I’ve never read a Haruki Murakami novel I didn’t like. There seems to be a recipe Murakami uses for his work that he simply never throws away. Opening one of his books allows the ingredients to spill out, little by little. He will often include a nameless narrator, a cast of nameless (but far from anonymous) secondary characters, dismissive but intriguing descriptions of food preparation, missing or misshapen body parts, cats, suicide, dialogue that is quirky at best, a love of jazz and philosophy, alienation, loss, and loneliness, all wrapped up in plot lines that are oddly out of sync with reality.
As much a fan as I’ve always been, I’d never read his earliest works – the first two novels of what would come to be known as “The Rat Trilogy” (named for one of the (arguably) secondary characters). My opportunity to devour these two books, “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973” under a single cover came with the recent (August 2015) repackaging entitled “Wind/Pinball: Two Novels.”
The action in each is subdued. In fact, trying to find more than the bones of a plot would be somewhat difficult. It’s not the bones that you admire about Murakami’s stories, but the embroidered jackets and beautifully stitched trousers he uses to dress them up in. This time, there’s a hat thrown in, in the form of a preface that Murakami wrote specially for this publication, spelling out how and why he felt driven to write his first novel, and what took him further into his writing career. By itself, it’s a wonderful essay.
At first glance, the early-20s unnamed narrator in these two novels seems to be telling us about his relationships, either with women (in “Wind,” his relationships are awkward at best, deadly at worst, whereas in “Pinball” he spends much of his nocturnal hours with a pair of unnamed twins with whom he woke up one morning and who decided to not leave) or with his antisocial alcoholic friend, known as the Rat. But the novels reach far deeper than relationships; the women and friend serve nicely as the narrator’s sounding board for his philosophical banter, all wittily written and never as dry as Doc’s making it sound.
“Pinball” offers a semblance of a plot, the narrator’s desire to track down a beloved pinball machine that he whiled away the hours playing as a student. But as much as it is the primary plot, it is almost treated as a subplot to the narrator’s relationship with coworkers in his translation office and his relationship with the twins. Murakami even has a bit of fun with the absence of names for his characters – at one point, the narrator sees the identically-matching twins in nearly-matching cardigans which have the numbers 208 and 209 – he is happy to see he will finally be able to tell them apart, and refers to them as 208 and 209. When the women realize his ploy, they simply swap sweaters.
“Pinball” also offers us a better look into the Rat’s life in alternating chapters which reveal, from a third person point of view, Rat’s own failed attempts at forging a serious relationship, his seeming aloofness to a casual observer, and the true depths to which his yearning for affection strives, through dialogues with J., the Chinese bartender at the Rat’s favorite watering hole. At one point, I tried to convince myself that the Rat was actually the main character in this book, and that “Pinball” refers to him, glancing off of the bumpers of life like a pinball, being tossed back into the game by flippers controlled by an unknown force. That’s one of the problems with Murakami, though – I often try to figure out what it really means, instead of simply sitting back and bathing in the beauty of the writing. It’s really that good.
I can’t talk about a foreign language book (or pair of books) without acknowledging the translator. Professor Ted Goossen of York University, who at the time of this writing has yet to have his own Wikipedia page built, did a very nice job with this work. Always odd for me to be able to say something like that without knowing a thing about the source language, but I know a thing or two about translation, and when I can read what I believe is the author’s voice through the filter of a translator, I know I’m reading quality stuff. Doc offers a true tip of the hat to Prof. Goossen. I look forward to reading your other material, Prof.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being absolute crap, and 10 being the bee’s knees, Doc gives this nice re-issue a solid “A”.