Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum
In spite of my decades-long obsession with Haruki Murakami, some part of my literary brain was clearly disconnected because not until I read his popular running memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, did I learn about his “Trilogy of the Rat,” which includes two prequels to his breakout international sensation, A Wild Sheep Chase. Those first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980), were eventually translated into English, but the translations had only limited distribution from Japan’s publishing giant Kodansha. Thank goodness for Amazon’s far-flung vendors is all I can say!
I can’t help but mention size … both prequels are tiny: each measures just 4.25 x 6 inches. Wind has a mere 130 pages (with another 35 of highly detailed translation notes), and Pinball only 179 (also with another 35 pages of notes). In comparison, Murakami’s latest is nothing less than an enormous, heavy brick! The phenomenal 1Q84 has almost 1000 pages, with each page some three times the size as those of the prequels! My how the Murakami oeuvre has multiplied!
So this is where Murakami began his sensational career: “‘There’s no such thing as perfect writing …’” No lie – that’s the first line of his first novel. In translation anyway. His nameless protagonist (who narrates the trilogy, plus its sequel Dance Dance Dance) confesses a couple pages in, “For me, writing is extremely hard work.” Good thing he keeps at it!
“This story begins on August 8, 1970, and ends eighteen days later, on August 26 of the same year,” Murakami writes as his second chapter. Yup, just that one line for that whole chapter. Over those 18 days, not a whole lot happens, although immediately you just know you’ve entered Murakami territory. By the third page, he’s already made up an off-kilter character – writer Derek Heartfield, a “contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and that crowd,” who commits suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building clutching a portrait of Hitler in one hand, an umbrella in the other! – with such convincing finesse that you can’t help but look him up (he only exists in Murakami’s world).
But back to our young man during that August he is home during a summer break from his Tokyo university. He meets a young woman in a bar and goes home with her – although not for the most obvious reasons. He reminisces about his few past relationships, including a girlfriend who mysteriously committed suicide. He hangs out (often at J’s Bar) with his friend the Rat who’s becoming more and more withdrawn from the world, and is especially disdainful of rich people (of which he would be one). He quotes now and then from his fictional Heartfield, and actually ends the novel with said Heartfield, but not before he’s done a quick fast-forward into his future life (which will turn out to be a teasing preview into A Wild Sheep Chase).
Other glimmers of what will become signature Murakami surface – surprising music playlists, hearing voices, mysterious strangers, tenuous relationships with disappearing women – which makes for quite an enjoyable, albeit brief reading adventure. Is this great literature? Probably not, especially since Murakami goes on to write stupendous tomes in the decades that follow. Still, both prequels prove to be just grand fun as literary history … and give whole new meaning to ‘vintage Murakami’ for sure!
Published: 1987 (English translation published in Japan)