Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami
Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are both newly translated by Ted Goossen for this new hardback, updating Alfred Birnbaum’s work from when these two short novels were only available in English in Japan as pocket-sized Kodansha editions. This is a curious move, as Birnbaum went on to translate many more volumes of Murakami’s work and is clearly one of the author’s trusted colleagues. Goossen’s text reads clean and efficient, but falters with the occasional forced colloquialism: Hot days are “a real scorcher,” the narrator feels “out of whack” and finds passages of a philosophical text “cool in the extreme.” It’s not hard to position these turns of phrase next to Murakami’s consistent habit of name-dropping great books or jazz albums: when The Rat “pukes his guts out” and a needle is dropped on another Stan Getz album, it all feels like an effort, in both subject and tone, to appeal to a certain superficial readership.
Yet, tonally, that’s what Murakami endeavored to do from the outset. In the author’s illuminating new introduction (which for fans will be well worth the cover price alone), he explains that his suspiciously simple literary voice emerged from an experiment in translation. Murakami began the opening passages of Hear the Wind Sing in Japanese, and then tried writing them again in his limited English. He then translated that broken English back into Japanese, which resulted in a peculiar linguistic purity. Sentences fell into place, uncluttered and airy, with a subtle complexity that could be inferred or simply ignored. Murakami aficionados will find this a revelatory detail: it suggests that the author’s crossover appeal in worldwide markets was ingrained in his prose since the beginning. By stripping the conventions and pretensions of his culture’s prose, Murakami was able to “translate” the idea of the Japanese novel to a more casual audience. By doing so, the author can revel in his familiarity, regardless of its awkwardness.
Although unnamed, the narrator of both Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 will be familiar to Murakami readers. He’s Watanabe in Norwegian Wood, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki in his eponymous tale, and Toru Okada of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle all at once: thoughtful, aimless, and afflicted by something between malaise and adulthood. He’s relatable, but also seems like the ideal reader for whom these novels were written. The prose in these stories flows haphazardly between relationship intrigues and drifting friendships, from drink to drink and from arcade to arcade, guided solely by Murakami’s innate ability to imbue social stagnation with a vibrant, lively stillness. The narrator and The Rat discuss writing as much as they do girls, almost as if Murakami’s looking for answers himself. The Rat has plans to be an author of “a good novel. From where I stand, anyway. I doubt I have any special talent for writing, but if I stick with it at least I can become more enlightened. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? …So the novel will be for myself. Or maybe for the cicadas.”
Murakami, too, aims for something personal and illuminating, but is also content to write for the humming that surrounds him. It’s a fascinating experience to read these novels now and slot them into the author’s grand arc: they may complete a picture, but they also reinforce the author’s sophisticated objectives that have been at play since page one.