Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred Birnbaum
Haruki Murakami’s lesser-known-in-the-West “Trilogy of the Rat” continues with the second prequel to his breakout international bestseller, A Wild Sheep Chase. Both Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, were nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, considered by many to be Japan’s top literary honor, and yet neither book has ever had Stateside distribution. And yet how lucky both were translated (superbly, by one of Murakami’s two regular translators – the other is Jay Rubin) into English … and in the age of easy access, Amazon delivers just about all!
Our unnamed narrator is settled in Tokyo, having established a translation business with an old friend (the same company which reappears in Sheep). He’s living with a pair of identical twin young women, who seem to have just appeared, who seem to have no past, no names, not to mention much in the way of basic clothing (they spend much of their waking time in matching sweatshirts marked “208” and “209”). But they do make excellent coffee. The trio contentedly share the narrator’s small apartment (and yes, the same bed), don’t necessarily have the most scintillating conversations (“[t]he two of them were frightfully ignorant about things,” is hardly an understatement), but for a while, their co-existence works well for all.
Meanwhile, our narrator’s buddy, the Rat (“university-dropout-rich-kid”), has gotten himself involved with a woman, who he meets when he buys a used typewriter from her. Ironically – and sadly – their developing intimacy results in a growing sense of alienation from the world for the Rat. He continues to frequent J’s Bar, especially after hours, but even that longstanding relationship can’t keep the Rat tethered to his reality.
Back in Tokyo, our narrator goes on a pre-sheep wild chase, this time in search of an obscure pinball machine – “A three-flipper ‘Spaceship.'” He did give fair warning early on: “This is a novel about pinball.” Sort of. Not totally.
Old girlfriends, an early obsession with wells, the presence of cats … many of the recurring Murakami devices start lining up with welcome familiarity. Not surprisingly, Sheep and its sequel Dance Dance Dance, start to make a lot more sense. The word ‘delighted’ comes to mind to have discovered these compact prequels, as well as ‘thankful’ for pragmatically providing context and aesthetically offering a glimpse of literary history.
Tidbit: Truly the internet is a phenomenal thing … here’s a PDF that might be of considerable interest: click here. I wish I had found it sooner!!
Published: 1985 (English translation published in Japan)