Murakami's first novels revisited

Oddball Japanese writer's charm is enhanced through new translations of his old works

Wind/Pinball is a must-have for fans of Haruki Murakami (above) who want to know how he evolved as an author.
Wind/Pinball is a must-have for fans of Haruki Murakami (above) who want to know how he evolved as an author. PHOTO: MARION ETTLINGER, HARVILL SECKER


By Haruki Murakami

Translated from Japanese by Ted Goossen

Harvill Secker/Paperback/336 pages/$41.40 from major bookstores on Aug 5/4/5

The re-translation of Haruki Murakami's first two novels into English is an excellent decision by his publishers and, for a change, not solely for business reasons.

The Japanese novelist is a bestselling powerhouse, a single book with his name on it able to elevate publishers' bottomlines to dizzying heights. In 2011, even as the Borders group of booksellers fell and publishers lamented falling readership around the world, the pre- orders alone for the English translation of his 1,000-page novel 1Q84 pushed the British print run to about 100,000 copies.

Obviously, his publishers, Harvill Secker in the United Kingdom and Alfred A. Knopf in the United States, have performed laughably obvious machinations to further jack up sales of every book. These range from variant covers to limited illustrated or autographed editions.

In the case of last year's The Strange Library, a single story of 50 pages was re-released with fantastic illustrations and painstaking designs and stretched into novella- length. With a unique edition each from the UK and US publishers, fans were determined to own both and the result was that the title sold well enough in Singapore alone to remain continuously on The Straits Times' bestseller list for six months.

So one might imagine that getting The Strange Library's translator Ted Goossen to re-translate Murakami's first two novels is yet another moneyspinning idea but the happy truth is that Wind/Pinball - a condensed title born out of the novels' original names - is also a boon for readers.

Murakami fans have long lamented the unavailability of Hear The Wind Sing, the 1979 debut novel which won a prestigious prize for new writers from literary journal Gunzo and had only a limited English run via Japanese publisher Kodansha.

The confusingly named sequel Pinball, 1973, which was released in Japan in 1980 and translated into English in 1985, is better known internationally. However, it was the third novel in the trilogy that captured international attention: A Wild Sheep Chase, translated into English in 1989 and featuring an unnamed narrator and his friend Rat, the protagonists of I Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973.

A Wild Sheep Chase charmed readers with its oddball plot about a sheep that can topple a global empire, which becomes the focus of the just-divorced narrator's quest to reconnect with the world.

The re-translated novels put the events of A Wild Sheep Chase in context for fans, and reading the books in sequence is a deeply satisfying experience as one follows the evolution of both writer and character from student to maturity.

Murakami is known for featuring a certain type of character: middle- aged, lonely, yearning for the past, unable to form lasting connections despite his fondness for jazz and classical music and also for women with unusual physical characteristics such as beautiful ears or missing body parts.

Hear The Wind Sing introduces readers to the first in a long line of these protagonists: an unnamed student narrator drifting on the edges of society, with a troubled familial history that is only alluded to but never explained. The narrator forms an odd but unsatisfying connection with a woman who has a finger missing, but his strongest relationships include a bromance with a fellow student and rich anarchist named Rat, and J, the Chinese owner of a cafe they enjoy spending time at.

Pinball, 1973 sees the narrator now grown and doing relatively well as co-founder of a translation firm. He is living in happy fulfilment of a young man's dream, cohabiting with twin sisters who require nothing of him but food and clothing, are happy to cater to every physical need and do not even require him to remember their names.

The sexism deliberately underscores a point about maturity: It is not until the narrator comes to terms with the death of his former girlfriend that his live-in lovers move on and out of his life, allowing him to form a stable relationship with a woman - and also graduate from an obsession with pinball games, another adolescent staple.

The relatively happy ending of this book is ironic, given the divorce at the beginning of A Wild Sheep Chase, but considered together, the larger narrative is true to Murakami's penchant for ambiguous endings rather than a simple happy conclusion.

His preface explains the context of the first two novels: how he and his wife were part of the counter- culture movement in Japan. As owners of a struggling jazz cafe, they went contrary to the dictates of a society built on conformity, subservience to authority and working for primarily economic reasons. It was around this time that he decided he could write a novel and he mocks his own seeming hubris through Rat, who regularly sends his friend unpublished manuscripts.

As expected from early works, Wind/Pinball has less emotional depth than the well-known student love story Norwegian Wood (English translations 1998 and 2000). Despite the connections between the Rat books, this is not as tightly written and beautifully plotted as After Dark (English translation 2007), a masterpiece for its varied cast and linked eerie, entirely believable parallel plotlines set in the underbelly of Tokyo nightlife.

But Wind/Pinball is a must-have for Murakami fans who want to know how he evolved and who might want to begin re-reading his work chronologically. It is a book that might even sway those on the fence because of the sheer audacity of his plots and the knowledge that even Murakami at one time was afraid he might fail.

If you like this, read: A Wild Sheep Chase by the same author (2000 reprint, Vintage, $20.28, Books Kinokuniya). It completes the trilogy begun in Wind/Pinball as the unnamed narrator hunts for a sheep with mysterious powers and reunites with his old friend Rat.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline 'Murakami's first novels revisited'. Print Edition | Subscribe