Revisiting Haruki Murakami’s First Novel

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In 1979 Gunzo magazine published a novella called “Hear the Wind Sing” by an unknown young writer named Haruki Murakami. A few months later the magazine awarded it the Gunzo Prize for New Writers. It had been written in snatched minutes on the bar and tables of the jazz club the writer ran with his wife, and it was his first attempt at writing fiction.

The story goes, as Murakami tells it, that he got the idea for the book as he was standing in the bleachers at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Shinjuku, drinking a beer and watching the Yakult Swallows play the Hiroshima Carps. At some point the American batter Dave Hilton stepped up to hit, and as Hilton sent the ball into the left-field for a double, Murakami was struck, as though by lightning, by the idea that he should write a novel.

It wasn’t much of a fanfare, and there were no fireworks, but it nevertheless marked the moment that a Japanese literary phenomenon was born.

Life did not change immediately for the couple, they were living in a tiny house in the Sendagaya area of Tokyo, bordered on two sides by noisy railway tracks, and working long hours at the bar to make ends meet. When he won the prize, Murakami, who felt he’d satisfied his artistic impulse and might never write another novel, decided he should probably try again. He carried on cooking and serving drinks at the club, and set to writing a follow-up, working after hours in the smoky nightclub air on whisky-soaked tables, as the echoes of some clattering jazz quintet or other reverberated softly in the walls. It wasn’t much of a fanfare, and there were no fireworks, but it nevertheless marked the moment that a Japanese literary phenomenon was born.

Since that time the novelist has risen to unparalleled heights of success, selling millions of books of worldwide and achieving a level of fame enjoyed by few writers. He was named this week as one of Time magazines 100 most influential people in the world. His stature in the field of Japanese literature is massive, some would say too big, but carrying such heft has never sat comfortably with the man himself.

The unpretentious style of his writing, imbued with a hardboiled sensibility lifted from American pulp fiction and awash with musical and pop cultural references, has surely never warranted the kind of intense scrutiny it routinely receives. Later this year “Hear the Wind Sing” will be re-released in a shiny new translation, whereon the already hard to find original will become nigh-on impossible to track down. Time then, for one last look at Murakami before he was Murakami, at the book which gave birth to a giant.

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The story concerns two friends, the unnamed narrator and his melancholy friend ‘The Rat’. The narrator is a Tokyo university student spending a summer in Kobe, drinking copious quantities of beer in his favourite bar and discussing the meaning of life in the way that heavy-drinking, solitary and bookish young men have a tendency to do.

The thrust of the novel amounts to little more than a series of reminiscences and anecdotes strung together; a couple of sort-of-girlfriends drift in and out of the narrative, a lot of cigarettes are smoked. If you want gunplay and intrigue, or Napoleonic sweeps of history, perhaps you should look elsewhere. What is captivating about this book is the gentle evocation of mood.

The student movement of the late sixties, which saw leftist demonstrations and protests at universities across Japan and violent clashes with police, forms a flickering backdrop to proceedings. The sense of a country surging into modernity is everywhere, as is the uneasy sense of a future being rushed in before the past has been properly accounted for.

But this is not a political novel. Instead what we are given is a cluster of dissolute young people resigning themselves to the fact that they can change little about their world, and drifting into adulthood through a woozy cocktail of booze, sex, and sun-baked ennui. It’s a dreamy and gloriously nostalgic novel, effortlessly compelling and elusive, much like the man himself. No doubt the new translation will be outstanding, but for those who can’t wait, this exquisite little book offers a glimpse of youth in a burgeoning Japan from a gifted young writer, taking his first steps towards international superstardom.

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