Full disclosure: I read Hear the Wind Sing, the first of Haruki Murakami’s novels here bound up with its successor Pinball 1973, a goodly number of years ago in a small, pocket-sized edition you could buy in translation at the time. Even fuller disclosure: I wasn’t at the time all that blown away with it. If truth be told, I started reading Murakami at Norwegian Wood, and I’ve read everything since – and now everything previous. If you were to ask me, I’d say that Murakami, in my humble not worth very much I’m sure opinion, took a little while to hit his stride. I’m not a huge fan of any of his books up until the aforementioned Norwegian Wood. So we’re talking about A Wild Sheep Chase, South of the Border, West of the Sun, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Elephant Vanishes and Dance, Dance, Dance. None of them are bad books, by any means, and all of them are certainly interesting to anyone who considers themselves a fan – but they don’t have that snap that his later books do (and even among his later books there are novels that are not quite up to the best – I’m thinking maybe Kafka on the Shore or Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – but those later books still operate at a higher level to the earlier books. When Murakami is good, these days, he’s great; that wasn’t always the case.
And so to Wind/Pinball (an abbreviation I don’t entirely get – by all means, take a leaf from William Trevor’s book(s) and call this Two Novels – but don’t abbreviate the titles – it’s plain odd) – or Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 to call then as they should be called. Hear the Wind Sing comes first, a slight tale, the first line of which – ‘There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing’ – eases you in, sharing with you the nervousness you imagine Murakami felt as he tried his hand at writing that first time. (There’s also a strong intro from Murakami, written in 2014, looking back on both of these books, in which he recalls them fondly but also lets you know that he doesn’t consider them ‘proper’ books – his career truly began with A Wild Sheep Chase he tells us). Hear the Wind Sing concerns 18 days in 1970. Two guys, a narrator and his friend Rat, go to a bar a lot, shoot the shit, drink, have romances that don’t come to all that much, swear to split for points north and then pretty much remain where they are. The criticism levelled at Seinfeld could just as easily be levelled here: nothing much happens. Unlike Seinfeld, however, Hear the Wind Sing feels fledgling – albeit fledgling with the knowledge not to stick around too long and overstay its welcome.
Pinball 1973 is both better and worse. Better because we start to see glimpses of what I would say were the strengths of Murakami’s writing, such as in the below, where the Rat is describing how a new romance feels:
“Little by little, something was getting through. His long-forgotten gentler, sweeter side seemed to expand each time he thought of her slender arms wrapped around his body.”
You also get to glimpse the Lloyd-Cole like way in which Murakami starts to feel out cultural references:
“All the while the rain continued to fall on the reservoir. It made very little noise. About as much as if you dropped shredded newspaper on a thick carpet. The kind of rain you find in a Claude Lelouch film.”
You can also see (quite palpably in Pinball 1973) the themes and images that interest Murakami, the nascent outline of better books taking shape:
“Looking back, it was as if I spent the next six months living at the bottom of a dark hole. I dug a hole just my size in the middle of a meadow, squeezed myself in, and blocked my ears to all sound. Nothing outside held the slightest appeal.”
Worse because Murakami still can’t get to grips with the curious absences that form a large part of his work:
“Sighing, I sat up and glared at the white wall opposite the bed. I was stymied. Come on man, I told myself, you can’t stare at this damn wall forever. But that didn’t help either.”
There are also times when you can feel Murakami’s disappointment with the limits of his ability:
“A pickle jar full of ants counts more than you… Screw these stupid metaphors! They don’t help a damn bit. Think you slipped up somewhere. Where? Try to remember… How the hell can I?”
It’s also a bit more random than Hear the Wind Sing (do the books share the same narrator? I think – no, but sometimes it could be yes) and the randomness alienates the reader because you think – why should I care? Sometimes reading Wind/Pinball, it’s hard to care.
All told then, undoubtedly of interest to Murakami’s legions of fans – and hopefully readers will reach the end of each feeling much as Murakami himself does about them:
“They are totally irreplaceable, much like old friends from long ago. It seems unlikely that we will ever get together again, but I will never forget their friendship. They were a crucial, precious presence in my life back then. They warmed my heart, and encouraged me on my way.”
Any Cop?: Not vintage Murakami then (even as they are, of course, the most vintage of Murakami’s works).