Are Haruki Murakami’s Re-Released Novels Worth the Hype?


It’s impossible to ignore a new work by Haruki Murakami, even if it’s old work. Wind/Pinball (Knopf, $26) collects Murakami’s first two novels—Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980)—with new translations by Ted Goossen. Both books were previously available decades ago—translated by Alfred Birnbaum, who did all of Murakami’s early material—but never widely distributed in the U.S., even as Murakami’s reputation grew.

As a longtime Murakami fan, I was apprehensive about digging into this skimpy-looking book. How good could these novels be if Murakami himself kept them from reaching a wider audience? And even if this early work wasn’t a total embarrassment, so what? It’s still not Murakami’s best. I’m a Beatles fan, but I don’t listen to Please Please Me nearly as much as Revolver or Rubber Soul.

Happily, Murakami’s rookie efforts are not so insignificant after all. Wind/Pinball begins with an autobiographical preface that budding writers should find inspiring. Determined not to work for somebody else, Murakami managed—at 25—to open a small coffee shop/jazz bar in Tokyo with his wife. Burdened by debt, Murakami’s epiphany came during a baseball game when he suddenly realized he could write a novel. After some false starts, Murakami composed a narrative in his limited English vocabulary and then translated it back into Japanese. Within six months, he’d finished Hear the Wind Sing and submitted it to Gunzo, a Japanese journal. It went on to win a prize and established Murakami’s career. Within a year, he’d written a follow-up (Pinball, 1973) and sold his business to write full time. According to the preface, Murakami considers his third book, A Wild Sheep Chase, the true launch of his literary career.

Still, Wind/Pinball is entertaining despite the flimsy storylines. Both Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 feature an unnamed narrator and his wealthy drinking companion, the Rat. The men frequent J’s Bar, drink copious amounts of beer and date unusual women. In Hear the Wind Sing, the narrator dates a woman with nine fingers; in Pinball, 1973, he’s living with identical twins while the Rat dates a woman who sold him a used typewriter. Both books are heavily steeped in pop culture, with references to rock music (the Beatles and the Beach Boys), jazz (Stan Getz, Charlie Parker) and films by Sam Peckinpah and Claude Lelouch. In Pinball, 1973 both men share an obsession with a rare, three-flipper pinball machine called “Spaceship” and muse on the repetitive nature of life.

Both novels contain references to cats and wells that will amuse fans of Murakami’s later work. The presence of Derek Hartfield—a fictitious pulp writer Murakami created for Hear the Wind Sing—is an early indication of the author’s fertile imagination.

In Hear the Wind Sing, the narrator relates a story about being an unusually quiet child. His parents send him to a doctor and by 14, he speaks normally. Wind/Pinball represents Murakami finding his voice. True, Murakami would go on to write more sophisticated, fully realized novels (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), but these early works are ripe for rediscovery. ★★★★✩

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