The Rat and the Pinball Machine, paving the way for Murakami’s future?

“If writers only wrote about things everybody knew, what the hell would be the point of writing?”   

 

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 (sometimes referred to as Wind/Pinball) are two novels by Haruki Murakami that were translated from Japanese to English in 2015. Haruki Murakami has been my favorite writer for a while. I have read most of his works and even when I stumble upon one that isn’t especially to my taste, I always find pleasure in reading it. In the introduction, Murakami recounts the events that led him to writing. It would be shortly after graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo that he would marry, opening a jazz bar which he would run with his wife from 1974-1981. In April 1978, he went to a baseball game opposing the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carps when one of the players, Dave Hilton, hit a double and as if he was struck by lightning, Murakami decided that he wanted to write a novel. After that, he spent his nights on the kitchen table at the bar writing and smoking cigarettes. Out of these sleepless nights came Hear the Wind Sing. With one copy of the draft, Murakami entered the only literary contest that would accept a work of that length. He won first prize.

 

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, as I mentioned, are two separate novels. Nevertheless, they are published in a single volume narrating the story of the same unnamed characters. A third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, written later is the last part of what is commonly called “The Trilogy of the Rat.” The narrator is an unnamed male who appears to be the same character in both plots. In Hear the Wind Sing, he is back from college for the summer and spends his days with his friend, “the Rat”. He contemplates life, sleeps with a mysterious woman and thinks about sex. Sometimes he meets the Rat, who is depressed and drinks beers at J’s Bar. In Pinball, 1973, the unnamed protagonist works for his own translation company, has sex with twins and becomes obsessed with a pinball machine. Meanwhile, the Rat still depressed, continues drinking beer at J’s Bar.

 

One of the more interesting aspects of Murakami’s work is his style, particularly the Kafkaesque banality. There is no developmental narrative in the traditional sense. We simply follow the thoughts of a mysterious narrator through seemingly mundane events. What makes Murakami unique is the way his presentation of these happenings. Most of them are absurd or obscure. With no names, there rests an air of distance and alienation from others. The twins with whom the narrator sleeps are, for instance, differentiated by numbers on their sweatshirts, 208 and 209. We don’t know how they entered the narrator’s life (neither does the protagonist, they seemingly appear in his apartment). Who they are? Why are they there? What do they do with their lives? There is no answer. But Murakami effortlessly makes this seem a natural.

Famous for his agile navigation between Japanese and Western literature, Murakami’s novels appeal to world-wide audience. His books are filled with references to European literature, namely in the titles of two of his main works 1Q84 (2009) a clear reference to Orwell’s masterpiece and Norwegian Wood (1987) referencing the Beatles. Before writing himself, Murakami translated many works from English to Japanese which led him to the influence of writers such as Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald or even Truman Capote. His writings deal with alienation, the characters often seem absent from their social surroundings. They often have a few people around them with whom they interact daily but otherwise they seem to be completely isolated from the rest of the world. When reading Hear the Wind Sing/ Pinball, 1973, the reader is trapped in the narrator’s thoughts. When Murakami notes that “looking at the ocean makes me miss people, and hanging out with people makes me miss the ocean”, I feel every word of the sentence. As if I was the narrator. I was staring at the ocean and missing people in the comfort of my bedroom. He has a way with words that few writers have and this book is a proof of that.

I must admit these two novels are not my favorite. In some parts it was rather slow and, consequently, not very engaging. I had to force myself to pick it up a few times. However, once you are into the story, it’s not a hard read and quite an enjoyable experience. Having not read Murakami for a few months, this book evoked the feeling I hoped it would. It made me fall in love with his writing all over again. As a first piece, it was clearly written by a talented author. Quality wise, it’s impressive and paved the way for the great novels that followed. If you’re a fan of Murakami, you won’t be disappointed, and I recommend giving it a read. However, if you have never read Murakami I would not start with this book and I would recommend you start with something like Norwegian Wood (1987) or Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013).  Murakami’s novels are a whole new world in which all his stories fit, and his writing makes unimaginable things seem as if they reflect readers’ experiences. That is why I love Murakami so much.

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