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Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 24 Stories by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Another confession: While recently listening to Rupert Degas narrate parts of Hari Kunzru’s Gods without Men, I got such a nostalgic pang to hear Degas read Haruki Murakami (after experiencing A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and select stories from The Elephant Vanishes thus far in Degas’ voice, I’ve been duly conditioned, in spite of his inexcusable mispronunciation of many Japanese words and names!), that I downloaded the last Murakami title I had left unread, only to realize that Blind Willow is narrated by two others. I am fairly certain that this is the only Murakami book that Patrick Lawlor and Ellen Archer have narrated thus far; overall both read their respective stories well enough (the vast majority of the stories are read by Lawlor), although both should definitely have requested a pronunciation lesson – really, how hard could that be??!! Ack, don’t get me started!
While not always certain of narrative outcome – inexplicable happenings, non-sequitur action, vanishing characters – I ironically find such comfort in reading (or listening) to Murakami’s novels and short stories. If some of these 24 stories seem familiar, you might have encountered them in the usual highbrow publications like Granta, Harper’s, The New Yorker. And if you’ve read other Murakami novels, you might actually recognize the story “Firefly” from Norwegian Wood and “Man-Eating Cats” from Sputnik Sweetheart, as Murakami explains in an introduction specifically for this edition in English. Murakami also shares numerous revealing comments about his writing process, starting with “… I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy.”
As Murakami declares, “… not every short story is a masterpiece,” some here are admittedly more memorable than others. All, however, are unmistakably Murakami, because each captures something utterly unexpected: a friend who likes to ride out typhoons in a zoo, covered in a Vietnam-era army surplus poncho with two beers in his pockets (“New York Mining Disaster”), a man who lives without mirrors in his home because a mirror he once saw actually never existed (“The Mirror”), a palm-sized dabchick (a kind of water bird – I had to look it up) with a toothache thinking about death (“Dabchick”), a poor aunt who appears on a man’s back in the middle of August (“A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story”), a man who decides to eat only spaghetti during the year 1971 (“The Year of Spaghetti”), a disappearing lover who turns out to be a tightrope walker between tall buildings (“The Kidney Shaped Stone”), and obviously many more.
If I had to choose a favorite or two, I’d say “Halalei Bay” about a woman who loses her teenage surfer son because of a shark attack and “A Shinagawa Monkey” about a woman who suddenly cannot remember her own name. But then again, the story I’m pondering over most repeatedly is “Where I’m Likely to Find It,” about an investigator trying to figure out what happened to a man who vanished between two floors in his apartment building.
That ever-pondering feeling is not unlike the reaction I have to every Murakami title (with the exception of his uncharacteristically straight-forward What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir). It’s a rather addictive reaction, truth be told … his narratives never quite leave you alone, and you just want to definitively know what happened. It’s literal possession …
Published: 2006 (United States) Continue reading
Chapter 1: an ultra high-tech building with an especially remarkable elevator (although without the usual, mundane details like floor buttons), loose change that suddenly doesn’t add up, a beautiful (chubby) young woman in everything pink who might have said “Proust” (or maybe “Truest? … Brew whist? … Blue is it? …”), and a lozenge-shaped electronic key that opens the door to <728>. Oh, and I can’t forget the flustered, lip-reading, Danny Boy-whistling, especially-good-with-tricky numbers, nameless protagonist. Your usual Haruki Murakami fare, right?
Chapter 2 (italics totally intentional): beasts sporting long golden fur – “[g]olden in the purest sense of the word, with not the least intrusion of another hue,” the horn-blowing Gatekeeper who herds the magnificent animals out through the right door of the West Gate every night and allows them re-entry in the morning, the local people who climb the Watchtower for just one spring week to watch the animals, and the newly arrived stranger-in-a-strange-land who is as yet unfamiliar with the seasonal rhythms of this unnamed walled-in world. Again, your usual Murakami fare.
Confused yet? No worries … Murakami has his recognizable tropes to give you just enough comfort: the somewhat slacker protagonist who is never quite surprised enough about the inexplicable events of his not-so-regular life, the teenage sidekick whose relationship with said protagonist brushes up against inappropriate but remains ultimately off-limits, the predictable messengers who either knock on/walk through/break down the front door, bedside books mostly written by dead white men, and hidden portals in and to the strangest places.
But lest you think you can ever just complacently read from page to page, Murakami will, of course, rock your world with his usual unexpected adventures. Jumping from odd to even chapters, you’ll track down a rogue scientist who can remove sound, feed a reference librarian with an insatiable culinary appetite, avoid the destructive path of the dynamic Junior/Big Boy duo, read dreams from animal skulls, search for anachronistic instruments in a land whose inhabitants cannot comprehend music, escape the INKlings through sewers and subways … and, as always, more, more, and more.
All the indescribable, unfathomable twists and turns that keep you addicted to Murakami … it’s all here in the hard-boiled wonderland of impossible equations and hunted skulls, and there at the end of the world with impenetrable walls and missing shadows.
Published: 1991 (United States) Continue reading
Haruki Murakami‘s lesser-known-in-the-West “Trilogy of the Rat” continues with the second prequel to his breakout international bestseller, A Wild Sheep Chase. Both Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, were nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, considered by many to be Japan’s top literary honor, and yet neither book has ever had Stateside distribution. And yet how lucky both were translated (superbly, by one of Murakami’s two regular translators – the other is Jay Rubin) into English … and in the age of easy access, Amazon delivers just about all!
Our unnamed narrator is settled in Tokyo, having established a translation business with an old friend (the same company which reappears in Sheep). He’s living with a pair of identical twin young women, who seem to have just appeared, who seem to have no past, no names, not to mention much in the way of basic clothing (they spend much of their waking time in matching sweatshirts marked “208″ and “209″). But they do make excellent coffee. The trio contentedly share the narrator’s small apartment (and yes, the same bed), don’t necessarily have the most scintillating conversations (“[t]he two of them were frightfully ignorant about things,” is hardly an understatement), but for a while, their co-existence works well for all.
Meanwhile, our narrator’s buddy, the Rat (“university-dropout-rich-kid”), has gotten himself involved with a woman, who he meets when he buys a used typewriter from her. Ironically –and sadly – their developing intimacy results in a growing sense of alienation from the world for the Rat. He continues to frequent J’s Bar, especially after hours, but even that longstanding relationship can’t keep the Rat tethered to his reality.
Back in Tokyo, our narrator goes on a pre-sheep wild chase, this time in search of an obscure pinball machine – “A three-flipper ‘Spaceship.’” He did give fair warning early on: “This is a novel about pinball.” Sort of. Not totally.
Old girlfriends, an early obsession with wells, the presence of cats … many of the recurring Murakami devices start lining up with welcome familiarity. Not surprisingly, Sheep and its sequel Dance Dance Dance, start to make a lot more sense. The word ‘delighted’ comes to mind to have discovered these compact prequels, as well as ‘thankful’ for pragmatically providing context and aesthetically offering a glimpse of literary history.
Tidbit: Truly the internet is a phenomenal thing … here’s a PDF that might be of considerable interest: click here. I wish I had found it sooner!!
Published: 1985 (English translation published in Japan) Continue reading
In spite of my decades-long obsession with Haruki Murakami, some part of my literary brain was clearly disconnected because not until I read his popular running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, did I learn about his “Trilogy of the Rat,” which includes two prequels to his breakout international sensation, A Wild Sheep Chase. Those first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980), were eventually translated into English, but the translations had only limited distribution from Japan’s publishing giant Kodansha. Thank goodness for Amazon’s far-flung vendors is all I can say!
I can’t help but mention size … both prequels are tiny: each measures just 4.25 x 6 inches. Wind has a mere 130 pages (with another 35 of highly detailed translation notes), and Pinball only 179 (also with another 35 pages of notes). In comparison, Murakami’s latest is nothing less than an enormous, heavy brick! The phenomenal 1Q84 has almost 1000 pages, with each page some three times the size as those of the prequels! My how the Murakami oeuvre has multiplied!
So this is where Murakami began his sensational career: “‘There’s no such thing as perfect writing …’” No lie – that’s the first line of his first novel. In translation anyway. His nameless protagonist (who narrates the trilogy, plus its sequel Dance Dance Dance) confesses a couple pages in, “For me, writing is extremely hard work.” Good thing he keeps at it!
“This story begins on August 8, 1970, and ends eighteen days later, on August 26 of the same year,” Murakami writes as his second chapter. Yup, just that one line for that whole chapter. Over those 18 days, not a whole lot happens, although immediately you just know you’ve entered Murakami territory. By the third page, he’s already made up an off-kilter character – writer Derek Heartfield, a “contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and that crowd,” who commits suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building clutching a portrait of Hitler in one hand, an umbrella in the other! – with such convincing finesse that you can’t help but look him up (he only exists in Murakami’s world).
But back to our young man during that August he is home during a summer break from his Tokyo university. He meets a young woman in a bar and goes home with her – although not for the most obvious reasons. He reminisces about his few past relationships, including a girlfriend who mysteriously committed suicide. He hangs out (often at J’s Bar) with his friend the Rat who’s becoming more and more withdrawn from the world, and is especially disdainful of rich people (of which he would be one). He quotes now and then from his fictional Heartfield, and actually ends the novel with said Heartfield, but not before he’s done a quick fast-forward into his future life (which will turn out to be a teasing preview into A Wild Sheep Chase).
Other glimmers of what will become signature Murakami surface – surprising music playlists, hearing voices, mysterious strangers, tenuous relationships with disappearing women – which makes for quite an enjoyable, albeit brief reading adventure. Is this great literature? Probably not, especially since Murakami goes on to write stupendous tomes in the decades that follow. Still, both prequels prove to be just grand fun as literary history … and give whole new meaning to ‘vintage Murakami’ for sure!
Published: 1987 (English translation published in Japan) Continue reading
Life just seems better with a Haruki Murakami story stuck in my ears … being aurally enticed into the fantabulous absurdity of Murakami’s imagined worlds provides a little instant escape from the sometimes same-old, same-old of my own reality! I do admit to a preference for the animated narrator Rupert Degas (who has thus far read me this, A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and select stories from The Elephant Vanishes), even if he does mispronounce far too many of the Japanese words and names … really, how hard can it be to make one phone call to a Japanese speaker and get a quickie pronunciation lesson? ACK! Don’t get me started!
Back to Dance-ing … and some quick housekeeping details here. Dance is the fourth book starring our (still-) unnamed protagonist. Even though Dance is considered the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, it’s not officially part of the “Trilogy of the Rat” which includes two prequels (Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973) and Sheep. And yes, both Sheep and Dance work as standalone titles, although if you read Sheep first, you’re likely to enjoy Dance more. The jury is still out about the two prequels but I do possess those titles now and have every intention of reading, so stay tuned for future posts.
Picking up about four-and-a-half years after the events of Sheep, our Tokyo-based narrator is drawn back to the same Dolphin Hotel, convinced that his ex-girlfriend – she with the amazing ears who deserted him near the end of their Sapporo chase – is calling from another world for his help. When he arrives, he’s shocked to find a modern, overpriced luxury establishment rather than the ramshackle original. Making inquiries as to the former Dolphin and its owners leads our narrator on yet another Sheepman-chase, this time of magnified proportions that will take our odd-but-mostly good guy across the ocean to a Honolulu office filled with skeletons …
This time, his co-horts include a part-time aquatic hotel receptionist, a 13-year-old girl unexpectedly entrusted to his care, her incredibly neglectful parents – a world-famous genius photographer mother and a bestselling-though-talentless-novelist father who happens to have the name Hiraku Makimura (recognize those mixed-up letters? Murakami sure knows how to laugh at himself!), and a childhood friend who is now a major movie star.
Being on a Murakami binge, I’m having great fun noting some his favorite literary devices: tiny details as Seven Stars cigarettes, endless bottles of Cutty Sark, and toothsome plates of spaghetti, to his wackier penchant for cats, neglected teenage girls with extraordinary powers of perception, walking through walls, navigating pitch-black hallways, dry wells, and of course, the moon. Alas, the ending here didn’t quite do it for me (no spoilers), but that proves a minor detail, as any Murakami adventure is always an unforgettable, escapist, addictive wild ride!
Published: 1994 (United States) Continue reading
Having had early access (not to brag, really!), I’ve been feeling SOOO nostalgic for more of Murakami that I started going back to his earlier titles … and landed back with his first major hit in English translation, the book that started it all. I can’t believe more than two decades have passed since I read this wild, Wild uniquely fantastical odyssey … and, not surprisingly, all those years makes for a very different reading indeed.
Bottom line: yes, it passes the test of time with great ease … sigh of relief and a yippee indeed.
A not-too-dedicated PR/advertising company co-owner has recently lost his wife to his best friend. He’s bored with his career, is a bit of a slacker, finds himself a new girlfriend who’s “nothing special” except when she bares her extraordinary ears. Said slacker gets embroiled in a mysterious hunt for an errant sheep somewhere far away and is given a month to hunt it down. His only clue is a certain photograph sent by a friend-in-hiding named ‘The Rat,’ who disappeared a few years ago although he sends strange missives with impossible-to-read postmarks. In the picture: mountains, 33 sheep, including one with a certain star … thus the chase begins …
Here’s something I didn’t know 20+ years ago … something I learned from Murakami’s running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: Wild is his third novel, and the last in a trio commonly referred to as “Trilogy of the Rat.” The previous two novels, Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980), were translated into English by the same Alfred Birnbaum here, but the translations had rather limited distribution from the Japanese publishing giant Kodansha (unlike Wild which had a major U.S. publisher). Having never read the prequels, I finally ordered both today from a used bookseller.
The “trilogy,” however, is a bit of a misnomer, as Murakami returns to familiar sheep territory in Dance Dance Dance which I also read so many years ago … but intend to re-read, newly re-addicted as I’ve become! So definitely stay tuned for more, more, more.
Published: 1989 (United States) Continue reading
In less than a week, you can be holding 1Q84, Haruki Murakami‘s long-awaited spectacular title finally available in English, which hits shelves on October 25. You might choose to hold out until November 8 when the audible version is scheduled for release. All 944 pages (on paper or recorded) will be well worth the wait, I promise!
If you find you need a few satisfying distractions during this final countdown week, re-discovering Murakami’s earlier tomes might just do the trick, especially when unpredictable moons and ladders that serve as downward portals to other worlds prove to be repeated Murakami-markers. Rediscovering Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle a decade-plus after initial reading has been quite the wide-eyed adventure indeed.
Toru Okada is unemployed with little to do. His wife Kumiko’s job at a magazine is enough for now to keep them comfortable. While he’s playing househusband, he’s also supposed to be on the lookout for their pet cat, Noboru Wataya, named after Kumiko’s brother.
Toru’s search for that cat triggers one surreal occurrence after another, surrounding him with a bevy of “inscrutable women coming out of nowhere,” including a faceless erotic voice on the phone who knows too much, his teenaged truant neighbor May Kasahara who dubs him “Mr. Wind-Up Bird, the enigmatic Malta Kano whose prescient powers are initially enlisted to help find the cat, her sister Creta Kano who is a self-described “prostitute of the mind,” and the mysterious Nutmeg Akasaka who proves to be a dubious, temporary savior of sorts.
Meanwhile, the most important woman in Toru’s life disappears without a trace … while her powerful brother becomes a looming, evil presence that Toru must somehow defeat. An elderly officer literally appears on Toru’s doorstep with an unexpected inheritance, bearing long-ago, inexplicable horror stories of war, death, and destruction, proving once again that no beings are as inhumane as humans. Overwhelmed, Toru seeks refuge in a dried-up well in the abandoned house next-door, which might be the only way into room 208 …
Welcome to another of Murakami’s addictive fantastical worlds, an extreme mix of sometimes brutal reality and escapist journeys where, in spite of the stomach-churning speed, you’ll never want to leave …
Tidbit: If Chronicle seems initially familiar, that’s because the opening chapter of the novel debuted to English-reading audiences in slightly different translation as the first story in Murakami’s 1993 collection, The Elephant Vanishes, titled “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women.” The story was translated by Alfred Birnbaum, the novel by Jay Rubin. The missing cat in Birnbaum’s stort is “Noboru Watanabe,” named after the wife’s brother. Rubin’s absent feline here is “Noboru Wataya,” and also named after the wife’s brother.
Murakami’s Random House website offers a fascinating roundtable discussion about translating Murakami (click on the box marked “Translation” from the main page) – including substantial changes and deletions from the Japanese and American editions (!) – between two of Murakami’s regular translators, Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin, e-chatting with Gary Fisketjon, Murakami’s longtime editor at Knopf. Oh, the many lives (and versions!) of an international publishing phenomenon!
Published: 1997 (United States) Continue reading
No one has such an unpredictable, quirky, downright wacky imagination as Haruki Murakami. And even though your brain knows he’s created an impossible universe, everything on the page seems so convincing, you’ll go along for the ride – any ride with Murakami at the helm.
Even almost 20 years since its initial publication in English translation, Elephant surprises, teases, shocks, and, of course, entertains as if it’s brand new (re-reading Murakami is always highly recommended).
Of the collection’s 17 stories, my personal favorite has to be “The Second Bakery Attack,” which also happens to be the second story (of course). Suffering “unbearable hunger” in the middle of night, a man tells his wife of a youthful “bakery attack” he planned with his friends to stave off their incredible hunger back then; the bungled event turned into an impromptu concert, but the friends did get fed. Inspired, the wife decides the time is right for attack #2, but when they can’t find another bakery in the wee hours, they settle for a sleepy McDonald’s instead.
Among these diverse stories, some seem linked, tracking fragments from the life of a certain male “I” and his experiences – both mundanely domestic and fabulously surreal. One engaging recurrence of note is the name “Noboru Watanabe,” which appears in the first story, “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” as the name of a missing cat, then again in “Family Affair” as the disdained computer engineer fiancé-to-be of the man’s younger sister (who reminds the man of a hated former schoolmate who “had a memory like an elephant”), and – wait for it! – yet again in the title (and final) story as a 63-year-old elephant keeper who vanishes with his pachydermous charge …
A lovelorn little green man, a manipulative dancing dwarf, “reduced” TV People that no one else can see … in Murakami’s uninhibited, volatile, capricious world, anything can happen. And does. Check your rationality. And just come along for the wild ride …
Tidbit: The title story, “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” reappears a few years later as the first chapter of Murakami’s abridged-in-translation-just-for-word-count (!) novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; the cat’s name morphs into Noboru Wataya and, yes, it’s still named after a character of the human variety …
Published: 1993 (United States) Continue reading
At the core of 1Q84 is a spectacular love story about a girl and boy who briefly held hands when they were both 10. That said, with the fiercely imaginative Murakami as author, the story’s exposition is gloriously labyrinthine: Welcome “into this enigma-filled world of 1Q84,” which begins when sports club instructor Aomame exits a taxi and climbs down emergency stairs in order to bypass gridlocked traffic and make her next appointment.
Meanwhile, cram school teacher and wannabe novelist Tengo is in muddled negotiations to secretly rewrite a 17-year-old girl’s fascinating but still raw novella that has the potential to win a top literary prize. A Chekhov-quoting, Proust-sharing ethnic Korean bodyguard; a wealthy widow who shelters abused women; a policewoman with a penchant for wild, anonymous sex; a religious leader who admits to “congress” with prepubescent girls; a comatose father with a traveling spirit; a misshapen disbarred ex-lawyer – these are just some of Murakami’s uniquely signature characters who both hinder and help Aomame and Tengo’s hopeful path toward reunion.
Verdict: Originally published in Japan as three volumes, each of which were instant bestsellers, 1Q84 – perhaps Murakami’s finest – will surely have the same success in its breathlessly anticipated all-in-one English translation. Murakami aficionados will delight in recognizing traces of earlier titles, especially A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, and even Underground.
Published: 2011 (United States) Continue reading
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel
For decades now, Haruki Murakami has been one of my all-time favorite novelists ever; back when my grad-schooled brain was more nimble, I even read a few of his titles in their original Japanese. While this mind has considerably weakened since then, at least the muscles are getting more efficient: now that I’m really, truly, seriously training (!!), Murakami has moved from my bedside to my iPod – and indeed, he makes for a perfect running companion.
Part personal musings, part training log, part peripatetic competition, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – the title borrowed (with permission) from Raymond Carver’s short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – tracks Murakami’s concurrent development as a novelist and as a long-distance runner. Both, according to Murakami, need talent, focus, and endurance.
Written in journal-like entries between August 2005 when he was running under cloudless skies in Kauai, and October 2006 as he was finishing the Murakami City triathlon, the too-short book is perfectly paced with one “did you know that …?’-moment after another. Murakami ran a jazz bar before he literally woke up one day – April 1, 1978 – and thought he could write a novel; three books later (including his phenomenal A Wild Sheep Chase), he decided if he wanted “to have a long life as a novelist,” he’d better quit the 60 cigarettes a day and clean up his act. So he started running.
When he’s out there, he prefers the driving beats of the Lovin’ Spoonful on an MD player, not an iPod. His resting heart rate is just 50 beats per minute, he has to run a good 35 minutes to get it up to 70, and only after he’s run as hard as he can does it approach 100. He trains at about a 6mph rate, and usually runs six days a week. His favorite shoes are Mizuno.
For the past quarter-century-plus, he’s done one marathon a year, although his first-ever was an unofficial on-his-own run from Athens to Marathon (he ran it backwards to avoid the Athens rush hour traffic) in July 1983 while he was writing a magazine article. He’s done one 100K ultramarathon, and he’s never doing another again. His running peaked in his 40s (he was in his late 50s while writing the book), and he’s since added triathlons, although he had to re-learn how to swim (he used to hyperventilate) and biking is his least favorite activity.
“I have no idea whether I can keep this cycle of inefficient activities going forever, ” he muses at book’s end. “But I’ve done it so persistently over such a long time, and without getting terribly sick of it, that I think I’ll try to keep going as long as I can. Long-distance running (more or less, for better or worse) has molded me into the person I am today, and I’m hoping it will remain a part of my life for as long as possible. I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together.” If he could pick his gravestone, he’d like the final line to read, “At Least He Never Walked.”
That can definitely be a lofty, long-term aspiration for me, too! As I completed my 6th week of training with Coach Eric Orton (yes, that Coach Eric!) putting one foot in front of the other towards the Leadville 100 (100 miles before I’m 50, or die trying!), I aptly finished Murakami’s book having achieved my own unofficial baby-step goal of 6mph over exactly 60 minutes. Whoo hoooo! I have to gleefully admit, that was some grand inspiration indeed for the many, many miles ahead.
Published: 2008 (United States) Continue reading