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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