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Onyx reviews: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/25/2015

According to the version of events presented in the illuminating foreword to this collection, Haruki Murkami was watching a baseball game one day when he was suddenly struck by the notion that he should write a novel. And so he did, during down moments while he and his wife ran a jazz club in Tokyo. He submitted the only existing copy of the novel—a novella, really, clocking in at about 75 pages—to a literary competition and promptly forgot about it. If it hadn't taken first place, "Hear the Wind Sing" would have vanished into obscurity. Having completed the work, he was not inspired to write another. Until he found out he's won, that is.

This new collection packages Murakami's two earliest works, which have not been widely available in English before and are presented in new translations. In his introduction, Murakami reveals that he struggled to find his literary voice until he decided to write the opening passages of "Wind" in English. His limited vocabulary and reliance upon very simple sentence structure created a unique rhythm, that he then attempted to replicate when he converted the text into Japanese.

The unifying element between these two stories is a secondary character called Rat who also appears in the novel A Wild Sheep Chase. He is the rather enigmatic friend of the protagonist of "Wind," a man with women troubles and a generally pessimistic outlook on life. In "Pinball, 1973," he is a parallel protagonist in one of two seemingly unrelated story lines. Though the narrator of the second story claims the tale is about pinball, and a specific pinball machine enters the plot late in the game, "Pinball" is more akin to ping-pong, as it oscillates back and forth between these unconnected narratives.

Not much of note happens in either story. The narrator of "Wind" collects records, spends time in a local bar and has a romantic relationship with a woman who is missing a finger. Their relationship has a rocky beginning—he found her unconscious in a night club and took her home, so she's suspicious of his motivations—but they gradually grow close.

The follow-up novella may feature the same narrator, though there's nothing explicit to connect them other than Rat. In this story, twin women move in with the narrator (out of the blue) and cater to his every need. They are so interchangeable that he can only tell them apart by the numbers on the jerseys they wear all the time—except they admit to switching shirts back and forth. Rat is perplexed and upset about the ending of a relationship and suffering existential angst.

There is something off-kilter about the worlds in which these characters live, though it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what that is. A sense of the impermanent and transcendental nature of existence. This is a sense that permeates Murakami's later novels, so it is interesting to see its genesis in these otherwise unremarkable stories. There are other Murakami hallmarks: a fascination with wells, and odd little vignettes involving trips to odd locations with the expectation of having a significant experience that is ultimately disappointing, for example.

Releasing early, primitive works might be risky or ill advised. These two tyro novellas do not stand up well against subsequent works, but they are an interesting look under the hood at the nascent author, who toiled away at the kitchen table as he struggled to find his voice and his vision. For that alone they will be of interest, especially to Murakami scholars.

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