Sunday, July 10, 2016

Wind/Pinball: Two Novels by Haruki Murakami

For a long time, I thought I'd never get a chance to read Murakami's first two novels. Sure, they were translated into English back in the '80s, and copies of those editions -- designed for teaching, as I understand it, and barely distributed to the larger book-buying world -- were available now and then for more money than I wanted to think about. But it looked like Murakami didn't want them available in English, and their price and obscurity made them essentially unavailable here.

Murakami changed his mind, perhaps -- or maybe that impression was false. Last year, his regular US publisher, Knopf, brought out those two short novels in one book as Wind/Pinball, in new translations by Ted Goossen. (The two books are Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 -- they're directly connected, being about the same characters at the same time of life.) So we Americans got to see how he started, all the way back in the late '70s. This edition of the two novels together is still quite short, since the books are each novella-length, barely a hundred pages each. (If I knew more about the history of Japanese publishing, I would pontificate here on their place in literary history and try to connect them to the modern "light novel." But I have no idea about any of those things.)

These two stories are very much those of a young man, of a young ambitious writer who desperately wants to say things and who really only has his own young life as material to work from. That's a very clear type of novel; a few of them get published every year and dozens more end up in drawers. Murakami had something a little more interesting, I suppose -- he won a literary award for Wind, so this is more than just hindsight speaking -- whether that was his unexpectedly simple style, his casual use of surrealism, or something else. (On the first point, Murakami provides a new introduction to this edition in which he talks about his life at the time and how he came to write these books -- and he notes that he wrote at least the beginning of Wind in English originally, and only then translated it into Japanese. He specifically says that helped him crystallize his style, working in a language he knew only partially, and not being able to construct complex sentences or explain complicated ideas.)

They're not plotty books; that's what I'm saying. Less so, even, than Murakami's later novels. These are two stories of voice and character and of their time -- that time being the late '60s and early '70s, and the characters students and graduates and young people. You could call them countercultural books; they would have been more so if Murakami wrote them at the time rather than nearly a decade later. They do apparently lead right into Murakami's thrid novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, but I haven't read that in at least twenty years, so I can't give you more details than that. (I may need to go back to it.)

Wind and Pinball are clearly Murakami novels; you can see the later writer in embryo in these stories. But they're equally clearly early works by that writer, in an idiom much more "mainstream" and convention than he later became. If there's anyone out there who needs an on-ramp to Murakami, you are finally in luck. Otherwise, they're interesting minor early works from a writer who got better -- which is what we all always hope for, for ourselves and the writers we like and the world at large.

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