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Haruki Murakami, Blind willow, sleeping woman

July 19, 2010
Murakami, Blind willow, sleeping woman

Bookcover, used by permission of the Random House Group Ltd

Granted, my fiction contains more than its share of invention, but when I’m not writing fiction I don’t go out of my way to make up meaningless stories. (from “Chance traveller”, 2005)

This is as good a way as any to commence my review of Haruki Murakami’s recent short story collection, Blind willow, sleeping woman, because it clues you in immediately to the games Murakami plays with his reader. In “Chance traveller”, we are told that the “I” “means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story” and that most of the story is “third-person narrative”. In fact, this short story, like several in the book, comprises a story-within-a-story, a story told to a narrator who is present in the story himself.

It may sound odd to say this about a short story collection but I found it a bit of a page-turner. It comprises 24 stories written between 1980 and 2005. There are a lot of similarities between the stories  – the “disconnected” tone, the frequent use of first-person narrator, the story-within-a-story technique, and the regular use of flashbacks – but Murakami’s inventions are so varied and odd that you are compelled on.

What I love about Murakami is the matter-of-fact rather detached tone he uses to tell stories that often start off being quite ordinary but usually end up taking us to the strangest places. By focussing on the ordinariness of people, by including seemingly unimportant everyday and often pedantic-sounding details, Murakami lulls us into believing in his world so that when the bizarre happens – as it often does – we accept it with barely a blink.

Those of you who know about Murakami know that he is enamoured, if that’s not too strong a word, with the West – and his stories are peppered with allusions to Western culture from Elvis to Richard Strauss, from John Ford to Balzac. His cultural knowledge is quite prodigious. It is this “westenisation” that has, historically, put him at odds with the Japanese literary establishment. He explores this amusingly but pointedly in his story “The rise and fall of Sharpie Cakes” (1981/82) which satirises the drive to conformity and tradition. The final words of this story are:

From now on I would make and eat the food that I wanted to eat. The damned Sharpie Crows could peck each other to death for all I cared.

Like Murakami’s novels, these stories tend to be about alienation and loneliness. Most of his characters have trouble connecting with others, and when they do it often doesn’t go as well as they hope. Murakami  seems to see being alone as the essential condition of life:

He found it natural to be by himself:  it was a kind of premise for living. (“Tony Takitani”, 1990).

In  “The Ice Man” (1991) the couple go to the South Pole which “turned out to be lonelier than anything I could have imagined”. “The year of spaghetti”  (1981/82) concludes with the narrator alone, cooking spaghetti and suggesting that, in exporting durum, the Italians had exported “loneliness”. And so on, from story to story. Somewhat related to this focus on loneliness is a sort of fatalism, a view that life is not to be understood but just is:

Life: I’ll never understand it. (says Tony Takitani, in “Tony Takitani”, 1990)

Life is pretty damn hard. (says a girl to the narrator in “A ‘Poor Aunt’s’ story”, 1980/81)

That’s life. (says the young man, about something pretty trivial, in “A perfect day for kangaroos”,  1981/82)

He had to be as true to his homosexuality as he was to his music. That’s music, and that’s life. (“Chance traveller”, 2005)

Get all the fun out of life while you’re still able. They’ll serve you the bill soon enough. (“Hanalei Bay”, 2005)

And alongside all this, Murakami explores the fine line between reality and unreality or illusion. His characters tend to either escape reality when they can or find it slipping away from them – or, conversely, find it intruding when they don’t want it. The young couple in “A folklore for my generation” (1989) find “reality … invisibly starting to worm its way between them”. The first-person narrator in “Man-eating cats” (1991) writes that “for a second or two my consciousness strayed on the border between reality and the unreal … I couldn’t get a purchase on the situation” and a little later says “From time to time I was sure that I could make out the cat’s eyes, sparkling between the branches. But it was just an illusion”. And in one of my favourite stories, “A ‘Poor Aunt’ story” (1980/81), the fictional aunt becomes “real”, “stuck” to the narrator’s back, and disconcerts his friends:

‘Gives me the creeps’, said one friend.
‘Don’t let her bother you. She minds her own business. She’s harmless enough.’
‘I know, I know.  But, I don’t know why, she’s depressing.’
‘So try not to look.’
‘OK, I suppose’. Then a sigh. ‘Where’d you have to go to get something like that on your back?’
‘It’s not that I went anywhere. I just kept thinking about some things. That’s all.’

Not only do I like this for its idea – the making concrete of the thing you are thinking about – but it’s a good example of Murakami’s facility with dialogue.  “A ‘Poor Aunt’ story” has to be a bit of a writer’s manifesto – about the power and the limits to that power of words (and perhaps more generally of art). In fact, the idea of art as salvation appears a couple of times in the book. Earlier in this story it is suggested that writing about something, like a poor aunt, means “offering it salvation” and in “A seventh man” (1996) there’s a sense that art may offer “some kind of salvation … some sort of recovery”.

I could write much more on this book – tease out delicious story after delicious story, and give lots of examples of his expressive imagery, such as “I was beginning to feel like a dentist’s chair – hated by noone but avoided by everyone” (“A ‘Poor Aunt’ story”). However, that might spoil the pleasure for you (if you haven’t already read it), so I will finish with Murakami’s own words from his introduction:

My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left behind. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are the guideposts to my heart, and it makes me happy as a writer to be able to share these intimate feelings with my readers.

All I can say to this is, what a fascinating heart to know…

Haruki Murakami
(Trans: Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin)
Blind willow, sleeping woman
London: Vintage Books, 2007
436pp.
ISBN: 9780099488668

19 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2010 1:05 am

    I have never read anything by Murakami, but I really want to. This short story collection looks beautiful. And your review of it was a treat to read.

    • July 19, 2010 8:56 am

      Thanks Iris. Norwegian wood is a good place to start, as are any of his short story collections. I’ve only read 3 of his novels but plan to read more. I look forward to reading a review from you one day.

  2. July 20, 2010 3:13 am

    I too loved this book. Have you read ‘Norwegian Wood’ which is my personal Mukakami favorite? I want to read his ‘Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’; it’s kind of long, and he has so many shorter books and stories out there. An excellent writer.

    • July 20, 2010 8:43 am

      Great Tony … thought he might be up your alley too. Yes, I’ve read Norwegian Wood. Also Hard-boiled wonderland and the end of the world, and After dark, plus some short stories (but this is my first actual collection of his that I’ve read. The wind-up bird chronicle is in my TBR too! I find it hard really to say a favourite. One of the stories in this collection is, as you probably know, excerpted from Norwegian Wood. (I think it’s the only one that’s an excerpt.)

  3. July 22, 2010 4:44 pm

    I am a fan of HM but have not read his short story collection. I can’t buy any more books at the moment (too many waiting) but I think if I see it in a bookshop I’ll get it as a sort of planned impulse buy

    • July 22, 2010 11:17 pm

      LOL I know exactly how you feel … “planned impulse” sounds like just what I often do!! And this is well worth it…

  4. July 27, 2010 1:54 am

    Oh wow, these sound good. I really have to read more Murakami. I read and loved hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World a couple years ago and I don’t know why I haven’t managed to read anything else by him since. sigh, so many books to read!

  5. July 27, 2010 10:00 am

    So many books – LOL Stefanie, you said it! I loved Hard boiled… too. It was my second of his. If you want to read more Murakami his short stories are well worth it – you wouldn’t, I think, feel shortchanged if you read some of those rather than his novels.

  6. July 28, 2010 10:58 am

    I didn’t like this collection as much as others.

    I am looking forward to reading his essays while he trains for a marathon; it’s on TBR shelf.

    • July 28, 2010 3:31 pm

      Thanks for coming by and commenting Isabel. I’d love to know which ones you liked better. Re essays. Do you mean the little book What I talk about when I talk about running? I reviewed that here a while ago: http://wp.me/pvQq3-aK If it’s something else you are talking about then I’d love to know. Another of his books that I’d like to read is Underground. Have you read it?

  7. July 29, 2010 1:30 am

    Hi again, The book on my TBR is What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, so it is what you posted about earlier.

    Haven’t read Underground yet.

    I read these novels before I started to blog:
    Wind Up Bird Chronicle – learned about what Japanese soldiers did in WWII, a still taboo subject in Japan.
    Sputnik Sweetheart

    I also read A Wild Sheep Chase but forgot to link it to my Book Review list.

    Some readers love his short stories and other just his novels. I like both, but I have to be in the mood to read either ss or novels.

    • July 29, 2010 10:13 am

      I like both too. Before blogging I read Norwegian wood, Hard boiled wonderland and the end of the world, and After dark. I have The wind-up bird chronicle and Kafka on the shore on my TBR piles. I’ve read one other standalone short story – think it was called “Flat iron”. I’d like to read more as I’ve said – we are in big agreement on this aren’t we!

  8. May 7, 2011 9:10 am

    Excellent post and a great story collection

    • May 8, 2011 7:51 pm

      Thanks mrts. You’ve read it too then? I enjoy Murakami – novels and short stories.

  9. May 15, 2011 12:28 pm

    Hi Whispering Gums! i just picked up this book yesterday. i’m on the 5th story now, but i couldn’t see the sense in it. what kind of thinking do i have to put on when reading a Murakami book?? It’s his first work i’ve ever bought. the first 4 stories don’t make sense to me, i dunno if i can enthusiastically read the rest. i love reading, but it’s my first time to encounter such style as that from Blind Willow Sleeping Woman. Please advise me on what do–
    http://odeeblah.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/haruki-murakami-traffic-and-bad-smell/

    • May 15, 2011 5:45 pm

      HI Odee … oh dear, I’m not sure I can exactly advise you except to say you do have to suspend your disbelief when reading his stories/novels. The things that happen aren’t “real” in the logical sense though they are real in the emotional sense – that is, they convey the feelings of the characters, their sense of where they are in the world/what life means to them. Does that help at all?

      I can’t remember which are the first 5 stories and I’m currently holidaying (in Japan in fact!) so can’t look at my book to give you anything more precise. Most people start Murakami with Norwegian Wood. You may like to introduce yourself to him through that and see how you go?

  10. May 16, 2011 8:46 am

    I’ve been meaning to read Norwegian Wood, but when i went to the bookstore it was out of stock so i got Blind Willow instead. The next two stories (5th and 6th) are actually interesting, and i saw through those what you mean by “things happening in the emotional sense”.

    Murakami’s writing style is very foreign to me, i can’t say that i’m enjoying Blind Willow very much. Maybe i’ll read the book through finish first and then come back here to tell you what i think then. 🙂

    Thank you for the review, and of course for your reply as well! 😀

    • May 16, 2011 10:02 pm

      Oh good, glad you have liked some to make you 600 pesos worthwhile. Do come back and tell me at the end what you think.

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