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.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Title: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Japanese Title: 走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上春樹)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 180

Yay! Another Murakami book has come out in paperback! Yay! It’s translated by Philip Gabriel (the author of Spirit Matters: The Translucent in Modern Japanese Literature and veteran Murakami translator)!

Some critics say that people would read Stephen King’s grocery list if he published it. Although I’m not sure I would go that far, I certainly enjoyed King’s essay On Writing. Although I was disappointed that the newest Murakami translation isn’t one of his earlier novels (Hear the Wind Sing, for example, or Pinball, 1973) or his latest novel (1Q84) but a memoir-length essay on running, I decided to go ahead and read it. Because some writers, yes, I will read anything they publish. Even a log of miles run per month.

Over the course of my career as a student of Japanese, I have come to realize that the essay is still a thriving form of literature in Japan. It sometimes seems like every popular writer from Yoshimoto Banana to Murakami Ryū has at some point published at least one collection of essays. Instead of taking the form of concentrated inquiries into a single subject in the style of John McPhee, however, most of these essays are personal in nature and written in a light-hearted tone. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is much the same. The memoir is conversational rather than educational and a pleasure to read.

In short, Murakami is preparing to run in the 2005 New York City Marathon. He has found that, as he gets older, it becomes harder to train and to run marathons in the amount of time that he would like to. Therefore, partly as refection, and partly as inspiration, he writtes a series of essays as he prepares to run in New York. These essays take him from Hawaii to Japan to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from summer into fall, and years into the past. He writes about running in Tokyo, running in Greece, running in triathlons, running in ultra-marathons, running next to Olympic runners, running next to John Updike, running next to Harvard freshmen, and running next to rivers. He talks about his decision to start running and his decision to become a writer. Everything is equally interesting.

The tone of the book is honest and self-effacing. Although it’s quiet, Murakami has a definite sense of humor that balances out his more contemplative passages. Aside from the fact that I don’t think he mentions drinking whiskey or cooking spaghetti even once, Murakami could very well be one of his infinitely personable narrators. Even though I have almost zero interest in running (or writing novels) myself, I was fascinated by these essays. I’m glad they were translated and published in America.