stop writing if somebody can produce something as good as this without even trying. Either that or Murakami, like many of his characters, is a master of self-deprecation who’ll do anything to avoid the spotlight.
Hear the Wind Sing is an incongruous but brilliant reflection on life from the perspective of a narrator who spends an entire summer drinking beer at an obscure bar with his friend, The Rat. With nothing to do during the summer break from his Tokyo College, he finds himself dating a traumatised, manic depressive girl with nine-fingers and reminiscing about his three previous lovers. You could say nothing really happens, but that doesn’t stop this being such an enthralling read. Like all Murakami novels, the writing is stupendous in its clarity, catchy in its purpose, and Rock & Roll in its delivery. It’s no co-incidence that one of his characters is asked in his classic 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood, ‘are you trying to be that guy from Catcher in the Rye?’ Hear the Wind Sing is where Murakami first discovered his talent for creating the archetypal conformist-outsider, the man who prefers to spend the rest of his life listening to Jazz music and reading Classic Literature, even if he must also eke out a living and pay his taxes like everybody else.
The best features of any Murakami novels are the subtle humour and absurdist ‘Kafka-esque’ situations his characters encounter in their mundane lives. For this reason Pinball, 1973 is the better of the two books. Written as a direct sequel to Hear the Wind Sing, this time the narrator has created a modestly-successful translation company and is living with two beautiful twins that appear in his life without any explanation and disappear again with as much mystery (a common theme that seems to emerge in all later novels). Yet this time there’s a pang of melancholy in the narrator’s tone; everyone has a place to get to without knowing how or where. Instead of smoking a pack of Salem 100’s after sex, the girls are more likely to crawl back under the covers or leave behind a tattered garment in the bathroom. Thankfully, the six months spent racking up a six-figure score on a Pinball machine give the narrator a sense of purpose and structure to his life.
The Rat meanwhile is learning that he cannot live as a part of society. Yes, he’s rich (the son of a wealthy conman), has a carefree life of drinking and regular sex with the local women, but something is missing. If only he knew what. Everything is one hundred mile-an hour, just like Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Annoyed by his increasing introspection and impatient at the banality of life, The Rat recognises his own loneliness in the woman he’s dating. Could it be that his girlfriend’s magnetic pull is chaining him to the ordinary world he’s trying to escape?
Murakami has attracted criticism in his own country for being too westernised and ignorant of the idiosyncrasies of Japanese Literature. This makes sense in Japan, but not to an English or American audience. Though fortuitous in how he got here, Murakami is undoubtedly the voice of the sceptical undergraduate and spokesperson for those day-dreamers that are mature enough to understand you can be cool without being a rebel. An imperfect comparison would be a fusion of Jean Paul Sarte and William Burroughs, but comparisons don’t do justice to Murakami. As he explains in the preface: ‘To tell the truth, although I was reading all kinds of stuff – my favourite being nineteenth-century Russian novels and American hard-boiled detective stories – I had never taken a serious look at Contemporary Japanese fiction. Thus I had no idea what kind of Japanese novels were being written at the time, or how I should write fiction in the Japanese language.’
But whatever the origins of his unique writing style, Murakami has never doubted his ability to convey the loneliness of existence. The best analogy of the promise of life and its disappointing reality is described in one sentence at the beginning of Hear the Wind Sing. After meeting The Rat on a drunken night out and culminating in a beer-fuelled car crash, the two of them are too intoxicated to care about the damage done to the vehicle and carry on drinking lager. The euphoria makes them feel like they can run for sixty miles. ‘But what we had to do in reality was make payments over the next three years, with interest, to city hall for the cost of repairing damage to the park.’ This resignation to the norms of adult life haunt Murakami and have formed a sombre undertone to most of his work from the beginning. One day you’re putting up barricades during the 1969 Tokyo University uprising, the next you’re refurbishing your kitchen with a bank loan and paying for foreign holidays on a credit card. Hardly something to complain about, but not heroic, either.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is just how well these works fit into Murakami’s back catalogue. Though I’d recommend A Wild Sheep Chase or Dance, Dance, Dance for first-time readers, Hear the Wing Sing and Pinball, 1973 represent a good place to start for the curious amongst you. The writing is unpretentious, clear and filled with humour, yet still has an existential feel to it. For long-term fans it’s business as usual without getting stale; for the uninitiated these two short novels are the beginning of a new love affair with a great writer.
The remaining question is why has Murakami still not won the Nobel Prize for Literature?