Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami, trans Philip Gabriel & Jay Rubin

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The Independent Culture

One of the earliest stories in Haruki Murakami's career-spanning new collection concerns an idle young man who goes along to a seminar by a cake company which is seeking new products. In "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes", he has to make a confection based on Sharpies and deliver it one month later. If his cake is accepted, he will be given a prize of two million yen. The narrator bakes two dozen new cakes and takes them to the company. After a month, he receives a call asking him to come in. The younger members of staff love his new cakes, but the older employees claim that what he has made is not a real Sharpie. The only way to resolve this decision is to feed the cakes to "Their Holiness the Sharpie Crows".

Far larger than ordinary crows, they have globs of white fat instead of eyes, bodies swollen to the point of bursting, and will only eat genuine Sharpie Cakes. If they eat the narrator's cakes, his new recipes will be accepted.

Some crows eat with gusto, others spit them out and scream. The birds unable to reach the cakes tear open the bellies of crows that have eaten. The narrator realises the question of whether a cake is a Sharpie is a matter of life and death to the crows. Disgusted, he leaves the building, determined to make only the food he wants to eat.

This story, Murakami explains in his introduction, is a fable about his impressions of the literary world at the time of his first publications. He doesn't fit it in well with the Japanese literary establishment, a situation that he says persists. One Japanese critic regards Murakami as "a cynical entrepreneur who never wrote a word out of any old-fashioned motives of inspiration or inner impulse". This critical conflict in Japan seems based around the argument that Murakami's work is too silly and disposable, catering only for the passing tastes of a young audience and lacking the difficulty of the novels of Kenzaburo Oe, who won the Nobel Prize in 1994.

Yet in Britain and America, Murakami enjoys enormous acclaim, and has reached the point where he can publish anything he wants. In recent years this has led to some skimpy collections, but Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is much more substantial. It has to be said that including stories from the early Eighties to the present makes the book hit-and-miss, and it's a bit of a cheat to include "Firefly", which appeared in the novel Norwegian Wood.

By far the best stories are those that Murakami wrote for The New Yorker. They include the exquisite "Tony Takitani", recently turned into a prize-winning film, "The Ice Man", an unlikely romance featuring a protagonist who seems to have escaped from a superhero comic, and "A Shinagawa Monkey", a detective story that leads to the discovery of a nametag-stealing monkey. These stories are rich in Murakami magic, and elevate Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman from being a fan-only purchase to a collection that all readers will enjoy.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Cherry' (Phoenix)