Shortly after ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage‘ was published in 2014, it was announced that Haruki Murakami’s first two novellas ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and ‘Pinball, 1973’ would be retranslated and reissued in English. Originally published in Japan in 1979 and 1980 respectively, the English translations by Alfred Birnbaum have long been out of print. Despite Murakami’s cult status followed by increasing commercial success across the world and with rare copies of the original translations selling for hundreds of pounds on eBay, it’s surprising that the novellas haven’t been reissued sooner. Last year, new translations by Ted Goossen were finally made available in one volume under the shortened title ‘Wind/Pinball’.
‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and ‘Pinball 1973’ are actually the first two parts of a “trilogy” while the third part ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ has already been widely available in English since 1989. I can’t think of any other series where it would be even remotely conceivable to translate the final book of a trilogy as a stand-alone novel a quarter of a century before making the first two volumes available outside Japan. However, in the case of Murakami’s earliest works, it makes virtually no difference which order you read them in due to the total absence of a linear plot.
The only real connection between the three books is the presence of the same unnamed narrator along with his friend known as the Rat. Although both ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ and ‘Pinball 1973’ have the barest of “plots” consisting of an aimless series of bizarre events and random musings, ‘Hear the Wind Sing’ is particularly disjointed. It is a very sketchy outline of the thoughts of an unnamed narrator, a student who spends a lot of time in J’s bar with the Rat, and his feelings about previous relationships. Murakami reveals in the introduction that he started writing his first novel in English rather than Japanese and the limitations imposed by writing in a foreign language partially explain how this fragmented style developed.
In ‘Pinball 1973’, the narrator has finished his studies, moved to Tokyo and is attempting to track down a particular type of spaceship pinball machine he used to be obsessed with. Meanwhile, the Rat is still languishing in J’s bar but there is less focus on him this time. This second novella is noticeably more assured and less like a creative writing exercise compared with ‘Hear the Wind Sing’, demonstrating how quickly Murakami’s narrative style was developing at the time.
Despite being his first novels, I wouldn’t say that ‘Wind/Pinball’ has now become the best place to start for newcomers to Murakami. His more established classics such as ‘Norwegian Wood’ or ‘Kafka on the Shore’ are better introductions to his novels. However, while ‘Wind/Pinball’ will appeal the most to established fans who are interested in the early development of Murakami’s surrealism, they are far more accessible and contemporary in style than I thought they would be. Many of Murakami’s trademark themes and characteristics including loneliness, cooking spaghetti and numerous pop culture references are already evident in these early works which should please his fans.
Not just for Murakami completists, ‘Wind/Pinball’ offers a fascinating insight into the career beginnings of one of the most inventive novelists in the world today. Murakami has reportedly been quite resistant towards making his first two novellas available outside Japan but as long as they are read and enjoyed for what they are – early experimental fragments of writing rather than lost classics – then they will not disappoint.