Wind / Pinball - Haruki Murakami

Although English translations of Haruki Murakami's two earliest short novels have been made available in now rare Japanese editions, these new approved translations of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are the first time the works have been published in the UK and USA. Despite the author never previously wanting the books to be made officially made available outside of Japan, both early novels are good examples of Murakami's distinctive voice, a voice that is admittedly more obvious in Japanese, but clearly something must come through in the English translations as well.

The author muses on how this 'voice' was developed in the introduction to Wind / Pinball. Having worked as a translator for a while (an occupation that is important to Pinball, 1973), Murakami hit on a style of writing his books in English first and then 'translating' them into Japanese. The distict rhythm of this style does come through and is obviously what is important to a translator working on his books, but there is more to the Murakami style than that, the author riffing on themes and familiar devices like a jazz musician (it's not rare to see those appear in his books either), all of it spiced up with pop-culture references and a 'cool' style of writing that was far from the 'literary' language adopted by most Japanese authors.

Although some see that style as having descended into almost self-parody, the unsettling riffs and themes are never fresher than they are in these two early works. In Hear the Wind Sing you can see Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase dying to get out, with Pinball, 1973 showing a little more of the ambition of those early works developing into something like The WInd-Up Bird Chronicle. We are still far from those works however at this stage, both novels seemingly rather slim and insubstantial. To use a metaphor that the narrator of Pinball comes up with when talking about dropping a pebble down a well (one of the most powerful images that recur throughout Murakami's books), these two novels are like small splashes that only give a hint of the depths beneath.

If you want to try to sum up in a 'splash' what both books are about, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are meditations by a sensitive narrator on periods that kind of mark the end of an era, the writing down of those experiences of moments of transition seeming to hold the key to some great mystery about reality that eludes us or remains just out of grasp. It's not a particularly original field within youth literature - Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye or Franny and Zooey being some of the greatest examples of this theme - but Murakami likewise has a distinctive voice and manner that gives his rather laid-back conflicted characters something more of an edge.

In Hear the Wind Sing the surface of the well is that of the narrator effortlessly shooting the breeze one summer at J's bar, hanging out with his friend, the Rat, drinking beer, smoking and listening to music during the summer before he has to return to university in the autumn. There's a reflectiveness to the piece however and odd incidents that suggest that there's something deeper going on here. The large amount of references to America (Kennedy, 'California Girls', memories of US bombers) could just be a modern un-Japanese affectation, but it does suggest that there are other layers beneath the surface reality. These also come though in the book's references to a fictional SF writer called Derek Hartfield.

Pinball, 1973 is another summer novel, a sequel to Hear the Wind Sing, and a prequel to A Wild Sheep Chase (although I find it's more intriguing to discover more about the Rat in these early works after you've read A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance). Pinball, 1973 however is a little more ambitious than Murakami's first writing project. It's "a novel about Pinball" only nominally, if you take into account the author's own relection on the invention of pinball as giving birth to the "metaphysical concept of 'sequence'" and having an "occult-like power" where analysis is not as important as the diminuition of the ego into "all-embracing acceptance".

Having laid-out this idea, Pinball, 1973 does however follow a familiar path and themes found in the earlier work. The narrator has now finished university in Tokyo and has started up a translation service, spending his evenings in a very unconventional relationship with two twins who have no names, reflecting on enigmatic girls he has been with in the past and the ephemeral intangibility of things. The Rat, also in a complicated relationship with a mysterious woman, is meanwhile growing increasingly detached from the world without there being any one specific event that leads him to where he goes (see A Wild Sheep Chase).

Seemingly slight, there is nonetheless a captivating rhythm and sense of melancholy to these two early Murakami short novels, as well as a sense of the potential that is in the works to come. The two new translations by Ted Goossen don't really alter the qualities that were already there in the Alfred Birnbaum translations, but they are undoubtedly closer to the rhythm and intent of Murakami's sparse, short, direct style. A brief comparison however shows no substantial differences, Goossen gaining in some respects, but losing the easy flow of Birnbaum's freer translations.

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