Murakami in the making: how his early novels shaped the author

In a foreword to the recent publication of his two earliest novels, recently made available in a good English translation for the first time, Haruki Murakami says that the novel that followed them, A Wild Sheep Chase, was “the true beginning of my career as a novelist.” Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980) were his practice novels, his apprenticeship, the groundwork that had to be laid before he could make a true beginning. Murakami calls them “totally irreplaceable,” yet he has also said that if he had continued writing novels like these, “I would have soon hit a dead end.” He looks back on Wind and Pinball “with love mingled with a bit of embarrassment”; they were indispensable to his becoming a writer, and yet if he had not transcended them, he would not have been able to keep on writing. 

Both Wind and Pinball revolve around the same nameless narrator-protagonist and his friend, known as the Rat. The narrator and the Rat both want to write: the narrator manages to produce the two short books we hold in our hands, and the Rat, who starts out “a virtual stranger to books,” ends up churning out multiple novels. So Wind and Pinball are books about trying to write. What’s fascinating about these novels, to a reader of Murakami’s subsequent work, is that in them we can see the now world-famous writer gradually working his way to his “true beginning.”

Murakami became a literary superstar with the publication of Norwegian Wood in 1987—an outcome he himself never foresaw—and his immense popularity has not flagged since. Readers outside Japan might see his work as deeply Japanese, yet to the Japanese literary establishment he is anything but; his fiction occupies a cultural space of its own. It takes place in a world of profound aloneness where hope nevertheless resides in the possibility of love. Magical, unexplainable things tend to happen to utterly ordinary people, leading to quests and ordeals that end with much unresolved. Each individual’s existence as an autonomous being must constantly be re-affirmed through the story one tells oneself, and the greatest danger is the possibility of losing one’s personal narrative and becoming completely empty inside. Perhaps this latter aspect of Murakami’s vision is what resonates so widely today, when manipulative imagery on ubiquitous screens not only invades but threatens to replace inner life. Whatever the ultimate reason for Murakami’s popularity, his books have been translated into over 40 languages and he may well be the most widely read living author whose work is not written in English.

The narrator of Murakami’s first two novels is a nameless would-be writer whose main literary influence is someone named Derek Hartfield. Supposedly a contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Hartfield was a massively prolific failure who produced reams of futile sub-literature, “sterile in the full sense of the word,” and then committed suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building, “clutching a portrait of Adolf Hitler in his right hand and an open umbrella in his left.” It’s hard to imagine a less desirable role model for a writer, but the narrator says he’s learned almost everything he knows from Hartfield, whose credo of good writing he quotes: “Writing is, in effect, the act of verifying the distance between us and the things surrounding us. What we need is not sensitivity but a measuring stick.”

The narrator lives in a personal isolation booth and connects with only two people, perhaps three: his friend the Rat; J, the owner of their favorite bar; and perhaps, very tentatively, a girl who has nine fingers and almost becomes his lover before disappearing from his life forever.

The protagonist is stubbornly determined; he admires Derek Hartfield for having been a “fighter,” and as disillusioned as he undoubtedly is, there remains some fight in him as well. He needs that fight to survive the act of writing, which, as Murakami has said, “is an unhealthy type of work.” In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his memoir-essay on obsessions physical and mental, he puts it this way:
When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place.
Comparing writing to the problem of eating a fugu fish, where “the tastiest part is the portion near the poison,” Murakami explains that “those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within.”

In that book, Murakami never names the toxin. He leaves the question hanging: what is this inexorable, potentially fatal force that he had no choice but to deal with? Wind and Pinball leave no doubt: the toxin is despair. These are the first lines of Murakami’s first novel: “There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. Just as there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” From the start, it’s a given that writing and despair are parallel; what’s true of one must be true of the other. Despair suffuses the plot, or lack of it, in these first two books, in which aimless and alienated young men brood over how to escape their lives of stagnation. Murakami’s later novels have far more urgency, and a great deal more plot; the dangerous quests that propel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 bear no resemblance to the almost directionless rumination of Hear the Wind Sing. The characters in his major novels are not mired in the kind of aimless passivity we see in Wind and Pinball. As fatalistic as the later protagonists may be, they still take action, knowing that what they are committing to could be a matter of life and death.

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