Monday, September 25, 2023

Haruki Murakami, part 2: The hard-boiled wonderland

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami. Photo credit: Kevin Trageser / Redux. Image source: The New Yorker

In this post series I am discussing three Haruki Murakami-related works:

  • David Karashima's Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami (Soft Skull, 2020), an examination of the English-language publication of Murakami's books from his first novella through his international breakthrough The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995/1997).
  • Jay Rubin's Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (Harvill, 2002/Vintage 2005), a survey of Murakami's life and work up through the publication of Umibe no Kafuka (Kafka on the Shore, 2002/2005).
  • Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car (2021), the Academy-Award-winning film based on two Murakami short stories published in the collection Men Without Women (2014).

For a discussion of the Murakami novels that were published in the Kodansha English Library series for Japanese readers learning English, please see Haruki Murakami, part 1: The English Library novels.

Cover of A Wild Sheep Chase

Cover design: Shigeo Okamoto. Image source: Raptis Rare Books

After translating Pinball, 1973 (1980/1985), Hear the Wind Sing (1979/1987), and Norwegian Wood (1987/1989) for the Kodansha English Library, Alfred Birnbaum was finally able to work on the novel that had originally inspired him to translate Murakami. The title A Wild Sheep Chase is not a literal translation of Murakami's original Japanese title Hitsuji o meguru bōken (which means something like "An Adventure Involving Sheep"), but instead is Birnbaum's inspiration, recalling the English expression "a wild goose chase."

This is an approach that characterizes Birnbaum's translations in general: he is more concerned with rendering Murakami's writing in a vivid way that will engage American and UK readers than with strict fidelity to the Japanese original. And with this book he was working with a new editor, Elmer Luke, who had been hired (along with several others) at Kodansha with the goal of increasing U.S. sales. A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami's third novel, had originally been intended for the English Library series. But with Luke's backing, Kodansha decided to publish it in hardback in the U.S., where it came out in 1989.

A Wild Sheep Chase features many tropes that recur in Murakami's later books: the interaction between an alternate world and everyday reality; a laconic, whiskey-drinking protagonist who becomes enmeshed in a mystery and reluctantly takes on the role of detective; and traces of the lingering but unacknowledged traumas of World War II. I had read fiction by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Kōbō Abe, and Junichirō Tanizaki, but Murakami's narrative voice (at least, as rendered into English by Birnbaum) seemed more like a contemporary cross between Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Chandler.

The plot of A Wild Sheep Chase defies easy summary; Rubin's synopsis takes a dozen pages. But here's my attempt in a few paragraphs: Five years after the action of Pinball, 1973, the protagonist Boku ("I") is 29 (Murakami's age in 1978), is divorced after four years of marriage, is running a small advertising agency, and is currently living with a girlfriend who has perfect ears. Boku's college friend, the Rat, has disappeared but has kept in touch periodically by mail. The last communication Boku received from the Rat contained a photograph of sheep and a request that he make the photo public in some way. Boku uses the photo in an ad, and shortly afterward is visited by a sinister man dressed in black. He is acting for his shadowy Boss, who has a keen interest in a particular sheep with a star-shaped mark on its back that appears in the photo.

Boku and his girlfriend set off to find the Rat, a journey that takes them to the northern island of Hokkaidō. There at the girlfriend's suggestion they check into the Dolphin Hotel, where they meet the "Sheep Professor." The old man reveals that in the mid-1930s he was briefly possessed by the malevolent spirit of the sheep with the star-shaped mark; it soon moved on to other hosts. Boku finds his way to the Rat's cottage, where he encounters the "Sheep Man," who wears a self-fashioned sheepskin suit.

The Sheep Man

Illustration of the Sheep Man by Haruki Murakami, from Hitsuji o meguru bōken. Image source: Niponica: Discovering Japan

Boku decides to wait in the cottage for the Rat; the first night, while he's sleeping, his girlfriend disappears (shades of the twins in Pinball, 1973). Ultimately Boku learns what became of the Rat and the significance of the sheep with the star-shaped mark. (And, indeed, of all the sheep in Japan: they were imported as a domestic source of the wool needed to make winter uniforms for the Japanese Army's invasion of northern China; they are a legacy of Japan's violent imperialist past.)

One reason A Wild Sheep Chase seems so immediate to English-language readers is due to Birnbaum and Luke's choice to eliminate dates in the novel. It has a prelude set on a specific day in 1970: 25 November, the day that the right-wing writer Yukio Mishima committed seppuku after failing to rouse the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to revolt and restore the Emperor to power, a news story unfolding live on the soundless TV set in the bar where an indifferent Boku is having a beer. The major events of the narrative occur eight years later (the novel itself was originally published in 1982). But in Birnbaum's translation references to specific dates are omitted or obscured. As a result the novel seems to take place in the present day of the reader, rather than in a particular moment in the past.

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Murakami translator Jay Rubin suggests that in his view Birnbaum is too free in his translation of A Wild Sheep Chase. He gives as an example Birnbaum's rendering of the title of Chapter 24, "Iwashi no tanjo" (The birth of Sardine) as "One for the Kipper." (The reference is to a cat, who over the course of the chapter acquires the name Kipper, or Sardine.)

Rubin writes, "Set in 1978, the novel should not have contained—and does not in the original—this reference to the famous movie line 'Make it one for the Gipper,' which flourished during the Reagan years after 1980" (p. 189). The actual line from Knute Rockne, All American (1940) is "win just one for the Gipper." Reagan used the catchphrase (without the qualifying "just") in his 1965 autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?, adopted "Gipper" as his nickname, and used it throughout his political career: a Time magazine article from 29 March 1976 refers to Reagan as "Gipper" three times, including in the headline. Rubin's claim that "one for the Gipper" is a phrase that could not have been known to a narrator in the late 1970s is unfounded.

And there's another connection that might have been known to Birnbaum. The day of the Army-Notre Dame football game in which coach Knute Rockne gave the "win one for the Gipper" halftime speech was 10 November 1928. Newspapers carrying previews of the game also had front-page headlines reporting Hirohito's enthronement ceremonies as the Emperor of Japan.

Newspaper headlines from 10 November 1925

Front page of the Taunton (Mass.) Daily Gazette, 10 November 1928. Image source: Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers

It was under Hirohito's rule, of course, that Japan's wars of imperial conquest in Asia and the Pacific were waged. Since the star-backed sheep represents the violent, nationalistic elements that remain present but hidden in Japanese society, Birnbaum's reference to the Gipper, and thus through historical association to Hirohito's accession, seems perfectly apposite and historically resonant.

A Wild Sheep Chase received many good reviews (my initial interest in the novel must have been sparked by one) and sold a respectable 8500 copies, but it was just the beginning. Birnbaum and Luke began searching for a follow-up. Although in 1988 Murakami had written a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, Dansu dansu dansu (Dance Dance Dance), and Norwegian Wood had been a bestseller in both its original Japanese and its English Library editions, neither was the next novel selected. Luke thought that Norwegian Wood's coming-of-age story was "too Japanese" to be the next Murakami book English-language readers encountered. And Dansu Dansu Dansu probably would not expand his readership beyond those who had already liked A Wild Sheep Chase.

Instead Birnbaum and Luke decided on Murakami's fourth novel, Sekai no owari to Hādo-boirudo Wandārando (The End of the World and Hard-Boiled Wonderland, 1985), which was longer and, with its parallel-worlds plot, even more complex than A Wild Sheep Chase.

Cover of Hard-Boiled Wonderland

Cover design: Shigeo Okamoto. Image source: Huc & Gabet

Again the title was freely translated, this time reversing the order of the two worlds in the original (neither Birnbaum nor Luke wanted the book to be known as End of the World, which they thought was clichéd). Murakami had distinguished the two worlds of the novel in part through the first-person pronouns employed: in the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters, which take place in a near-future Tokyo, the narrator uses the more formal watashi; in the End of the World sections, which occur in a dreamlike (or nightmarish) walled Town, the more familiar boku. English, of course, has only one first-person pronoun, "I." Birnbaum chose to render the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters in the past tense, and the alternating End of the World chapters in the present tense. (As it will turn out, there is no sense of the past in the End of the World.)

In the biggest change from the Japanese original, Luke estimates that he and Birnbaum cut about a hundred pages of material, much of which relates to the 17-year-old Girl in Pink and her relentless (and graphically explicit) sexual pursuit of the 35-year-old narrator. Luke finds the Girl in Pink material "preposterous almost," and Birnbaum defends their cuts of "an embarrassing amount of unfocused extraneous material" (Karashima pp. 116, 120). Even so, the translation came in at 400 pages, a third longer than A Wild Sheep Chase.

If A Wild Sheep Chase adopted aspects of hardboiled crime novels, Hard-Boiled Wonderland additionally incorporates elements of cyberpunk and fantasy fiction. Watashi, the sardonic first-person narrator in the Hard-Boiled Wonderland, is a Calcutec: a human computer who encrypts and stores data in his brain. There is another group of human computers called the Semiotecs, who are rogue Calcutecs using their skills to steal data and sell it for profit or use it for their own ends. Semiotecs work for an organization called the Factory, which opposes the corporate System that controls Tokyo and creates and directs Calcutecs. There are hints that the Factory and the System are both parts of the same vast organization, and (like the global adversaries in Orwell's 1984) both Factory and System benefit from their perpetual war.

Watashi takes a job at a bizarre office building with a huge elevator and corridors that go on seemingly without end; this is where he meets the Girl in Pink, who is the receptionist. From his office Watashi descends a ladder to a subterranean river, the realm of the dangerous INKlings. The office is really a cover for the laboratory of the elderly Professor (grandfather of the Girl in Pink), who has set up his laboratory deep underground. Although the INKlings are hostile to humans, they are also a form of security. Their presence serves to deter anyone from stealing the Professor's research: he has found a way to record images from the subconscious.

The Professor asks the Calcutec to process his data by "shuffling," a highly restricted procedure that involves passing the data through the Calcutec's subconscious. It turns out that that the Professor used to be Chief of Research for the System. He is the one who enabled Calcutecs to shuffle data by recording their subconscious images, editing them into a semi-coherent story, and implanting them back in their brains. Watashi is the only surviving Calcutec who has undergone this procedure; his implanted story is called "The End of the World."

In a parallel narrative, we encounter the first-person narrator Boku. He has recently arrived in a walled Town, from which no one is allowed to leave. On Boku's arrival, the Town's Gatekeeper has severed his Shadow, where all his memories are stored. Shadows are left to die, along with the unicorns that absorb the final traces of the Townspeople's dreams and live outside the Town, exposed to the harsh winter. As his own individuality slowly fades, Boku plots to reunite with his Shadow and escape the Town.

As elements from one narrative gradually bleed into the other, we come to realize that the Town is Watashi's subconscious "End of the World." The data shuffling that the Professor has had the Calcutec perform will sever the connection between Watashi's conscious mind and the real world of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland. In little more than a day Watashi will be forever sealed inside his own mind, unless the Professor reverses the process. But Factory thugs, aided by INKlings, have broken into and destroyed the Professor's laboratory. . .

Published in the U.S. in 1991, Hard-Boiled Wonderland was not quite as widely or as well reviewed as A Wild Sheep Chase, and sold only about 5,000 copies in hardback. (One of those is on my shelf.) Murakami had lost some of his novelty value, in part because it had been two years since the publication of A Wild Sheep Chase, and in part because it was becoming clear that he was not alone.

In the wake of the success of A Wild Sheep Chase, Birnbaum had edited and translated a collection of recent Japanese short stories and novel excerpts with the arresting title Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction. In his review of Hard-Boiled Wonderland, science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling wrote that Monkey Brain Sushi "demonstrates that there are plenty more where Murakami came from. Slangy, vivid, caustic and political, media-soaked and set on fast-forward, this 'New Fiction' crowd is fiercely intent on showing the world that Kawabata, Tanizaki and Mishima are history" (Karashima p. 123). As indeed they were; the most lately deceased of the three had died twenty years before Sterling's review was published. And of course part of the "slangy, vivid" character of the writing reflected Birnbaum's style as a translator.

Murakami was disappointed that his U.S. sales hadn't grown with Kodansha. He decided to switch agents and publishers, a change that would ultimately also mean a change in translators, and in his literary fortunes.

Next time: The transition: The Elephant Vanishes and Dance Dance Dance.

Other posts in this series:

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Haruki Murakami, part 1: The English Library novels

Haruki Murakami. Photo credit: Kevin Trageser / Redux. Image source: The New Yorker

Haruki Murakami was the bestselling author of six novels in Japan before any of his books were published outside of that country. But less than a decade after the U.S. publication of his third novel Hitsuji o meguru bōken as A Wild Sheep Chase in 1989, Murakami had become an international phenomenon. Today he is by far the best-known contemporary Japanese writer; his books are instant bestsellers but also receive serious critical attention. He has been a member of the visiting faculty of Princeton and Harvard, has given a lecture series at UC Berkeley, and has received an honorary degree from Yale. There is even a library dedicated to Murakami at his alma mater Waseda University.

Waseda International House of Literature (The Haruki Murakami Library). Image source: Niponica: Discovering Japan

In this post series I'll be discussing three Murakami-related works:

  • David Karashima's Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami (Soft Skull, 2020), an examination of the English-language publication of Murakami's books from his first novella through his international breakthrough The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995/1997).
  • Jay Rubin's Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (Harvill, 2002/Vintage 2005), a survey of Murakami's life and work up through the publication of Umibe no Kafuka (Kafka on the Shore, 2002/2005).
  • Ryūsuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car (2021), the Academy-Award-winning film based on two Murakami short stories published in the collection Men Without Women (2014).

David Karashima's Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami begins with the reason English-language readers know Murakami today: translator Alfred Birnbaum. Birnbaum had first encountered Murakami's writing in the early 1980s while working as a translator for Japanese art and design books published by Kodansha International. After a friend urged him to read a short story collection by Murakami, Birnbaum translated several of the stories on spec. During a meeting with a Kodansha editor in the spring of 1984 Birnbaum brought out his translation of the story "Nyū Yōku tankō no higeki" ("New York Mining Disaster"), and expressed interest in translating Murakami's most recent novel Hitsuji o meguru bōken, which had won the Kodansha-associated Noma New Writer's Prize in 1982 and had become a bestseller.

Instead he was given Murakami's first two short novels, Kaze no uta o kike (Listen to the Wind's Song), published in 1979, and 1973-nen no pinbōru (1973 Pinball), published in 1980. Murakami called these his "kitchen table novels," because he wrote them at his kitchen table in his off hours from running the bar he owned with his wife. [1]

Birnbaum translated the second book first, and at the suggestion of editor Jules Young titled it Pinball, 1973. In 1985 Birnbaum's translation was published in the paperback Kodansha English Library, a series published only in Japan and intended for Japanese readers who were learning English. (Each volume contained an English-Japanese glossary at the back.)

Cover illustration: Maki Sasaki. Image source: Book Dragon

Pinball, 1973 alternates between the stories of the nameless narrator (Jay Rubin calls him "Boku," after one of the Japanese words for "I") and a college friend nicknamed the Rat, who is trying to become a writer. Both men are in their mid-20s and somewhat adrift. 

The Rat spends most of his time at J's Bar in Kobe. He's trying to work up the courage to leave a woman he's become involved with, because their relationship is apparently a barrier to his writing ambitions. (A reader may imagine that spending hours drinking in a bar every day instead of writing might be a greater barrier to getting anything done.) One day the Rat simply decides never to call the woman again, and leaves town for destinations unknown. [2]

Boku is living in Tokyo with cute twins whom he can only identify by their numbered sweatshirts (208 and 209). He embarks on a quest to find an unusual pinball machine that he used to play at a Tokyo arcade that closed down three years previously. Once Boku's quest reaches its end with a surreal encounter in an eerie pinball machine warehouse, the twins leave. Either obstacles and distractions, or muses, guides and healers for his male protagonists: early on Murakami set out the limited roles available to many of his women characters.

He also introduced some of the elements that would become recurring tropes in his fiction. On the first page we read that people tell the narrator stories "as if they were tossing rocks down a dry well"; the image of a well will recur in the later novels A Wild Sheep Chase and Norwegian Wood, and the protagonist will spend much of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at the bottom of a dry well. Also featured is the narrator's obsession with ears: in this novel, every evening after his bath the twins would "sit one on each side of me and simultaneously clean both my ears. The two of them were positively great at cleaning ears." If this sounds vaguely sexual, that suspicion will be borne out in his later books.

Pinball, 1973 also displayed Murakami's tendency to present banalities or truisms as insights:

". . . .if a person would just make an effort, there's something to be learned from everything. From even the most ordinary, commonplace things, there's always something you can learn." (p. 96)

The past and the present, we might say, "go like this." The future is a "maybe." Yet when we look back on the darkness that obscures the path that brought us this far, we only come up with another indefinite "maybe." The only thing we perceive with any clarity is the present moment, and even that just passes by. (p. 177)

Pinball, 1973 went on to multiple printings: my copy purchased in the early 1990s is the eighth. On the strength of its success Birnbaum published two more Murakami translations in the English Library: Kaze no uta o kike as Hear the Wind Sing in 1987, and the multimillion-selling blockbuster Noruwei no mori (1987), Murakami's fifth novel, as Norwegian Wood in 1989.

Cover illustration: Maki Sasaki. Image source:

The second novel of Murakami's to be translated into English was the first work of fiction he wrote. The novel is about the unnamed narrator's struggles to write the very book we are reading. The narrator (again, following Rubin, we'll call him Boku) looks back from 1979 on his friendship a decade previously with his college buddy the Rat. Although the Rat has ambitions to be a writer, he spends most of his time drinking beer with Boku in J's Bar. Both of them attend university in Tokyo, and are home in Kobe for the summer. The novel is set in August 1970, three years before the action of Pinball, 1973, and just months after the militant Japanese student protest movement was violently suppressed by the police. Boku has a broken tooth sustained in a police confrontation, but both he and the Rat have become disillusioned with political action, or, really, any kind of action at all.

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Rubin offers a revised translation of the first chapter of Hear the Wing Sing. [3] Comparing Birnbaum's and Rubin's translations points up some characteristic differences in their approaches. In the following passage I've placed Rubin's revisions in parentheses following Birnbaum's version:

". . .when it came to getting something into writing, I was always overcome with despair. The range of my ability was just too limited. Even if I could write, say, about elephants (an elephant), I probably couldn't have written a thing about elephant trainers (the elephant's keeper). So it went (That kind of thing).

For eight years I was caught in (went on wrestling with) that dilemma—and eight years is a long time. . .Now I think I'm ready to talk (Now I'm ready to tell). . .Still, it's awfully hard to tell things honestly. The more honest I try to be, the more the right words recede into the distance (sink into the darkness).

I don't mean to rationalize (I'm not making excuses), but at least this writing is my present best (the best I can do for now). There's nothing more to say. And yet I find myself thinking that if everything goes well, sometime way ahead, years, maybe decades, (even decades) from now, I might discover at last that these efforts have been my salvation (discover myself saved). Then lo, at that point, the elephants will return to the plains and I will set forth a vision in words more beautiful (And then, at that time, the elephant will return to the plain, and I shall begin to tell the tale of the world in words more beautiful than these). (Hear the Wing Sing, pp. 5-6|Rubin, pp. 41-42) [4]

I don't read Japanese, so I can't judge these translations by their fidelity to the original. But I do have some thoughts about tone.

Rubin's narrator is earnest and describes his situation with more than a touch of post-adolescent melodrama: the right words "sink into the darkness," in the future he "may discover myself saved," and then he will "tell the tale of the world." Birnbaum's narrator is more self-mocking: in "So it went" there's the echo of Kurt Vonnegut's fatalistic "So it goes" from Slaughterhouse-Five, words "recede into the distance" instead of "sink into the darkness," and "Then lo, at that point," deflates the pomposity of his talk of salvation through a self-ridiculing awareness of how Biblical he's begun to sound.

Rubin's narrator grandiosely says he will "tell the tale of the world"; Birnbaum's will "set forth a vision"—undercutting himself with more of that ironic pseudo-Biblical diction, and making no claims to universality. Finally, Rubin's narrator is "wrestling" with his dilemma, while Birnbaum's is "caught" in his, a word that seems better to capture the narrator's detachment and passivity. Birnbaum's translation is sometimes clunky—"sometime way ahead, years, maybe decades, from now" has a lot of commas over the course of a very few words. And there would seem to be a significant difference (which I can't resolve) between an elephant trainer and an elephant keeper (Ted Goosens' later translation also uses "trainer"). But to my mind's ear Rubin's translation is no less clunky—"discover myself saved" as an example—and his choices makes the narrator sound as though he's lacking the ironic self-awareness of Birnbaum's.

Image source: Raptis Rare Books

As Birnbaum finished his translation of Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami published his fifth novel, Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood) in September 1987. [5] It became a massive bestseller, selling millions of copies over the next 15 months. Birnbaum's editor Jules Young requested that he translate it immediately for the English Library. 

Birnbaum was unenthusiastic. He found that the novel was "missing the humor and surreal aspects I liked" and was "a bit sentimental," and he had already started translating A Wild Sheep Chase. But he did not have the luxury of turning down a job, and so he agreed to do both. I think Birnbaum's hesitations were justified. If Norwegian Wood had been the first Murakami novel I read, I doubt that I would have been interested in reading any of his other fiction.

This time Murakami's narrator has a name—Tōru Watanabe—and is once again looking back at his college-age self from Murakami's age at the time of writing (38). The novel takes place against the distant background of the Japanese student movement of the late 1960s. In the foreground are the love troubles of the young Tōru, who has come from his home town of Kobe to attend university in Tokyo (again, like Murakami himself).

Tōru is torn between two women. The first is Naoko, the former girlfriend of Tōru's best friend in high school, Kizuki. Death seems to surround her: both Naoko's sister and Kizuki committed suicide, and she herself has dark thoughts that have resulted in her leaving college to go to a sanatorium-like retreat in the mountains. The second woman in Tōru's life is the lively, outgoing, un- (or less-) complicated Midori, who makes overtures to Tōru even though she already has a boyfriend. Yes, it's a woman who represents the death drive versus a woman who represents the life force.

Complicating matters is Naoko's roommate at the sanatorium, a 39-year-old woman named Reiko, who pours out her life story to the sympathetic Tōru. That story involves her experiences as a musician, wife and mother, until her lesbian seduction (recounted at multi-page length and in explicit detail) by a beautiful but malevolent 13-year-old (!) student.  Reiko's marriage and career are destroyed, and she has a breakdown that brings her to the sanatorium. [6]

Rubin calls Reiko's tale "a compelling, heartbreaking story" that has the reader "hanging on every word" (p. 4). Another perspective might be that her story indulges in tiresome clichés about predatory lesbians, and provides prurient details for the titillation of both Tōru and the reader.

Reiko's friendship with Tōru ultimately leads her to leave the illusory safety of the sanatorium to go stay with Tōru in Tokyo. The (literal) seductions of lesbianism are, of course, vanquished by a night of passionate (unprotected, intergenerational and semi-incestuous) sex with the straight hero. [7]

It's been a while since I've read Norwegian Wood, but I don't think I'm exaggerating its schematic and stereotypical qualities. But despite (or perhaps because of) those qualities it made Murakami the most successful novelist in Japan. In 2010 it was adapted as a film by writer-director Anh Hung Tran.

Given Murakami's subsequent international fame, it's curious that Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973, and Norwegian Wood were available in English in Japan a least a decade before they were published in any English-speaking country. (Norwegian Wood was published in the U.S. in a new translation by Rubin in 1999, and the first two novels were published in new translations by Ted Goosens in 2015.) But perhaps this was a wise choice on the part of Kodansha. I bought all three English Library titles as imports at the Kinokuniya Bookstore in San Francisco's Japantown after reading the U.S. edition of A Wild Sheep Chase shortly after it came out. I recall being disappointed in each of them. The two short novels seemed slight, and Norwegian Wood seemed conventional in the worst senses, in comparison to the first Murakami novel published in the U.S.: A Wild Sheep Chase. [8]

Next time: Murakami's first U.S. publications: A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Other posts in this series:

  1. This is often described as a "jazz bar," but it didn't feature live bands; Murakami played jazz records as background music.
  2. In A Wild Sheep Chase, the third novel in the so-called "Rat Trilogy" and which takes place half a decade later, Boku will go in search of the Rat.
  3. In the foreword to the U.S. publication of the first two novellas (in a new translation by Ted Goosens), Murakami reports that his breakthrough into writing was to compose the opening passages of Hear the Wind Sing in English after the manner of the American writers he was currently reading, such as Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver. He then "translated" the passages back into Japanese. In the early 1980s Murakami had begun to translate American fiction into Japanese, and the boku-hero of Pinball, 1973 has set up an English translation agency with the Rat.
  4. It's interesting that this passage describes the narrator's inability to write about an elephant keeper. The disappearance of an elephant and his keeper will be the central event in Murakami's later short story "The Elephant Vanishes," and elephants will turn up in several of Murakami's other stories and novels. Again, an apparently casual or random reference turns out to be a recurring motif.
  5. "Noruwei no mori"—literally, "A Forest in Norway"—is, according to Rubin, "the standard Japanese mistranslation of The Beatles' song 'Norwegian Wood'," which features repeatedly in the novel. (p. 149)
  6. I don't recall the disturbing detail of the student's age in Birnbaum's translation, but it is definitely present in Rubin's later retranslation. Bisexual or lesbian characters also recur in Murakami's fiction.
  7. The apparently irresistible sexual magnetism of Murakami's protagonists, who are frequently provided with semi-autobiographical characteristics, is another frequent feature of his fiction.  In 1Q84 (2009/2011), a beautiful bisexual assassin has a deep sexual attraction to middle-aged men with receding hairlines; in 2009 Murakami turned 60.
  8. I was so disappointed in Norwegian Wood that I sold my two-volume red and green English Library copy to a used bookstore. I probably got $5 for both volumes. These days copies of the two-volume English Library edition, even in later printings, are selling for hundreds of dollars; signed first printings go for thousands.