Book Review: Pinball, 1973 by Murakami Haruki

‘Pinball, 1973’ (1973年のピンボール) follows ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ by Murakami Haruki. It was published in 1980 in Japan and is the third part of the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’.

The author depicts the wild lifestyle of the 1970’s in Tokyo and continues the story of the friendship between the nameless protagonist and his friend ‘The Rat’. This time the protagonist is sharing his apartment with two female twins. As in the first book J’s bar is one of the main places of the novel.

The book contains mainly stories about the superficial twins and meetings with ‘The Rat’ and their thoughts about love and life. A pinball machine becomes important in the latter half of the story.

The atmosphere can be characterized by the absence of real human connections, feelings of boredom and isolation. The storytelling is monotonous through most of the book, and the characters are painted in pale colors. The main character is lacking from a purpose in life until he becomes alive in the hunt for a specific pinball machine.

Murakami uses the same collage techniques as in his first book. The short novel is also written in juvenile language. Because the author talks mainly about daily vanities and pinball machines are not very interesting to me, reading became a drag towards the end.

In my opinion ‘Pinball, 1973’ lacks the freshness of ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and cannot be compared to any of Murakami’s later books. It appears a little immature to me and maybe it was published too quickly after his first success.

Book title

村上春樹: 1973年のピンボール, 講談社 1980.

Murakami Haruki: Pinball, 1973, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, 1985 (cover photo). A new translation by Ted Goosen is available since 2015.

Book Review: Hear the Wind Sing by Murakami Haruki


‘Hear the Wind Sing’ (風の歌を聴け) is the first novel of Murakami Haruki published in the literary magazine ‘Gunzo’ in 1979 and won the ‘Gunzo Prize for New Writers’.

Murakami wrote two following books and named it the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’. The second novel is ‘Pinball 1973’ followed by ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’.

‘Hear the Wind Sing’ is about friendship between two young men and the beginning of a love-story with a woman added by a mix of childhood memories, bar stories, therefore lots of alcohol and music.

A nameless student visits his hometown during the summer holidays in the 1970’s. He spends most of his time with his old buddy ‘The Rat’ in J’s bar. One day he finds a drunken woman in the restroom and takes her to her home. A love story begins.

The book contains mainly discussions with ‘The Rat’, memories of the protagonist’s childhood and ex-girlfriends. Thoughts about love and life in general.

Murakami uses collage techniques adding song lyrics and quotations of books. The novel is written in juvenile language and depicts the style of the 70’s in Japan.

Considering that ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ is the first novel of Murakami Haruki it was an interesting read. The potential of the then young author is clearly visible and the reason for the newcomer award of Gunzo in 1979. What I liked most about the book was the love story and the overall collage style.

Book title

村上春樹. 風の歌を聴け(kaze no uta o kike), 講談社 1979.

Murakami Haruki: Hear the Wind Sing, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Kodansha International, 1987 (cover photo). A new translation by Ted Goosen is available since 2015 (Harvill Secker).

Book Review: Strangers by Yamada Taichi


Yamada Taichi, a well-known Japanese author, born in 1934 is internationally accepted for his scriptwriting of TV drama and movies. ‘Strangers’ (異人たちとの夏) was published in Japan in 1987, where it was awarded with the Yamamoto Shûgorô Prize. It was also made into a movie by Obayashi Nobuhiko (大林 宣彦) in 1988.

With ‘Strangers’ Yamada Taichi wrote a modern urban ghost story about loneliness and grief. It plays in the 80’s during the time of the O-Bon-Festival when the Japanese traditionally meet their ancestors and greet the returning spirits of their beloved dead.

The male protagonist, age 47, a freelance scriptwriter for TV dramas, is living in his office after his divorce. The place is deserted at night.

Mamiya, also age 47, a friend and colleague, suddenly stops by to tell him that he will quit working together with the protagonist because he wants to marry his ex-wife Ayako. He feels betrayed and very lonely.

He seems to be the only person left in the building. Then one night, he surprisingly meets Kei, a woman, who is in a similar situation. After a short visit at his apartment, they become lovers.

At his birthday, he spends the evening alone at his birthplace in Asakusa, a district of Tokyo, and happens to meet a man at the theatre who is a spitting image of his dead father.

His parents died when he was 12 years old. So, this cannot be possible. He is fascinated by the similarities and follows the man. The man strangely recognizes him as his son and takes him home, where he also meets his mother.

Could this all be a trick of his imagination caused by unresolved anxieties, he asks himself? But, everything is lively and real. As time goes by the relationship with the girl at the office building grows stronger and he also secretly bonds with the ‘new’ parents.

The story reaches its climax, when the protagonist changes visibly and Kei gets to know about his ghost-parents. She is giving him a serious warning not to meet them again, but he struggles to say good-bye to the beloved father and mother.

‘Strangers’ is about life and regrets. It shows how memories are playing part of one’s life and even ghosts can appear in it without giving it an appeal of a fantasy novel. It is emotional, exciting and very touching. All characters are depicted very lively. Yamada has written a remarkable magical realistic novel. It was a surprisingly exciting read and I will look out for other books of Yamada Taichi as well in the future.

Book title
山田太一: 異人たちとの夏. 新潮社, 1987年.
Yamada Taichi: Strangers, translated by Wayne P. Lammers, Vertical, 2003.

Other books by the same author, translated into English:

遠くの声を捜して, 1989年.
In Search of a Distant Voice, translated by Michael Emmerich, Faber and Faber, 2007.

飛ぶ夢をしばらく見ない,1985年.
I Haven‘t Dreamed of Flying for a While, translated by David James Karashima, Faber and Faber, 2008.

Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami Haruki

This is the 3rd book of Murakami Haruki and the 3rd part of the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’.

The prequels are ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and ‘Pinball 1973’, the sequel is ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’. I have not read the first books, honestly due to lack of interest so far. They came into my focus shortly when they were published in German language in 2014, but I have forgotten them. A new English version is also available since 2015.

It is my second reading of the ‘Wild Sheep Chase’. I bought the first English paperback edition in Tokyo some time ago and was delighted: the writing was so different and fresh then. This time it was different to me: the melody sounded more seriously, but the story still interested me. Murakami was a young man, when he wrote the book, and is regarding ‘The Wild Sheep Chase’ as his first real book. With it he was laying the groundwork as a popular Japanese writer.

There are many similarities in his later works. The typical lonely protagonist here is a nameless translator and publicist. A friend of ‘the Rat’ from the first two books.

He is working in a small ad agency, which he owns together with a male business partner. The story plays during four weeks in 1978. It starts when the protagonist uses a photo of an idyllic landscape of Northern Japan: only mountains in the background and many sheep on grass. A lovely scenery useful for a print advertising.

Soon afterwards a gangster appears in his office. He threatens him, because he had used the sheep photograph. He forces the protagonist to look closely at the herding sheep, and then he recognizes an unusual sheep with a star on his back! This is meant to be a very special sheep. And his life will depend on it.

The sheep has some transcendent meaning. It is said to possess magical power. The boss of the gangster is a powerfull right-wing figure who had built an underground network since 1937. He himself was possessed by the mentioned sheep, which helped him, but he lost it not long ago. The boss is dying. But before his death the sheep must be found, or his underground mob group will fall into pieces.

So, the gangster sends the protagonist on a dead or alive mission to find the sheep with the star on his back. And, the wild sheep chase begins.

The protagonist is recently divorced, but got to know a new girlfriend, a special lady who works as an ear model. She will accompany him on his journey. They will go to Hokkaidô and check-in at the Dolphin Hotel, which is known from Dance, Dance, Dance. On their tour they will encounter strange people and get stranded in a lonely place. The story comes with some surprising turns, but the full meaning of all will unfold in the end.

The book is written from the first person’s perspective. The narrative style is interesting, funny, and witty. The author is also critical about the Japanese history. Although it is an early work of Murakami Haruki you will find the typical mixture of a lonely protagonist alongside quirky characters, read his philosophical thoughts and will witness supernatural encounters. In the end it made me curious about the first books.

Book title

Murakami Haruki: A Wild Sheep Chase, translated by Alfred Birnbaum. First edition by Kodansha International, 1989.

村上春樹: 羊をめぐる冒険 , 講談社, 1982.

Book Review: The Guest Cat by Hiraide Takashi

 Hiraide Takashi is a Japanese author born in 1950 in Kitakyushu. He is known for several books of poetry, essays and prose. ‘The Guest Cat’ was first published in Japan in 2001. It was translated into several languages and soon became a bestseller in the USA as in France.

This small book is a remarkable lovely story about a Japanese couple in their thirties living in a suburb of Tokyo in the early 1990’s.

Set in a romantic environment with an old Japanese mansion, a tea pavilion in an idyllic garden and a big Keyaki tree.

When the story begins the writer and his wife are living in the teahouse surrounded by the Japanese garden for some years. They are both working at home, he as a writer and she as a corrector. They both enjoy a quiet life.

One day, a neighbor’s cat is climbing through a hole in the garden fence and visits the young couple. They enjoy the company of the cat very much and even more as the cat strolls around day by day. So, after a couple of weeks the ‘guest cat’ becomes a dear friend and an integral part of their life.

In the course of the story some serious lifechanging events happen, but when the old landlady moves into a retirement home the story is at a big turning point. Now, she even wants to sell the property.

The story is told chronologically with some backflashes from a first-person viewpoint of a thirty-something writer. It is about life changes and episodes of the visiting cat as a symbol of transience of life. Hiraide Takashi uses a poetic language and he observes everything mindfully.

I enjoyed the novel very much. It is heartwarming and let me think about the preciousness of life. What I liked most about ‘The Guest Cat’ is the love and respect for the environment, for nature and the care for every creature. I would like to recommend the book to everyone not only to cat-lovers.

Title in Japanese and English:

平出 隆: 猫の客. 河出書房新社. 2001.

Hiraide Takashi: ‘The Guest Cat’, translated into English by Eric Selland in 2014.

The author’s website is https://takashihiraide.com/

 

Book Review: The Ten Loves of Nishino by Kawakami Hiromi

Ten short stories loosely knit together. Ten Japanese women of different age and origin or social background tell their experiences of their love life with Nishino Yukihiko. All women have known him in a different time of his life. Every woman describes him from a different angle, but all have one thing in common: they love him, but the love cannot last because Nishino is not faithful. Always torn between at least two women. Although he seems a perfect lover, he will stay not for ever.

The tone is light and poetic. Each woman speaks with a melody of love in her voice. In the beginning it is unclear why no woman stays with him. He is a mystery. Each story is a glance at Nishino from a different perspective.

The book is short, and the reading is easy. Kawakami Hiromi is only scratching on the surface. The storytelling mirrors the superficial relationship with each woman. During the course of the events Nishino is living through a development of his character. It becomes apparent to the reader why Nishino is unable to love.

‘The Ten Loves of Nishino’ is an early work of Kawakami. I like the concept of getting to know a character by different persons. The stories are interesting to read and in the end the secret of the tragic of his life unravels before your eyes.

Kawakami Hiromi (川上弘美 born in 1958) ニシノユキヒコの恋と冒険 of 2003.
The Ten Loves of Nishino, translated by Allison Markin Powell of 2019.

More reviews of Kawakami Hiromi’s book on this blog:

Kawakami Hiromi: The Nakano Thrift Store
Kawakami Hiromi: The Briefcase
Kawakami Hiromi: Manazuru

Book Review: Secret Rendezvous by Abe Kôbô

Abe Kôbô (安部 公房) was born in Tokyo in 1924. He grew up in Mukden, today Shenyang, in Manchuria during the Japanese occupation. His father was a physician. Abe went to school in Tokyo and studied also medicine at the Tokyo Imperial University.

During his time as a student he began to write. In the beginning he imitated the style of Rainer Maria Rilke, a famous Austro-German poet. He wrote poems, short stories, and later novels with surreal elements. From 1949 until 1962 he was influenced by Marxism. Abe travelled to Eastern Europe and France. In 1951 he was awarded with the Akutagawa Prize for his short story ‘The Wall ―The Crime of S. Karma’ (壁―S・カルマ氏の犯罪).

Abe is well-known for his novel Woman in the Dunes (砂の女) of 1962 which was made into a movie by Teshigahara Hiroshi in 1964. Many of his works were translated into different languages from the mid-1960s onwards. He was awarded with many important literary awards as a novelist and playwright and was also mentioned as a recipient of the Nobel Prize. Since 1973 Abe directed his own theatre company in Tokyo. He died in 1993.

As an avant-garde author Abe Kôbô writes about existential problems of modern life. He uses abstract literary language and often surreal metaphors. He is influenced by Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. The setting of his novels are anonymous and timeless, mostly with nameless protagonists without an individual character.

‘Secret Rendezvous’ (密会), written in 1977, can be described as a bizarre novel with a strong surrealistic atmosphere and sci-fi elements.

The main protagonist is a man without a name, age 32. He is also the narrator. The story is mainly a report consisting of three notebooks from a third person perspective where he is referring to himself as the man. The storytelling changes in parts into a first-person perspective by the same narrator.

One night an ambulance arrives, nobody having sent for, and carries away the man’s wife. The woman is perfectly in health and knows nothing about an appointment at the hospital. Two men with a stretcher carry her away, calling it an emergency. The wife wears only a light negligee.

The man, a shoe salesman, searches after her with the help of the Mano Agency and enters the hospital where his wife is supposed to be. The wife was brought into the building but vanished without a trace.

From now on the man is drawn into a labyrinth of the hospital and makes terrible and grotesque experiences. Abe describes the environment as totally technical and de-humanized. The top executives and the staff of the hospital are acting dysfunctional. Sexual abuse is used as an instrument of power. The main themes are abuse of power, subordination and isolation of the individual in a dystopian society.

I would think of this book as a grotesque and satirical novel. It is skillfully written and well structured. At times it is disturbing but I guess this is meant to be by the author. The novel is not entertaining. ‘Secret Rendezvous’ is not my favorite work by Abe Kôbô. I would recommend this novel only to readers who really want to dive into Abe’s work.

The version I used for this review is Secret Rendezvous: translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, 1981.First Tuttle edition. Charles E. Tuttle Company. See the cover above.

Japanese title: 安部公房: 密会, 1977.

More reviews of Abe Kôbô’s book on this blog:

Abe Kôbô: Woman in the Dunes
Abe Kôbô: The Ruined Map

Book Review: Killing Commendatore by Murakami Haruki

“That sometimes in life we can’t grasp the boundary between reality and unreality. That boundary always seems to be shifting.”

The narrator of Killing Commendatore is a nameless portrait painter in his 30‘s living in Tokyo married to Yuzu, a female architect. Suddenly she is asking for a divorce, because she is in love with another man. She is having an affair for months now.

The narrator moves out. To get some fresh air he first goes on a trip to North Japan by car for over a month and a half. Then he settles for a living in an old wooden mountaintop house in Odawara, which belongs to the father of his friend Masahiko Amada. The old man was a famous painter, named Tomohiko Amada. Now he is in his 90‘s, suffering from dementia, and living in a nursing home near Izu Kogen.

The old house is fully furnished and equipped with things belonging to the old painter including a painting studio. There the narrator is living a simple tech-free life in the woods for the time of the story. He listens to records, mainly classical music, repeatedly to the comic opera of Strauss Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose).

After a short period of time he gets a call from his agent: a client named Wataru Menshiki wants to be painted by him and only by him for a huge amount of money. The narrator cannot decline.

So, a mysterious stranger appears in his house. Tall, slim, white hair, perfectly in style. He is 54 years old, living as a single person in a white mansion across the mountain in view of the old house. He has become rich by selling his own tech company and by stock trading. His business is somewhat unclear and remains hidden in the dark as an undescribed internet business.

He sits regularly as a model in the studio, but the narrator is not capable of painting him, because he is hiding something and appears to be soulless. There is nothing personal about Menshiki, he seems to be an empty shell.

The narrator describes his painting process to the reader and gives some background information about traditional Japanese painting techniques. This becomes an integral part of the story.

The atmosphere of the novel is loaded with fear. Something bad will happen. It is lingering in the air. Menshiki is mysterious and the narrator does not know, if he can trust him. Why is he paying him a huge amount of money for his portrait? Why is he living alone in a big mansion? And what is he really working at?

Puzzling events occur after the narrator finds an old painting made by Tomohiko Amada in the attic. This is called Killing Commendatore.

First there is a mysterious ringing bell in the middle of the night which wakes the narrator. It comes from outside. The narrator cannot ignore the sound and goes out to explore the strange phenomenon. In the backyard of the house there is an old forgotten Shinto shrine. Nothing special, something you find overall in Japan.

There he sees some square stones covered with moss. Is something or someone causing the ringing in a pit hidden by the stones down there? A nightmarish situation.

In the morning after the incident the narrator is suddenly capable of painting the outlines of Menshiki‘s portrait.

After telling him about the strange occurrence in the night, they both decide to remove the stones near the shrine. A pit in the backyard is revealed. Which leads to another strange event: the painting Killing Commendatore becomes alive. With that in the open a wild story is developing.

The structure of the novel

The story is being told basically in chronological order taking place in the first decade of 2000 from the perspective of the narrator with many flashbacks of his childhood and of past events of the main persons, mainly Menshiki and the old painter. There are also some backstories of the narrator’s sister. As the story evolves two female characters become important: the 13-year old Mariye and her attractive aunt Shoko Akikawa.

Two discoveries initiate mysterious events

  1. The painting called Killing Commendatore
  2. The pit in the backyard at the old shrine

The story of Menshiki is relevant as a counterpart of the narrator’s life.

First Menshiki is portrayed as a perfect being, that one could believe he is an android. The background story of Menshiki is being told as the story evolves.

He was never willing to get married, although he had a meaningful love affair with a woman. She got pregnant and yet broke up with him. Then she got married to another man. (This is a parallel to the personal story of the narrator.)

She was killed by a hornet, caused by an allergic reaction, when her child Mariye was about six years old. Her husband, now being alone with the young daughter, asked his sister Shoko to live with them and take care of Mariye. Shoko, the aunt of Mariye, became like a mother to her. Mariye is thirteen years old when the story is happening. The family is also living in Odawara nearby the old house and the family’s house is vis-à-vis to Menshiki’s mansion.

Menshiki is possessed by the idea, that Mariye could be his child, but he is not certain of it. His uncertainty gives him reason to watch her from afar. His behavior makes him appear as a creepy stalker and dangerous man.

After the completion of Menshiki‘s portrait, he asked the narrator to paint another portrait, now a painting of Mariye. Although considering the strange behavior of Menshiki, the narrator is willing to do so under his own conditions. The working contract regulates the painting process and his own right to sell it or not. But he still feels guilty of being complicit and has concerns about being used by Menshiki. After reconsidering it he comes to the conclusion that he can make a difference and that he is not helpless. So, he is going to paint Mariye.

From now on the narrator is drawn deeply into a multi-level nightmarish story with supernatural and paranormal elements. Surreal scenes, sounds, hallucinations, fears, memories, dreams feeling like reality accompany his own soul-searching. Elements of ghost-stories and Japanese folktales are also part of the storytelling.

The overall atmosphere is dominated by fear. Fear of looking into an abyss, fear to see the past clearly and to understand the meaning of past and present events. Everyone has a secret…

Conclusion

Part of the process is, that not every secret will be unraveled in the end. Although there remain unanswered questions, the narrator has clearly undergone some major changes towards the end, and he is able to make clear decisions. After gaining insights through soul-searching he can make his peace so far. Being together with Yuzu after a phase of self-discovery feels right, which he already points out in the beginning. The narrator lived through an exciting story and his soul is released.

The novel is 704 pages long. It took me some days to read it through. The path was not always clear and sometimes I did not know, where the story will lead me to. Surely one can analyze the meaning of everything and every metaphor, but I am not going to do that here. This would lead to a very long article. What is becoming of Menshiki and Mariye? Interesting question. I think you can go on a journey with the narrator and explore all the weird stuff happening. I guess, it probably will have a different effect on you.

In the course of reading the novel I lost track sometimes, and sometimes I was bored. It was like, when you are thinking things over and over. The story is repetitive in some chapters, but I read every page of the book. In the end I think it was worth it. You can see the whole picture then. It becomes a full circle. I would recommend the book Killing Commendatore to artists, to fans of Murakami Haruki and to people, who like to stay for a while in Odawara with a nameless Japanese painter reading his long book and discover something new.

Book title

The book was first published in two volumes in Japan: 騎士団長殺し:第1部 顕れるイデア編. Killing Commendatore. 1. Teil. The Idea made visible. 騎士団長殺し: 第2部 遷ろうメタファー編. Killing Commendatore. 2. Teil. The Shifting Metaphor. Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen. Harvill Secker, London. Published in English in 2018. 704 pages.

Book Review: The Strange Library by Murakami Haruki

The Strange Library (ふしぎな図書館: fushigi na toshokan) is a short story by Murakami Haruki.

The Japanese version was published  with  illustrations by Maki Sasaki in 2008. The story is based on a former different version (図書館奇談 toshokan kidan) published in the short story collection カンガルー日和 (kangaruu hiyori. Good weather for kangaroos) of 1986.

The Strange Library is told  from the perspective of a shy little boy who loves to read. On his way back from school it pops into his mind to borrow some history books from the local library.  Starting the moment he enters the building everything turns out very strange. First he is directed to room No. 107 in the basement where he never had been before and meets an odd librarian, who seems to inhabit this dusted dark area for ages.

The boy asks him politely for the book titles. The old man mumbles and rumbles on his way to a hidden archive in the back of the library.  When he returns with the books, he tells the boy, that it is forbidden to take them home. He has to stay and read them in a separate study room.  Now the boy is slightly scared by the man, and the thought of staying here any longer makes him feel uncomfortable, but he is also feeling obliged to go to the reading area and make no fuss about it.

Intimidated he follows the old weird man further downstairs through a labyrinth. Finally reaching the room the boy sits down to read. After a short while the sheepman arrives on the scene. He then tells him, that the boy is being held hostage. A wild and spooky story unfolds with an unforeseen twist at the end.

In this early work Murakami  makes use of surreal story telling, for which he is known as a bestseller author. The book is pretty short, but along with many illustrations it is an entertaining read. For students with intermediate language skills the Japanese version is relatively easy to understand.

Translations are available in many languages. I have seen the English and German versions of the book. The illustrations are very different from the Japanese version.

ふしぎな図書館 by 村上春樹. Illustrated by 佐々木木マキ。2008.

 

Book Review: The Thief

Nakamura Fuminori 中村 文則 born in 1977 in Tôkai is an author of several novels. His book The Thief (掏摸), published in 2009, won the famous Ôe Kenzaburô Prize in 2010 and was highly praised by the International press.

The Thief is a psychological thriller of a pickpocket in modern Tokyo. Nishimura is a loner living  in the big city with no family or social ties whatsoever. On his trips through crowded streets and the underground, he skillfully reaches out into the pockets of his fellow men. He has a strict moral compass: his victims are mainly wealthy gentlemen and using violence is not an option.

One gets to know his tricks in detail and soon learns about his criminal past, which unfolds to the reader in the ongoing story.

Written from the perspective of the thief Nishimura, we learn about his thoughts and actions. As the story evolves he is getting deeper and deeper into trouble. Mainly because of his entanglement with a violent mobster boss. It was taking my breath away, when I read how Nishmura was threatened into his actions by mobsters and it seems there is no exit for him.

But being under pressure from the mob is not his only problem. His life changes in unforeseen ways. One day on his daily pickpocket tours in Tôkyô he watches a poorly performance of a cranky woman and her little son, both shoplifting for groceries. Showing empathy for the boy Nishimura rescues them from being caught by the clerks, which is the beginning of a bittersweet friendship. On a closer look one can consider the boy as a younger version of Nishimura. The book is exciting and philosophical. I enjoyed reading it.

中村 文則: 掏摸, 2009. Nakamura Fuminori: The Thief, 2012.