Toronto Star

MURAKAMI MEMORIES

Two early works, available in new English translatio­n, occupy a strange place in the canon of bestsellin­g Japanese author.

- ROBERT J. WIERSEMA

This summer, juvenilia seems to be going mainstream. Usually the province of academics, these works, written in an author’s youth or apprentice­ship period, are generally assumed to be of little interest to the general public, and are seldom published in any large-scale way. Yet here we are: Hard on the heels of the publicatio­n of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, the previously unpublishe­d novel she wrote prior to To Kill a Mockingbir­d, comes Wind/Pinball, a collection of two early novellas by bestsellin­g Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball,1973 hold something of a fabled place among Murakami readers. In Japan, they form the foundation of Murakami’s storied career: Wind was awarded a key literary prize upon its first publicatio­n in 1979 (which inspired Murakami to continue writing), and together with A Wild Sheep Chase they comprise the Trilogy of the Rat.

The books have always been available in Japan and are an establishe­d part of the Murakami canon there, but they have never been widely available in English. As a result, the novellas occupy something of a strange position: Their ongoing publi- cation in Japanese takes them out of the realm of juvenilia, while their absence from the English canon places them firmly within that classifica­tion.

The highlight of the new collection is an essay/memoir titled “The Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction” in which Murakami details the now mythic birth of his life as a writer. While extolling the virtues of the novellas, referring to them as “totally irreplacea­ble, much like friends from long ago,” Murakami is quick to put them in their place, calling A Wild Sheep Chase “the true beginning of my career as a novelist.”

The widespread publicatio­n of the novellas this summer (in new translatio­ns by York University professor Ted Goossen) requires, and allows, the individual reader to decide for themselves where these books belong: are they the early scribbling of a soon-to-be-great writer, or should they be recognized as a part of the canon?

The answer, for most readers, will probably be a bit of both.

As stand-alone works, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are fairly slight. Both novellas follow the unnamed protagonis­t through his early adulthood, with his friend the Rat occupying a philosophi­cal bar stool, offering guidance and insight at crucial junctures. Hear the Wind Sing feels like a first project, obsessed with the process of writing and creation, given to faux-profunditi­es, such as the opening line: “There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. Just as there’s no such thing as perfect despair.”

While Hear the Wind Sing is little more than a character sketch, Pinball, 1973 shows Murakami gaining confidence and comfort with writing and, more crucially, storytelli­ng. The narrator’s descriptio­n of his obsession with pinball, and his search for his favourite machine through a surreal underworld of pinball machine collectors frequently delights, even as it leaves the reader wanting more.

That sensation is crucial for the true appreciati­on of these stories: they are less stand-alone works than they are a primer for Murakami’s later career. Readers can see familiar Murakami motifs and tropes in their generation: the jazz clubs and surreal mysteries, the adolescent angst and tragic romances that characteri­ze so much of Murakami’s later work are present from the outset, and the groundwork that Murakami lays here pays off not just in A Wild Sheep Chase, but in virtually all of his work.

While the novellas in Wind/Pinball form the cornerston­e of Murakami’s career in Japan, they aren’t really the best introducti­on for readers new to his work. For devotees, however, they are an invaluable addition to the canon, and will likely prompt a desire to re-read the rest of Murakami’s work. And isn’t that what a first book should do, no matter when it is published? Robert Wiersema’s novel Black Feathers is out in August.

 ?? ILLUSTRATI­ON BY RAFFI ANDERIAN/TORONTO STAR ??
ILLUSTRATI­ON BY RAFFI ANDERIAN/TORONTO STAR
 ??  ?? Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, by Haruki Murakami, Bond Street Books, 256 pages, $29.95.
Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, by Haruki Murakami, Bond Street Books, 256 pages, $29.95.
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