This beautiful edition by Harvill Secker books contains two stories from Murakami’s Trilogy of the Rat. Hear The Wing Sing and Pinball, 1973 tell the story of the narrator as he grows up and endures his early 20s alongside his only friend known as The Rat. These two stories are told as a series of recollections of present and past day experiences as both characters struggle to make sense of the world around him. Although these stories are enthralling, it is Murakami’s writing style that steals the show. The writing, particularly in Pinball, 1973 is simply mesmerising and borderline poetic. I found myself taking note of countless quotes as I made my way through these very readable novellas. These are two of Murakami’s earliest works and have only been translated and released recently.

Haruki Murakami pens an interesting introduction to these stories to describe how he became a writer through the success of these, his ‘kitchen-table’ novellas. In his typical style, he paints a picture of two everyday moments when he realised that he was going to be a successful writer. He also gives the reader an insight into how he came about his distinctive prose. He did this by writing many of his earlier works in English and translated them back to Japanese, a respectable feat by anyone’s standard.

As both stories are considered individual pieces of work in their own right, I will review them separately here:

Hear the Wind Sing

Both of these books have an almost autobiographical sense and remind me of the work of Charles Bukowaski. In Hear The Wind Sing, we meet the narrator and his friend the Rat for the first time. The narrator is on a break from college and back in his small home town for the summer. He spends most of his time drinking and smoking in J’s bar while discussing the pros and cons of life. The narrator, like Murakami himself at the time of writing, is considering a future as a writer. He also is curious about pursuing a relationship with a nine-fingered girl.

This story spends most of its time building the world that we will come to know across the trilogy. We learn briefly of the narrator’s past through his reminiscence of three previous relationships. We learn that his town, like many small hometowns, is a place where dreams go to die. Writing these stories seems to be a watermark moment for the narrator who has recently decided to banish his optimistic ways. He used to follow the principle that ‘everything can be a learning experience’ but this only resulted in him being ‘cheated and misunderstood, used and abused, time and again.’ On the other hand, these it because of this that he has had ‘many strange experiences’ and so he has a lot to write about.

It can be said that this story is a narrative littered with a sense of discontent. In many ways, it sows the seeds for a more frustrating time to come in Pinball, 1973. Murakami creates this uneasy tension in a roundabout way. He constantly references a hot and oppressive summer heat that frustrates the characters. He uses an unusual allegory of hell to compare life at home to life at college and he similarly uses an allegory of a sore tooth to personify the black frustration of life. Essentially, in Hear The Wind Sing, the characters have all worked very hard and endured various experiences to grow up, but now that they have reached the early stages of adulthood the big payoff seems to have only ever been an illusion.

‘All things pass. None of us can manage to hold on to anything. In that way, we live our lives.’

You would think that all these factors would make this a depressing read but you are wrong. Murakami writes his story as if he is standing on the outside. Through his use of a mysterious narrator, the author is able to stand back and smile at these many odd yet necessary life experiences. The narrator compares himself to ‘no more than a bridge’ that people and experiences ‘clatter across’ and it is because of this that he has many so stories to share.

Pinball, 1973

On any given day, something can come along and steal our hearts. It may be any old thing: a rosebud, a lost cap, a favourite sweater from childhood, an 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, deep wells dug in our hearts. Birds fly over them.’

I loved this story from start to finish and it was definitely the stronger of the two. It was built however by the sturdy foundations created in Wind and picks up where that story left off. It takes place three years later as the narrator is living and working as a translator in Tokyo. He is a self-made man and busy with ‘urgent’ yet pointless work. He questions:

Who had commissioned these translations (and “urgently” no less), and for what reason? I hadn’t a clue. Was there a bear patiently standing beside a river somewhere waiting for my translation to arrive? Or a tongue-tied nurse unable to speak a word to her dying patient?’

He is now separated from his friend, the Rat, so the narrative is split in half as we hop from one setting to another. Even though the Rat is still at home drinking by himself in J’s Bar and the narrator is in the exciting surrounds of Tokyo, both are enduring an existential crisis that you could see coming in Wind. This time however, they are enduring it alone. Both characters, even though very secure, are haunted by a feeling of having wasted their twenty four years on Earth to date.  It is this security and a sense of having reached their pinnacle that seems to torment the characters the most.

‘Twenty four years couldn’t disappear in a flash. I felt like someone who realises in the midst of looking for something that they have forgotten what it was.’

‘The problem was that the face I saw wasn’t my face at all. It was the face of the twenty-four-year-old guy you sometimes sit across from on the train. My face and my soul were lifeless shells, of no significance to anyone. My soul passes someone else’s on the street. Hey, it says. Hey, the other responds. Nothing more. Neither waves. Neither looks back.’

Once again Murakami uses the weather to convey this inner sense of turmoil. There is a constant reference to the rain as it threatens to fall, swells in the clouds above and permeates everything without ever really being there. The Rat has the additional metaphor of his hometown lighthouse beacon and the sea to contend with. The water seems to conspire against him as it bubbles and broils in unnatural waves while he forlornly looks out at the old beacon that used to light up his childhood.

‘I was born under a strange star. Like I’ve always been able to get whatever I want. But each time something new comes into my hands, I trample something else… No one believes me, but it’s the truth. It hit me about three years ago. So I decided. Not to want anything anymore.’

Yet, eventually this restlessness manifests into an odd burning ambition for each character. The narrator becomes fixated with relocating a pinball machine from his youth. The Rat decides that he must leave his hometown and everything else behind him if he is to survive. Both decisions promise a sense of finality and meaning on their outcome, but we know that life is not that simple.

‘All we can perceive is this moment we call the present, and even this moment is nothing more than what passes through us.’

‘There was something that came out of nothing, and now it’s gone back to where it came from, that’s all.’

Would I recommend this book to a friend?

Yes. This is a great introduction to Murakami’s work and literature from the other side of the world. Works like these offer something profoundly different to the reader than the usual popular Western fare. The writing style might seem very different to read at first but it is undeniably beautiful and unerring in its sharpness.

This book is a fantastic read for anyone enduring that early ‘mid-life crisis’ in the 20s or 30s. Murakami really nails the sense of frustration or ‘seven-year-itch’ that we all get as we question our purpose in the grand scheme of things at that time in our lives. Pinball is an amazing read.

Afterthoughts

  • What a beautiful cover for the Pinball side of the jacket!st_20150726_mura1_1540537_2
  • A Wild Sheep Chase completes this trilogy. I have to find this book soon!
  • After reading two other Murakami books, these two have finally tipped me over the edge into super fan territory. I have 1Q40 waiting patiently on my bookshelf and can’t wait to read it. Read my review of “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” ~ Haruki Murakami here
  • Murakami has a book coming out next year and even though he has revealed little else, the level of interest is already phenomenal.
  • I travelled to Japan earlier in the year for a two-week trip and this has definitely enhanced my recent experiences of reading Murakami’s work. His books perfectly capture the essence of the country and its people.
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The bright lights of Akihabara Electronics District, Tokyo