Two early works, available in new English translation, occupy a strange place in the canon of bestselling Japanese author.
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 Yet here we are: Hard on the heels of the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, the previously unpublished novel she wrote prior to To Kill a Mockingbird, comes Wind/Pinball, a collection of two early novellas by bestselling Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.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.