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English translation widens reach of Haruki Murakami’s earliest novels

Haruki Murakami prefaces “Wind/Pinball” – a new English translation of his first two novels – with a startling revelation.

This is not the surreal and oft-told tale of how Murakami’s wish to write fiction was born (although that is here too) but the even more extraordinary way in which the Japanese author, after much trial and error but slight success, found his literary voice.

“As an experiment,” he tells us, “I decided to write the opening of my novel in English. Since I was willing to try anything, I figured, why not give that a shot? Needless to say, my ability in English composition didn’t amount to much. My vocabulary was severely limited, as was my command of English syntax …

“The language had to be simple, my ideas expressed in an easy-to-understand way, the descriptions stripped of all extraneous fat, the form made compact … The result was a rough, uncultivated kind of prose. As I struggled to express myself in that fashion, however, step by step, a distinctive rhythm began to take shape …”

Then, Murakami recounts, “I sat down and ‘translated’ that chapter or so that I had written in English into Japanese … In the process, inevitably, a new style of Japanese emerged. The style that would be mine. A style I myself had discovered. Now I get it, I thought. This is how I should be doing it.”

Indeed. “Hear the Wind Sing,” written nights at Murakami’s kitchen table, won Best First Novel from the Japanese literary journal Gunzo. The year was 1979 and Murakami, co-owner with his wife of a jazz bar in Tokyo, was 30 years old.

“I had sent (Gunzo) my only copy,” he recalls in his new introduction to the cleverly named “Wind/Pinball.” “If (Gunzo) hadn’t selected it, it probably would have vanished forever. Most likely too, I would never have written another novel. Life is strange.”

One could say that much of Murakami’s work is strange, in the best sense of that layered word, and his first two (novella-length) novels are no exception. Translated here from the Japanese – by Ted Goossen of Toronto’s York University – the first, “Hear the Wind Sing,” is the story of late summer 1970 in the life of two young men, one its unnamed narrator, the other called, simply, “the Rat.”

“How’d you get a name like that?” our narrator asks. “Don’t remember,” the Rat replies. “Happened a long time ago. It bugged me at first, but not anymore. A guy can get used to anything.”

Unnamed (as I call him) is interested in writing – which he both loves and finds painful. “Ascribing meaning to life is a piece of cake compared to actually living it,” he says. The Rat, who is both rich and “a virtual stranger to books,” prefers drinking beer.

“The last book I read was last summer,” the Rat recalls. “Can’t remember the title or the author’s name. Forget why I read it, too …”

Unnamed and the Rat talk this way week after week, on break from their university, drinking beer at J’s Bar. Offhand, often deep and always somehow “real” – theirs is a friendship that flourishes in the void between boyhood and manhood.

Unnamed remembers girls he has slept with before starting up with another. The Rat – who will figure in Murakami’s canon as the force behind “the trilogy of the Rat” – only grows more alienated, his thinking deeper all the time. The last words said between them, at summer’s end, will have to do with Unnamed claiming that “no one’s Superman … If you catch on to that early enough, you can try to make yourself stronger, even if only a little …”

“In all honesty,” asks the Rat, “do you believe what you just said?”

“Pinball, 1973” is the second novel in “Wind/Pinball” – the perfect companion to “Hear the Wind Sing” (as the Rat is the perfect companion to our unnamed narrator).

Here the Rat’s form of skepticism plays alongside Unnamed’s relative contentment once again – the Rat still drinking his life away at J’s Bar while Unnamed, now a principal in a translation business, sleeps with twins. Metaphor continues to be all as both Unnamed and the Rat, now living 400 miles apart, enter early adulthood.

Unnamed is in search of the Spaceship pinball machine of his days with the Rat at J’s Bar – days when it was more the Rat’s game than Unnamed’s.

“The three-flipper Spaceship … her voice was calling me from somewhere,” Unnamed says. “It went on like that day after day.”

Eventually, the Spaceship is located. “Some call it the machine of misfortune,” Unnamed is told. In a place that “looks like the edge of the world,” he gets to see it: “The three-flipper Spaceship was waiting for me at the end of the line. She stood there, a picture of serenity, sandwiched between her gaudy sisters. She could have been seated on a flat stone in a forest clearing. I stood before her, gazing with fondness at her familiar board …”

Meanwhile, the Rat – although now trying his hand at novel writing – is stuck in time, still drinking at J’s Bar. He and Unnamed do not meet again in “Pinball.” Instead, they alternate chapters, Unnamed in the first person, the Rat (fittingly) in the third:

“Occasionally, ripples of emotion would lap against (the Rat’s) heart, as if to remind him of something. When that happened, he closed his eyes, clamped his heart shut, and waited for the emotions to recede … Once the ripples had passed, the quiet calm returned as if nothing untoward had ever taken place.”

There is a profundity in these novels that is both laced with humor and left open to the elements, lest we miss any bit of it. There are dark moments – spectres of death, of illness, of aging – and light moments, particularly those engendered by Unnamed’s sleep-in twins.

Known as “208” and “209,” the ever-pleasant twins arrive mysteriously, do everything in tandem – including the ceremonial burial of a beloved switchboard – then, at “Wind’s” denouement, simply move on.

J the bartender takes on a greater role as the books progress, showing himself as an older, wise, hardworking Chinese national without whom the Rat, in his more nihilist days, would not survive.

There are themes here – of universality, isolation, fixation and the delightfully bizarre – that will play out time and again in Murakami’s future work.

“Norwegian Wood,” probably the best-known of his novels to American readers, features an emotionally unstable woman named Naoko who may well be based on the odd young Naoko of “Wind/Pinball.” (My own Murakami favorite is a short story, “The Elephant Vanishes,” which appeared in the New Yorker in 1991.)

Publication of “Wind/Pinball” marks the first time Murakami’s initial novels have been widely available in English. It is said that he balked at the idea of their being circulated in English now, more than 35 years into an award-winning career that has placed him among the most influential writers of his generation.

His first full-length novel, “A Wild Sheep Chase,” was, he says, “the true beginning of my career as a novelist.”

We, Murakami’s readers, may beg to differ: “Wind/Pinball” is a very fine beginning indeed!

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.

Wind/Pinball

By Haruki Murakami

Knopf

234 pages, $25.95