Book Review - Wind / Pinball

“In that instant, for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think can write a novel,” writes Haruki Murakami in the introduction to his latest book Wind / Pinball, a double-feature of his first two novels: Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973.

In the United States, most casual fans will associate A Wild Sheep Chase as Murakami’s first novel. If his introduction is any indication, Murakami feels the same way, saying he considers that book to be: “the true beginning of my career as a novelist.” In regards to his first two works, he affectionately calls them his “kitchen-table novels,” having written them late at night after long days working at his Jazz bar.

The original translations were done by Alfred Birnbaum in the mid-eighties and published for English learners in Japan, and it is only now, more than thirty years later, that English-speaking audiences can easily experience Murakami’s two earliest works. Readers can thank Ted Goossen for the new translation, which reads like vintage Murakami, even if it is an earlier version of himself.

The introduction by Murakami is a must read for fans and aspiring writers, since it provides useful insight on how a person goes from believing he can write a novel to completing one six months later. Two things stand out. First, his diligence: writing night after night in his kitchen with no motivation other than serendipity. And second, his intuition. Here is how Murakami describes his approach to writing his first novel:

Forget all those prescriptive ideas about “the novel” and “literature” and set down your feelings and thoughts as they come to you, freely, in a way that you like.

This philosophy can be seen throughout these two early works. For instance, Hear the Wind Sing, starts with the narrator talking about storytelling and writing. At one point he says, “All the same, writing honestly is very difficult. The more I try to be honest, the farther my words sink into darkness.” It’s hard not to feel like Murakami’s jotting down his thoughts, pondering how to start his story. The narrator even says, “Now I think it’s time to tell my story.”

Pinball, 1973, the sequel to Hear the Wind Sing, starts much the same way, with an authorial throat-clearing of sorts. This time the narrator opens with how he spent ten years asking strangers where they were born and raised. The stories from a person born on Saturn and another on Venus are the most memorable to the narrator, to which he says, “Anyway, I just love stories about faraway towns.” Once again the narrator feels it necessary to explicitly start the story. This time he says, “This story is about ‘me,’ but it’s also about a guy they call ‘Rat.’” And later, after a digression about the birth of pinball, he says, “This is a novel about pinball.”

At times these two short novels feel like a series of loosely connected vignettes or an extended slice-of-life story. Yet, despite this lack of plot, Murakami makes things work. Even though the aimless narrator never tells the reader what’s bugging him, it’s easy to read between the lines. This sense of heartache that pervades Hear the Wind Sing is what holds the novel together.

Pinball, 1973 is more of the same, but more ambitious narrative-wise. The Rat and the narrator are now living four hundred miles apart, yet both their stories are told in parallel. Here, also, readers get a preview of the surreal and supernatural side of Murakami’s fiction. For example, the narrator finds two identical female twins sleeping in his bed one morning and ends up hanging out with them as if it’s perfectly normal. Finally, the reader gets a brief glimpse of a more focused, plot-driven story when the narrator goes on a quest to find a pinball machine.

Although it’s hard to ignore the existing Murakami canon, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 can stand on their own just fine. They are fun, energetic and humorous novels with an undercurrent of loneliness and heartache that will no doubt connect with many readers.