Monday, 17 August 2015

#BookReview: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

My review of Haruki Murakami's Wind/Pinball was published in the Sunday Star on 16 August 2015 and appeared on the Star2.com website on 18 August 2015.



Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator (Japanese-English): Ted Goossen
Publisher: Alfred A Knopf

Finally, famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami has deemed it fit for English-speakers to read the two novellas he wrote in the late 1970s that launched his career.

Wind/Pinball is a collection of two novellas: Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. Murakami is on record for saying that he’s embarrassed by these novellas because, by his reckoning, they were his early books and are not that good. He’s even mentioned in interviews that he had had no plans for them to be released outside of Japan.

English translations did exist, though. Published by Kodansha and translated by Alfred Birnbaum, the rarities were only ever intended to be used in English language classes in Japan. Print runs were limited and English-reading Murakami fans curious about them had to dig deep in the bowels of the Internet to find copies. Of course, they also had to be ready to pay ridiculously high prices for these rare Murakami books.

So for the books to actually be released officially in English now with a new translation is a big deal. To complete the package, an introductory essay by the author is also included. The essay is a great how-I-became-a-writer piece and is probably the best thing in the book.

The first novella, Hear The Wind Sing, takes place over 18 days in the summer of 1970, and follows the aimless wanderings and ramblings of an unnamed narrator and his friend, Rat.

This initial effort shows Murakami was already a writer with great ideas and adept at creating interesting dialogue, but it also betrays a lack of skill in plotting. There is no discernible plot in this book – it is merely about a college student aimlessly waiting for his holiday to end, and is littered with non sequiturs throughout.

Murakami’s signature tropes have already begun appearing, though. Elephants, cats, wells, odd girls. They’re here but perhaps a little underused than they will be in his later novels and short stories. Then there’s his penchant for invoking Western culture – references abound from Gatsby to Dostoyevsky, Marvin Gaye to the Beach Boys.

Hear The Wind Sing drags along at an unbearably slow pace. Nothing happens to prod the story along, and when mysteries crop up, they go unsolved and the characters remain unbothered and indifferent. The dialogue does, however, hint at something more substantial waiting to be revealed.

Pinball, 1973 picks up three years later. The nameless narrator has moved to Tokyo and set up a translation service. Out of the blue, seemingly out of nowhere, a pair of twin girls appear in the narrator’s apartment and decide to stay, “as if they had been taking a stroll, seen a promising place, and moved in”.

The narrator, being the typical Murakami protagonist, doesn’t seem to mind, doesn’t question their appearance, and in fact, relishes the company. And then he develops an obsession about a pinball machine he used to play in a bar in his small hometown. This bar also happens to be where the Rat spends most of his time now, moping about seeking greater meaning in his life.

Pinball, 1973 is a much better effort than Hear The Wind Sing and has the advantage of actually having a plot, though, admittedly, the story is still vague and the pinball machine doesn’t even enter the plot until near the end.

Though Wind/Pinball is undoubtedly a momentous book, I can’t imagine recommending it to anybody other than the hardest of hardcore Murakami fans. Murakami had good reason not to release these works in English before. He must have known critics would tear them to shreds.

He only really hit his stride with his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982, English translation 1989), which continues the story of the unnamed narrator and Rat. That novel was a much better effort and it shows in how immensely enjoyable a read it is.

Wind/Pinball, however, will remain that one Murakami book that only completist fans will buy.

~ ~ ~

A Comment on the Review

So this marks the first time I've reviewed a book (well, two actually) twice. Long time readers of this blog (all two of you) may remember I've already reviewed Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 back in 2007 but those were the Alfred Birnbaum translations that were never officially made available outside of Japan.

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed I cribbed a little from my previous reviews to write this review and that's because even though I read the new Ted Goossen translation I found my opinions mostly unchanged from before. (Also, I wrote the review on the first day of Eid holidays and I was in a hurry.)

In retrospect, I feel the review is a little lacking in certain areas. I wanted to comment a little on the differences in translation between the Goossen translation and the Birnbaum translation. But I found that the distance of time had made me forget most of the nuances of the text in the Birnbaum translation. And because I had a deadline, I wasn't keen to revisit them either. With the 800 word limit I had, I don't think I would have had space anyway.

I find it interesting that most of the mainstream reviews that exist out there for this version of the text have been very positive and I am probably one of the few reviewers who did not find it captivating.

A stark contrast for back when I was the premier Murakami reviewer in Malaysia and was often criticised and mocked for seemingly giving a good review for any of his latest releases. Well, it just so happened I really liked those books, and I just happened not to like this particular one. I am a fan, but I'm not a blindly loving one.

For a complete list of Haruki Murakami reviews I've written, click here.

4 comments:

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    1. Hi there! I really enjoyed reading your review. It's probably one of the few very genuine ones out there. You mentioned that you had the translations by Alfred Birnbaum. Where could I get those?

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    2. Hi! Thanks for visiting my blog. Unfortunately the Birnbaum translations are out of print. They can probably be found on places like eBay but be prepared to pay a high price for them. I was lucky to find them while they were still in print.

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