What have I learned from Haruki Murakami’s first two novels, freshly published in an English translation for the first time? Tautologically: Murakami is Murakami. If you’ve read anything else by him, some of his motifs are going to be quite familiar: main character is a young man, somewhat disconnected from the world around him, exploring life through an extended metaphor (in this case, pinball). Other characters are little more than stock; Murakami takes it somewhat further in these novels in that none of the characters, not even the narrator, have a proper name. Some have nicknames, like “the Rat” while others are just an initial (“J”) or completely unnamed.
I enjoyed some of the conceits in these two novels. The narrator’s interactions with the twins, and his assistant at the translation service, or J and the Rat, all provided little insights. Even at the beginning of his career, Murakami is able to present the world through a single character’s point of view, and iterate effortlessly in a kind of tunnel vision. It’s an interesting experience—at no point did I feel bored by the novels, despite their stories being somewhat unexciting.
Hear the Wind Sing features the narrator’s inability to properly start a relationship with a woman he takes home from a bar and nursemaids through alcohol poisoning. It’s a little creepy, and Murakami kind of lampshades that. The woman and the narrator orbit each other, each one making overtures that the other never quite decides to take up. I couldn’t really bring myself to care for this failed relationship, however, or for whatever was happening with the Rat’s subplot.
Pinball, 1974 was slightly better. The narrator seems more personable with the passage of time. The whole fetishized business of living with an interchangeable set of twins is, again, creepy. But at least this story feels like it has a little more momentum to it. Wrapped as it is around the metaphor of life like a game of pinball, Murakami seems to be flexing muscles he later builds up for his more momentous works.
I’m struggling to find something profound, or even more analytical, to say about these novels. But really, they seem remarkable only because they are Murakami’s first novels. That is to say, I wouldn’t give them a second glance if someone else had written them. And this isn’t the place to start if you’ve never read Murakami. While they definitely have his style and many of his signatures, they lack the careful flourish that I’ve enjoyed in his other novels. The building blocks are here, but Murakami has yet to assemble them into something worthy of more than a glance.