As a hardcore fan of Murakami, I had to get my hands on this back-to-back, combined edition of his two earliest novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. Wind was originally published in Japanese as early as 1979, and Pinball in 1980. Both were translated to English in the 1980s, but last year saw the publication of this new translation by Ted Goossen (who also translated The Strange Library) in a reversible book with an introduction by Murakami himself.
I must admit that, to me, the introduction of the book, entitled "The Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction" was much more interesting than the two novels! In it, Murakami tells the story of how he began to write, where this world-famous, best-selling, may-win-the-Nobel-any-year-now writer came from.
Murakami married his wife during his university studies and the couple opened a jazz bar in Tokyo in 1974. Managing a bar was fun, but a lot of hard work, and they only barely got by with what they were earning.
In April 1978, Murakami was at a baseball game when an American batter hit the ball with a satisfying crack. And - apparently - it was at that very moment that for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.
The rest is history, you might think, but it didn't go as smoothly as that. Murakami sat down at his kitchen table late at night after work and wrote Hear the Wind Sing over the next six months. The problem, he says, was that I hadn't a clue about how to write a novel. No, Murakami did not attend any writing classes. And in fact his favourite books to read were 19th century Russian novels, not contemporary Japanese ones, for instance. So naturally, he tried to imitate the style of 19th century Russian classics in his first attempts of writing fiction. The result, according to him, was somewhat boring and left me cold. Yes, I can imagine...
So he tried a different approach: he wrote the beginning of the novel in English, a foreign language that he was by no means fluent at. He explains what this caused: the language had to be simple, my ideas expressed in an easy-to-understand way, the descriptions stripped of extraneous fat, the form made compact, everything arranged to fit a container of limited size. It was a relief to write in a "simplified" way, because I didn't have to try to impress people with beautiful turns of phrase.
After writing the English draft, Murakami then "translated" - with slight modifications - the text to Japanese: In the process, inevitably, a new style of Japanese emerged. The style that would be mine.
And yes, Murakami's style is deceivingly simple, lucid, matter-of-fact and to-the-point. Of course, he no longer writes like this, translating his own text as he goes along, but his early method does explain why his writing style is so unique.
So he wrote Hear the Wind Sing and sent it to the writing competition of a literary journal. After that he did something that only a person with zero literary ambition could do: he forgot all about the competition and his story! If the novel hadn't been shortlisted and eventually won the prize, Murakami probably wouldn't have written anything anymore and the world would be a much less magical place.
After the success of Wind, he wrote a sequel, Pinball, 1973. It was also well-received and Murakami could become a full-time writer. In 1982, he published A Wild Sheep Chase, the third book of what is now known as the Trilogy of the Rat.
So what are these first novels all about? Hear the Wind Sing begins tentatively, almost awkwardly. There seems to be a lot of stream-of-consciousness, of trying out different storylines and topics. The unnamed protagonist and his friend, the Rat, are students leading a typical student life: they talk about girls, life and sex while drinking great quantities of beer. There is something noticeably murakami-esque about all this: meticulous lists and detailed descriptions of sexual partners and their individual peculiarities (including a girl with nine fingers). Both Wind and Pinball also contain numerous references to popular culture - bands, composers, films - and other small details that re-emerge in many of Murakami's later works (wells and people going in them, enigmatic cats etc.).
In Pinball, already much more calculated and skilful than Wind, the protagonist is a translator who lives with identical twin girls. He drinks coffee, reads Kant and goes to work. In his grey life, each day was a carbon copy of the last. You needed a bookmark to tell one from the other. Eventually, he goes on a search to find a very rare, three-flippered pinball machine called Spaceship.
Nothing much actually happens in the novels. The storylines are flimsy, almost non-existent. The characters seem a bit lost and unsure of themselves, wandering aimlessly without direction as young adults. Perhaps mirroring Murakami's own uncertainty about writing or life in general.
Both novels lack a sense of maturity. The plot or story has no clear direction. Also, unlike many of Murakami's later works, there is nothing fantastic or supernatural in the novels, no parallel worlds or anything like that.
For hardcore Murakami fans the novels offer a fascinating glimpse into the author's early years and writing style, which was still rough and unrefined. Other readers, don't bother. Murakami has a lot to offer, but I recommend going for his later books instead of these.
Haruki Murakami: Hear the Wind Sing/Pinball, 1973. Harvill Secker. 2015. 152 pages (Wind) + 162 pages (Pinball).
Originally published in Japanese as Kaze no uta o kike (Wind) and 1973 nen no pinboru
Translated by Ted Goossen
The Guardian: Hear the Wind Sing/Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami review - super-elliptical pop-noir
NY Times: Haruki Murakami's 'Wind/Pinball'
Wikipedia: Haruki Murakami