Book review

Wind/Pinball: Murakami’s first novels show where his impassive dreamers were born

It is intriguing to see the early signs of the enigmatic but compelling writer that Haruki Murakami was to become.

Let there be no drumroll. Any Haruki Murakami fan should inherently know his first book would hold answers to his future narratives.  Until now, most haven’t had the luck to read his first two novellas in English, which eventually made him the writer he is today. Murakami’s first two novellas, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973, have been retranslated into English and launched as one book titled, simply, Wind/Pinball.

Many longtime fans can now trace the sentences that told his first story, and you can bet bottles of cold beer you’ll be both unsurprised and delighted.

Hear The Wind Sing

In the first novella, our unnamed narrator casually immerses us in his existential juggle. There is detached reasoning, palpable loneliness, and a firm refusal to reveal selected details – the foundation of all things Murakami.

In his foreword the author explains how a baseball game he watched at 29 was the moment he decided he could write a novel. Don’t expect a meaty explanation on the relevance of Murakami’s writing skills and a baseball game. Like his stories, he offers nothing but straight facts and resolve when it comes to telling his own history.

I’ll dare to mention that the mystery and fortuitousness of his life seems (almost) like a trick played on the larger world. There is cosmic blessing: a 29-year old jazz-bar owner who decided he could write over a baseball game, completes a novella in a few months and sends the only written manuscript he has to a literary magazine, winning the prize and getting his book published. The alternative would have been losing the only copy of the manuscript, and, presumably, not having a writing career at all.

This is what began the Murakami Empire. This was the beginning of late night cigarettes, half-hearted activism, empty souls, cats, and petite women who found themselves naked in the bed with a confused but articulate chain smoker.

As a Murakami fan, I’ve long since immersed myself in his world, having read almost everything he has had to offer, I’ve built a tolerance for his meandering fantasy and the small story detail I am clawing to get at, only to be paid off by a switch in narrative focus.

I learned to enjoy it, to jump with him into the bizarre, the ridiculous, and to revel in the potent circus life can be. I enjoyed it because there was something else that kept me in his work – the trail of loneliness, the slow crises of existing, the crushing nostalgia. These are the themes that have kept his books on the non-dusty parts of my shelf.

In Wind, we watch the bricks that built Murakami’s stronger works come together. We meet our narrator: 21, biology student at the university, who never forgets to shine his father’s shoes. His friend, nicknamed The Rat, (who remains in Pinball 1973, and stays on to end the trilogy in Murakami’s famous A Wild Sheep Chase) hangs out at J’s bar with our protagonist.

We spend a good chunk of the book in this bar drinking cold beer, chain-smoking, quibbling with The Rat over his ironical hate for the rich. The narrator, emotionally raw, almost passive, thinks he’s like an old jalopy – when one part is fixed, another gets broken.

We weave back and forth through the life of the narrator’s recent past – of all the women he has so far slept with, it’s the four-fingered girl who will leave an unusual bruise on your heart. Perhaps it’s her last words to him, her small revelation about herself. Or perhaps it’s the narrator’s ability to express only “half of what he feels”.

He quotes and talks much about a fictional author named Derek Hartsfield, who wrote horror and adventure and loved only three things: his mother’s cookies, cats, and guns. Although Wind is hardly equipped with a plot, Murakami lovers can read the conception of his writing zygote: an ability to capture a saturated generation that is both endearing and apathetic.

Pinball, 1973

The second novella starts a few years later, when the narrator is now in Tokyo. The Rat still lingers in this book, albeit more mysteriously and perhaps aptly so. Our protagonist now lives with indistinguishable twins who wear the same tee-shirt everyday. Their off-kilter banter and motherly presence erodes any sexual titillation their characters could offer and unexpectedly become the heart of the narrative, which loses a bit of steam with its uncalculated search for a plot.

The story arranges itself around a pinball machine, specifically a make of the machine called Spaceship – the module the narrator had developed a talent and near-obsession for when he was in high school. The arcade where Spaceship once resided has closed down and reinvented itself as a 24-hour doughnut shop.

In the protagonist’s search to be reunited with the machine, he meets a Spanish professor, learns a little history in pinball manufacturing, and ends up in a warehouse, where he exchanges sweet nothings with the lust of his teenage years – Spaceship.

Although the search for the machine seems more like Murakami experimenting with pacing and plotting, the twins and their antics kept me far more engaged.  In the course of the short novel, they make endless cups of coffee and soothe the narrator with their inexplicable comments and requests, like borrowing a car one Sunday so they could have a funeral for a dead switchboard in the house.

Over the years, Murakami has played with his craft and composed his tunes in genius ways, while stubbornly revealing answers on a whim and pulling the strings of a plot tautly. Here is where it all started: the search, the curse of questions and annoying societal norms. Here begins the manipulation of philosophy that bubble to life, only to have its importance dismantled by the protagonist.

“Where there is an entrance there is usually an exit. That’s the way things are made. Mailboxes, vacuum cleaners, zoos, salt shakers. Of course there are exceptions, Mousetraps, for instance”. And exits are what our narrator likes to have in all circumstances, but it’s often the mousetrap we are caught exploring and devoting ourselves to when it comes to Murakami.

Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen, Harvill Secker.

Rheea Mukherjee usually sticks to short fiction. She co-runs Write Leela Write, a design and content laboratory in Bangalore.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.