It might seem funny that an author with such a well-known name as Haruki Murakami had two first books that were never widely published in English until this year, but there you have it. The world is a strange place.
“Hear the Wing Sing” and “Pinball: 1973” were Murakami’s first novels. Written at his kitchen table after he finished working, around 3am in the morning.
As he describes in the prelude to the book, he was watching a Yakult Swallows Baseball game in April 1978, when it all of a sudden occurred to him, “I think I can write a novel”. He was 29.
He wrote for an hour every night after finishing work for four months to produce, “Hear the Wind Sing,” his first novel. Murakami got a call from Gunzo shortly after saying his novel had been nominated for their newcomers’ literature prize. Murakami had just turned 30, and as he describes it:
“That’s when it hit me. I was going to win the prize. And I was going to go on to become a novelist who would enjoy some degree of success. It was an audacious presumption, but I was sure at that moment that it would happen. Completely sure. Not in a theoretical way, but directly and intuitively.” (The Birth of my Kitchen-Table Fiction, p.xvi)
Lesson learned: if Haruki Murakami offers to buy you a lottery ticket, say yes.
Pinball is a sequel to Wind, written a year later. A Wild Sheep Chase was his next novel. It is the sequel to Pinball and what Murakami calls, “the true beginning of my career as a novelist”. The three books form the trilogy of the Rat (so-called for one of the main characters, a young man called the Rat).
I’m a Murakami fan, so I was curious to see what his first two novels were like: Would they be heart breakingly bad? Would they be obviously genius? Would there be wells/cats/spaghetti/weird sex dreams/the usual Murakami signposts?
Here is my impression:
If an unfamiliar reader had to guess: “Which came first? Wind or Pinball?” It would be easy to pick Pinball as the more mature novel.
It’s amazing to actually see the difference in narrative between the two. Wind is well-written prose, but can be very disjointed at times. Some of the chapters could be shuffled around without the reader noticing. Chronological structure is only minorly important to the book, the chapters are more a series of episodic vignettes that take place over the course of 18 days in the summer of 1970.
Pinball’s narrative structure, humour and story arc is much better. It’s less superficial: Wind is all about the narrator and his co-star/good friend, the Rat. They’re surrounded by other character but those characters serve more as cardboard background for the narrator and Rat to act on.
In Pinball, we get more depth from both characters, albeit both have seemed to have lost their zest and are more melancholy. It’s set five years after Wind and they’re in their mid-twenties.
In Wind both characters are more fired up about their alienation from society. In Pinball they’ve sunk deeper into a general melancholy ennui with life. On the bright side, this makes them less self-centered and more able to reflect on their relationships.
For example, in Pinball the Rat has a realization that he actually knows nothing about Chinese immigrant bar owner, Jay, whose bar he’s been patronizing for the last seven years, whom he talks to almost every day.
During Wind, sometimes the philosophical tangents are too obvious. Kant is toted by the narrator in both novels. In Pinball, Murakami gets better at working philosophy into the framework of the story.
Would I recommend them?
Yes. Wind does stand on its own, but shines more as a backgrounder for Pinball, which is a much better read.
Pinball also starts to hint at that magic surrealism that Murakami would later get so damn good at. There’s one scene between a Pinball machine and the narrator in a domestic yet obscene setting (no spoilers) near the end that I’m a big fan of.
Although Wind is harder to read than Pinball, you can see some of Murakami’s themes pop up in their infancy: the influence of western culture, the love and loss cycle of relationships, wells, cultural loss, Japanese and America politics, cooking, alienation, ’60s culture, society in general.
I was interested in the way the Japanese student protests casually snuck in. Murakami mentions it in a roundabout way, and never really goes into the details, but if you read up on the Japanese student movement from the ’60s, those passages become a lot more interesting.
Neither book is very long. The Wind/Pinball edition with preface I read here is less than 250 pages. If you’re fast, you can probably read through the whole thing in a few hours.