Thursday, February 16, 2006

Rat tale

Hear the Wind Sing, by Haruki Murakami (1979)

"Why do you read books?"
"Why do you drink beer?"

This week, I crossed a line. I am no longer just a casual Murakami fanboy who does half-assed things like naming a blog after a quotation from Dance Dance Dance. This week I went onto ebay and ordered a copy of Murakami's first novel, which has never been published outside Japan. God, it felt good, reading this bonsai volume on the Tube, dressed in black, stroking my chin, looking slightly wistful, glad I'd just had my hair cut with appropriate puritan severity.

The legend goes that Murakami was inspired to write fiction at a baseball game, and he knocked this off in a matter of weeks. It's a short, rather formless text, in which an unnamed narrator reflects on his various loves, drinks beer in J's bar, and gets slightly existential with his buddy The Rat. In this way, it forms a thematic whole with the other components of the so-called Rat Trilogy, Pinball 1973 (even harder to get hold of, it would seem) and A Wild Sheep Chase.

As with so many first novels, it's writing about writing. The twist is that it's The Rat, not the narrator, who makes a success of words. The central figure becomes bogged down in analysing the life story of a fictitious author Derek Heartfield, who in 1938 jumped off the Empire State Building carrying an open umbrella. The unspoken irony is that Heartfield sounds like a complete git, and his breathless sci-fi sounds even worse.

Already, many of Murakami's running obsessions are in place. It's a tale of lost, adolescent love, recalled from a position of bourgeois matrimony, as in South of the Border, West of the Sun. There's a physically damaged girl, missing a finger in this case, rather than the limping girl of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There's a suicidal girlfriend (see Norwegian Wood). And his characters, as ever, seem resolutely un-Japanese in their tastes, listening to the Beach Boys and Miles Davis and Beethoven, and eating coldcuts and drinking bourbon. A couple of them even watch The Bridge On The River Kwai, which can't be much fun for Japanese viewers, surely? The only shock for Harukiphiles appears on page 117, when a character refuses a handjob - I think the first and only time this happens in his fictional universe.

It's a slight tale, between appropriately flimsy covers. The translation, by the usually reliable Alfred Birnbaum, occasionally strains for hip American idiom, and ends up sounding like a desperately bourgeois bank manager trying to pull in a hippy commune. The recurring voice of a radio DJ is a particularly grating example. This may be because the intended audience is Japanese learners of English, rather than gaijin readers.

"That's why, seeing as how this cool head would otherwise doze right off into the sludge of time, I keep spurring myself on with beer and cigarettes to write these pages. I take lots of hot showers, shave twice a day, listen to old records over and over again."

So, a minor disappointment, but necessary to see where Haruki-san is really coming from. Now I've just got to track down Pinball 1973 and then I really will be a sad case. But that's crossing another line.



pdf version of pinball:

Ed said...

Thank you so much!!!!!!