- Vancouver, British Columbia - Murakami is a fairly popular, if controversial, novelist in Japan. He demonstrates very clear Western influences (including Kurt Vonnegut…bonus points), so his home country approaches him with fascination. He has taken some heavy flak over the years though from the Japanese literary community for that very reason, although that seems to have lessened in recent years.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of short stories he has written from 1981 through to 2005, very much in the vein of Vonnegut’s Welcome To The Monkey House. I’m going to say that’s where his similarity to Vonnegut ends though, as even though Murakami cites him as a reference, there is a marked difference in the tone of their stories. Vonnegut’s stories were fantastic in the truest sense of the word, full of humour and strange science fiction. Murakami’s work focuses mainly on relationships between people, whether intimate or distant, and even though he does occasionally employ supernatural elements, the truth of his prose is in the subtle words not spoken between the characters.
Before I go on, there is a limitation I must speak on. Murakami’s works were written in Japanese, and these stories have been translated by two very talented gentlemen: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. I want to say they successfully capture the tone of Murakami’s work, but in all honesty I can’t since I don’t read Japanese. With writers, words and phrasing are very delicately chosen to convey tone and as such it can be a difficult task to go from one language to another. Descriptions have to be adapted, and any imagery that may be intrinsically poetic in part because of how they are described in the story might have a slight shift in context. One could argue that the only way to appreciate any story is to read it in its original language. The same could be argued even in English…try reading through what remains of the Canterbury Tales, and you’ll see that the rhythmic devices and fluidity of the story is inherent only to the original old English. Translating it into modern English is fairly clunky, with many contextual notes (sometimes seeming apologetic), and several translations to boot. But as stands, I greatly enjoyed the writing style and tone, so I feel that Rubin and Gabriel must be congratulated for what was almost certainly a difficult task.
Intimacy is frequently a hard thing to describe in print, which is why the appearance of chemistry goes a long way in film. When you see two people who click, and read the body language between them, it transcends words. So to be able to communicate that same level of disclosure in a short story is quite a feat. That’s why I feel that when Murakami starts dabbling with humour, although it is enjoyably silly (eg. The man trying to guess a password to get into the room where his new job awaits in “Dabchick”), the result isn’t as strong. Instead, the very simple exchanges that say more in what isn’t said are powerful, as in the title story or “Hunting Knife.”
Another astonishing strength in these stories is the idiosyncrasies some of the characters cling to, such as the wife in “Tony Takitani” with her fatal obsession with clothing, and how several characters in Murakami’s stories are jazz enthusiasts. Their reactions to their own charms are as if they are everyday occurrences; as if there is nothing remarkable about them. That makes them ultimately so interesting. In real life, there is no person who is totally unremarkable, and Murakami demonstrates that he knows this. Even those who appear bland on the outside have qualities right under the surface struggling to be known.
A difficulty in reading these stories is how morose they are. There is an underlying (or sometimes blatant) sadness that doesn’t let up. It’s a very real and true emotion, but as I mentioned before, the humour isn’t as strong as the rest of the work. So the overall impression one is left with is a subtle melancholy. I don’t object to this, as I believe there are many real missed chances in life and many small tragedies, but for those who are looking to read something uplifting, I wouldn’t recommend this. As for me, I find it deep and personal, and above all else, an interesting look through the eyes of an interesting man.
Rating: 4/5 Sour Grapes