Hear the Wind Sing

Title: Hear the Wind Sing
Japanese Title: 風の歌を聴け (Kaze no uta o kike)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Publication Year: 1979 (in Japanese); 1987 (in translation)
Publisher: Kodansha English Library (講談社英語文庫)
Pages: 130 (plus 15 pages of translation notes)

I love A Wild Sheep Chase. The narrator’s daily life in Tokyo, the narrator’s sojourn in Hokkaido, the mystery of the sheep, and the philosophical musings on genius and individuality all come together into an interesting and compelling story. There’s this one weird bit, though, after the narrator leaves Tokyo but before he reaches Sapporo. This is the chapter describing the narrator’s visit to a place called J’s Bar. He doesn’t visit J’s Bar in real time; rather, he remembers having visited it in the past. J’s Bar, we learn, is where he and a character called “the Rat” used to drink when they were younger. I always felt that there was something about the narrator’s relationship to the Rat and J’s Bar that Murakami wasn’t telling us. As a result, this short, atemporal section connecting Tokyo and Hokkaido felt disjointed and out of place. Perhaps the reason it felt this way to me is because I had never read Murakami’s earlier novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. A Wild Sheep Chase is part of a tetralogy (which is concluded by Dance Dance Dance), so it only makes sense that I would be missing something by having started in the middle.

Hear the Wind Sing is a short I-novel in the style of Shiga Naoya, by which I mean that it involves a young man who wanders around aimlessly while thinking about how pointless his life is. I don’t mean to imply that the novel isn’t worth reading, because it certainly is. There just isn’t much of a plot. The narrator, who is a college student majoring in biology, has returned from Tokyo to his hometown by the sea for the summer. He spends his days chilling out and his nights drinking in a small, run-down pub called J’s Bar. J is a middle-aged Chinese man who has befriended the narrator and his drinking buddy, a young college dropout nicknamed the Rat (“Nezumi”). One night, the narrator goes to the bathroom in J’s Bar and finds a young woman passed out on the floor. He gets her address from her purse, takes her home, puts her to bed, and then falls asleep in her apartment. The novel meanders between the sporadic interactions between the narrator and this woman, about whom neither the narrator nor the reader ever learns much before she disappears forever. Between these interactions, the narrator briefly reflects on his past romantic relationships and thinks about writing and literature, which he discusses with the Rat. The story is bookended at its beginning and end by sustained discussions of Derek Heartfield, a (fictitious) early twentieth-century writer of speculative fiction whose life and work, the narrator concludes, showed promise but ultimately went nowhere.

Hear the Wind Sing is a short novel, and it feels even shorter because of its frequent chapter breaks (about once every four or five pages) and frequent page breaks within chapters. There’s no real pattern to the narration, which includes conversations, reminiscences, literary speculation, song lyrics, and a bit of linear storytelling. Despite this lack of cohesion, everything flows together nicely, and the way that the main themes of the novel (such as the inability of any one person to really know any other person) are elliptically approached is fairly effective. The narrative voice contains far more humor than self-pity and keeps the reader moving easily through the novel. This narrative voice is broken a few times by the insertion of the voice of a radio rock station DJ, who has some of the best passages in the whole book. Such a fragmented narrative style effectively captures the experience of being a college student at home for the summer, moving through the days without a clear sense of purpose and half-heartedly wondering what the future will bring. There’s no grand mystery of the sort that forms the core of A Wild Sheep Chase, but the narrator is same amiable personality who sees the world through a perceptive yet detached perspective. If you can get your hands on this book (which is fairly easy to do at major Japanese bookstores or through Amazon.co.jp), it’s a quick and enjoyable read, especially for fans of Murakami’s writing style. Birnbaum’s translation notes at the end of the book are also a nice treat for people who are interested in that sort of thing.

6 thoughts on “Hear the Wind Sing

  1. Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance are easily among my favorite novels, and I had a sense that there was a third, or even fourth, book in the ‘series’, but never did I imagine that these came before the two I’ve already read.

    Guess I have to go read Hear the Wind Sing, and Pinball, now.

    1. It’s worth getting copies while you’re in Japan, definitely.

      I wonder why these two translations aren’t available in America? I remember hearing/reading something about how Murakami is embarrassed of his early work and doesn’t want it presented to an English-speaking audience, but I wonder if that’s really the case. My suspicion is that Kodansha owns the legal rights and isn’t about to give them up, yet fears that the novels aren’t epic or “typically Murakami” enough to sell well outside of Japan.

      Whatever the case, I still think both of them are pretty enjoyable.

  2. Hi there, I know this post is a couple of years old but I have a question for someone with a physical copy of this book!

    Basically, I couldn’t get a copy so I found an ebook version but I’m not convinced it’s complete and I wonder if you could check some things for me.

    First of all, I know the chapters are short and eratic but are they all numbered and in sequence? For example, chapter “2” in my copy is one sentence, then “3” is very long, with two breaks in it.The next numbered chapter is “6”. The first lines after the breaks are “I’d first met the Rat…” and “The Rat never read books…”.

    Maybe this is bad ebook editing and those breaks are supposed to be chapters. However, chapter “8” which starts “I woke up at six…” is followed, without a break, by chapter “10” which starts “It was an extremely hot night…” Towards the end it stops dropping chapter numbers and there are 40, which I believe is correct.

    Anyway, if anyone has the patience to check their real-life copy, I would really appreciate it. I am a huge Murakami fan and emjoyed this book for what it was. It would be nice to know if I have really read it or not. Based on your review (v interesting by the way!), I would say the “major” plot points are all there, it’s the first part which I described above which is confusing.

    If you have the time to check, please feel free to delete this comment and reply directly… though it may be useful to other readers of the same e-version.

    Many thanks!

    1. I just moved to Indiana for a job, and I left most of my books in Philadelphia with my partner. Unfortunately, this is one of the ones that got left behind. My new library doesn’t have a copy of Hear the Wind Sing, but I should be able to get my hands on one through ILL within the next week or two.

      I will get back to you as soon as I can; but, in the meantime, I think I’ll just leave this chain of comments here on the off-chance that it might be useful to someone.

  3. I currently have a friend in japan who I have asked to locate hear the wind sing and pinball1973 but is having trouble. Does anyone know where the books in Japan are currently being sold?? Much appreciated

    1. Both books are long out of print. If your friend is willing to shell out some serious yen, however, it’s possible to acquire a secondhand copy on Amazon.co.jp or eBay (I couldn’t find anything on ヤホオク). What your friend could also try doing is to ask the people at his or her local Book Off to locate a copy; they’re usually pretty good about that sort of thing, although your friend may have to make his or her own way to a branch that has a copy in stock.

      Some people would tell your friend to start hitting up the used book stores in Jinbōchō, but that way madness lies.

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