Murakami’s Origin Story Is on Display in Wind/Pinball

Wind/Pinball, by Haruki Murakami, contains new translations of the acclaimed Japanese writer’s first two short novels, Hear the Wind Sing, originally published in 1979, and Pinball, 1973, first published in 1980. Both were translated into English in the mid-1980s, but those editions were created for Japanese students learning English, and never widely distributed outside of Japan. Copies have been hard to come by for Western readers. Many Murakami fans consider it an accomplishment to have read either work, let alone to own them both.

So devotees will be thrilled to get their hands on the new translations, out today, which are essential components of the author’s origin story. Here are his first published reflections on the big themes—isolation, sex, music—and the minutiae of daily life—cats, alcohol, people with missing fingers—that make his writing so distinct. Also notable, both novellas are precursors to A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance, later full-length works that were widely distributed in English outside of Japan.

On a technical level, serious readers of Murakami will appreciate insights into the process of how he developed as a writer. In a thoughtful introduction, the author discusses how he developed his unique style while drafting these first two books, which he refers to fondly as his “kitchen-table novels” because they were written at his kitchen table, mostly late at night after long days working in the bar he and his wife owned. Also illuminating are reflections on the art of storytelling scattered throughout the novellas. Readers familiar with the later books will surely recognize the seed of Murakami’s surrealist leanings when a character in Wind comments, “What would be the point of writing a novel about things everyone already knows?”

But what about readers not familiar with Murakami who come across these books on the “New Releases” shelf? Do these works stand on their own as worthwhile reads? To be sure, these early stories don’t possess all the sophistication and verve of Murakami’s later works. But remember that Wind , as we learn in the intro, won a literary prize, and it’s evident why the judges recognized the spark of true talent in the young Murakami. The things readers connect with in his later works are found in both of these stories.

One of the chief allures of Murakami’s writing is his ability to offer profound meaning with a light touch. In Wind, the narrator describes his grandmother’s death: “The night she died, the first thing I did was reach out and gently close her eyes. And in that moment, all the dreams she’d seen in her seventy-nine years vanished without a sound (poof!), like a summer shower on hot pavement. Nothing left.” In Pinball, the narrator ponders: “Each of us had all the troubles we could carry. They rained down on us from the sky, and we raced around in a frenzy to pick them up and stuff them in our pockets. Why we did that stumps me, even now. Maybe we thought they were something else.”

Then there’s Murakami’s way with imagery. I was especially taken by his description of a character who feels disconnected from the simple pleasures of life, such as the smell of the ocean, a train whistle, or the feel of a girl’s skin. “[N]one of these were the way they once had been,” he writes; “they were all somehow off, as if copied with tracing paper that kept slipping out of place.” And, what would Murakami be without pointed reflections on human frailty? “Lies are terrible things,” he writes in Wind. “One could say that the greatest sins afflicting modern society are the proliferation of lies and silence. We lie through our teeth, then swallow our tongues.”

In Murakami’s later work 1Q84, he describes an aspiring novelist’s first foray into writing as failing in a literary sense but succeeding “in acquiring the power to appeal directly to the heart.” Wind and Pinball easily reach that emotional bar, which many readers consider the higher hurdle.

Newcomers who fall under Murakami’s spell from reading these two stories are fortunate to have an opportunity that most of his English-speaking fans have never had: to read his body of work in chronological order from the beginning, and to experience, first-hand, his evolution as a writer. For the legion of readers who already love him, these early novels, along with Murakami’s introduction to them, are the next best thing to having an intimate conversation with the author about his writing, what makes it work, and what draws so many back time and time again.

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