Until now, we have not been able to read Haruki Murakami’s first two novels in English despite their popular success in Japanese. It is his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, translated in 1990, and the last in his “Rat” trilogy, that English readers have taken as his first, and that he himself considers “the true beginning of my career as a novelist.” In fact, he has resisted English translations of Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball 1973 (1980) for decades, except for a ‘student study aid’ translation in Japan that has long been out of print, and in the face of fans frequently writing to his UK publisher with their pleas.
He began writing in his late 20s, while running a Jazz bar, at his kitchen table, late at night. In his introduction to both novels, published in August for the first time in English as one reversible back-to-back edition, he sums up the ambivalence that might have, until now, stopped him from broadening their readership: “It is with love mingled with a bit of embarrassment that I call these two works my kitchen-table novels.”
He is the not the first writer to have an awkward relationship with early works. Samuel Beckett was averse to work written before 1950 from being republished in later years, while Harper Lee, as most know by now, vowed never to have another novel published after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. It may have been Murakami’s mix of love and embarrassment that she first stopped, and ultimately sanctioned, publication of the “debut”.
Murakami is a novelist in his prime whose last book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – according to its back-flap -“sold one million copies in its first week of publication in Japan”. His UK editor has said that he began working with translator, Ted Goossen, on various projects some years ago and agreed for him to translate these “kitchen table novels” too.
So why publish the novels in English now? There may have been an eye to his legacy, and they certainly show the developmental arc of a novelist who has become a global phenomenon. But are they destined to disappoint? Reading them against A Wild Sheep Chase –to be simultaneously republished with a 3D cover – they pale in comparison. In his third novel, Murakami really does find his flow, style is perfectly tempered by substance, the storylines feels complex, complete and compulsive. The trio of central characters comprised of the young unnamed narrator, his friend, “The Rat” and the bartender, J, become flesh and blood in a way that they don’t in the previous two.
If these long-awaited publications are a disappointment, at least Murakami has already suggested the fact. But only if they are compared to the later work. As stories read without (unfair?) comparison, both books have that unique blend of melancholy and beauty that Murakami manages so well; they are mysterious, moreish, but also mannered and incomplete. Novella-sized, they incorporate the themes that preoccupy Murakami to the present day, and bear much of the same style, but they are written in often too short, episodic chapters that could reflect the ‘kitchen table’ spurts of night writing after working at the Jazz bar.
There is the stylised prose – the neatly pared sentences reminiscent of the American noir that influenced him in these early years; the search for a solid identity amid the slippery ground of postmodernity; the pop culture references, almost all American, that has led to charges by his country’s literary establishment of being un-Japanese, and there is the youthful nihilism that makes his work so famously Kafkaesque.
What is also there, especially in Hear the Wind Sing, is reflections on writing itself, as if Murakami were stating his reasons, and his need, to tell stories. The Rat and the narrator have amusing bar-room discussions on who to write for (the Rat: “…what could be cooler than writing something for the cicadas and frogs and spiders, and the summer grasses and the wind?”) and the outlandish plots of hitherto unwritten novels.
In his introduction, Murakami writes of the impact of the novels of Hungarian writer, Agota Kristof, which were “cloaked in an air of mystery that suggested important matters hidden beneath the surface.” This sense is there in Hear the Wind Sing, arguable the more intriguing of the two novels, which begins in the summer of 1970 and takes place over 18 days in the lives of the narrator, who is a university student, and The Rat, a slightly older rich kid, drink-buddy and soul-mate at J’s bar. Women enter their lives but remain distant, intriguing and unknowable, like the femme fatales of American noir (the narrator’s love interest, a woman with nine fingers who owns a record store, is revealed to us naked, hung-over). Murakami gives his women a little more agency, though on the whole, their roles are limited to disappeared girlfriends, or sexy maids, of sorts. They are not nearly as strong or charismatic as the call girl with beautiful ears in the third of the trilogy.
Sentences skit on the surface deliberately, it seems, insinuating all that might lie beneath. At times, the short scenes appear almost like sutured film-takes, perhaps out of a self-consciously black-and-white Jim Jarmusch movie. This is, we understand, an uber-cool young man writing an uber-cool first novel. There are diversions in time and place that add a sense of non-chronology, with one chapter of lit-crit and another from the point of view of a radio station DJ, which, in film terms, veer into surreal David Lynch territory.
The narrator is emotionally taciturn and something of an “asshole” to past girlfriends. Bonding, particularly male, is afraid to venture into the minefield of emotional intimacy, so takes the form of witty banter, and here the dialogue is sparklingly clever, drunkenly witty.
There is the nostalgia of youth – the existential sadness of a young man whose certainties are all but dissolved with the onset of adulthood, even if the narrator is barely out of their teens. But it is only by the third novel that Murakami begins to tie the individual’s dark interiority with the darkness of Japan’s history.
Both men are older in Pinball 1973 – the narrator is 24, still nihilistic (Kant is his bedtime reading) and now a translator; we remain at one remove from the Rat in his episodic third-person narration. The second novel is more skittering, not quite defining its shape, but soon settles backs into youth angst and campus nostalgia. Japan and its past is more prominent here, with old communities disappearing and “an inexorable wave of urban development”. The plot takes sudden turns – the narrator lives out the ultimate male fantasy when he finds two sexy twins have moved into his home, and then becomes a pinball obsessive.
The emotional heart though, is the Rat’s love affair with a woman whom he leaves abruptly. He becomes, in his anguish, like Jay Gatsby staring across the water to the green light of Daisy’s home, across the bay, even if this reference is delivered heavy-handedly: “He stood at his window and looked down at the flashing beacon, tracing the black pier back to where her apartment had stood. He remembered the pounding of the waves in the darkness…” Despite the plot turns, though, not enough happens, and not enough is said. What stands out in both books is the writing, beautiful in its simplicity, and also the deadpan humour and one-liners. There is a scene in Pinball 1973 in which the narrator meets a university lecturer (and fellow pinball obsessive) for coffee, and a wonderful pastiche follows on the pedantry of the academic (“He took a sip of water. I could tell he regretted not having an overhead projector and a long pointer”).
For their failings, they mark the value of legacy, are striking even in their formative, flawed states, and clearly show a writer of innovation emerging and developing his formidable talent.