Strangely weird or weirdly strange

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
by Haruki Murakami
translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin

This is another of those books that I kept in my work drawer for months on end to read in the occasional lunch break, meaning that by the time I came to the end of it I’d forgotten the first half. Thankfully it’s short stories, so that’s not a huge problem, but it is a drawback in writing this review.

This wasn’t my favourite Murakami to date. Though it’s not unusual for a Murakami story to be more of a character sketch with no clear storyline, several of these stories felt a bit…nothing. There were also some beautiful, wonderfully weird stories, to be clear.

The impression I got from the introduction was that this is a compilation of Murakami’s earliest published writing and certainly there is no overarching theme or even the same translator throughout. There is, however, a certain pattern to his work. He takes an ordinary Japanese person and explores an event or relationship of significance to their life. Occasionally a story tries to tell a whole lifetime but that felt too stretched. A number of times he introduces the story third-hand, as if this is about a friend of a friend, like that adds some kind of authenticity. I found this a little weak, detracting from the power that opening lines can have; should have. In one story he tries to explain himself:

“I think things took place pretty much as set out…though I might have forgotten some of the details, I distinctly recall the general tone. When you listen to somebody’s story and then try to reproduce it in writing, the tone’s the main thing. Get the tone right and you have a true story on your hands. Maybe some of the facts aren’t quite correct, but that doesn’t matter…Turn this around, and you could say there are stories that are factually accurate yet aren’t true at all.”

Which might make for an interesting essay but as an interjection in the middle of a story, for me it just drags me out of the story’s world, interrupts the imaginative process of reading.

But as I said, there were some good stories here and lots of good writing. Two stories centre around how a person’s name is their identity, which was interesting. In “Nausea 1979” a man gets a phonecall every evening where an anonymous voice just says his name then hangs up. This has such a profound effect on him, physically and emotionally, that he begins to wonder if he has a psychiatric illness, but the university hospital turns him away. The police also aren’t interested: “there are two kinds of crime the police won’t bother with: crank calls and stolen bicycles” (which certainly rings true to me). Throughout the story the main character is unnamed but the narrator is addressed as Mr Murakami.

In the second story about names, “The Shinagawa monkey”, a woman keeps forgetting her own name. She has no other memory trouble but the name thing becomes such a problem that even having a bracelet made with her name on it doesn’t resolve the problem and she turns to a councillor with unusual methods. This woman is named and we learn a lot about her life and her past as she struggles to understand what is happening.

The other theme that comes up time and again – throughout Murakami’s work, not just here – is music, specifically jazz. He often meditates on the pleasure of finding that rare vinyl recording of a certain combination of musicians, or the reasons why this performance of a certain song is better than that one. If a Murakami character is into music it is invariably jazz, as if there is no other kind.

This is not a wide study of Japanese society. The characters are middle class with good jobs (or savings to live off if they lose their job) or are students at university. When they marry, the women often stop working to keep house for their husbands. And I was a little disappointed that the one time there was a gay character, this was made a big fuss of.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this more if my reading had been less disjointed. Or perhaps my reading would have been less disjointed if I’d been enjoying it more.

Most of these stories had been previously published in periodicals, including Harpers and McSweeney’s.
This collection first published 2006 by Harvill Secker.

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