How It All Started
The popularity of Japanese master wordsmith Haruki Murakami is a reality that cannot be denied. His name has always been part of the recent conversations vis-a-vis the Nobel Prize in Literature. His brand of magical realism has re-established the stature of Japanese literature as one of the foremost segments of the vast world of literature. Through his works, he has shown that repeatedly underscored the malleability of writing, that it can be shaped beyond the image of the ordinary writer. Writing does not necessarily conform to a straightforward or single convention. This refusal to have his writing be placed in a particular box has resulted in some of the most compelling masterpieces of modern storytelling, such as Kafka on the Shore, A Wild Sheep Chase, and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. His literary vision has redefined 7storytelling and the reading experience.
With four decades of literary excellence under his belt, he has become one of the most beloved writers of our time. To trace the provenance of this success, one must travel back to mid-1970s Tokyo. The young Murakami’s rebellious spirit made him choose to pave his own path rather than be locked in a corporate job, something he never dreamed of. He and his wife pooled all their funds to open their small coffee shop-cum-bar in Kokubunji, a popular student hangout located in suburban Tokyo. Meanwhile, his literary vision started a little bit later. After attending a baseball game in 1978 – between his favorite team Yakult Swallows and Hiroshima Carp – he started working on the manuscript of what would be his first work. In his kitchen, he kept writing every free time he had, mostly before dawn. In June 1979, Kaze no uta o kike (風の歌を聴け) was published by Gunzo magazine. A month later, it was published in its book form. A year later, it was translated into English as Hear the Wind Sing.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. Just as there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” These were the words of an anonymous character, the novel’s main character and narrator which opened Murakami’s debut novel. He was a writer who was struggling to find his writing groove. The opening sequence of the novella dwelt on the narrator’s rumination on writing and storytelling: “All the same, I despaired whenever I sat down to write.” One of his major writing influences was (fictional) pulp fiction writer Derek Hartfield, who he first encountered during the summer vacation of junior high. He credited Hartfield for everything he knew about writing, even ranking him alongside literary giants Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, at least where combativeness was concerned.
“A gulf separates what we attempt to perceive from what we are actually able to perceive. It is so deep that it can never be calculated, however long our measuring stick. What I can set down here is no more than a list. It’s not a novel or even literature, nor is it art. It’s just a notebook with a line drawn down the middle. It may contain something of a moral, though.”~ Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing
In the midst of what can be surmised as writer’s block, he retold and recalled the events that transpired within three weeks of the summer of 1970, starting on August 8 and ending on August 26. He was in his early twenties and was taking up biology at a university in Tokyo. Following the unfortunate suicide of a girl he dated at university last spring, he decided to spend his summer break in his seaside hometown. There, he and his friend, the Rat, whiled away the time getting inebriated and smoking while watching baseball at their hangout, a local bar owned by J. Like the main narrator, Rat was a writer who descended from an affluent family.
Uncharacteristic of Murakami’s works, the novella was bereft of a complex plot; his later works were richly layered. The action started picking up when the main protagonist encountered a girl and, in a classic Murakami quirk, she had nine fingers. Their first encounter was not the most ideal as he came across her while she was lying prone on the floor of J’s Bar’s washroom. With no choice, he brought her home. Again by pure chance, a second meeting ensued, now at her workplace, a record shop. After their second meeting, she started calling him and their friendship started to flourish. Whenever they got together, they freely talked about everything under the sun, including their most intimate secrets. But life, as well know it, has its own ideas.
There is a certain allure to wanting to venture into the early works of a popular writer. In a way, the reader sees the experience as a means of understanding the writer’s motivation. For instance, how does Grimus compare to Salman Rushdie’s succeeding works? How does it compare to his most successful work, Midnight’s Children? The same can be said about Haruki Murakami. With the rising interest in his works of magical realism, many a reader turns their focus to the starting point of his career. This renewed interest resulted in the release of an omnibus of Murakami’s first two works, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, in 2015 with a first-time translation by Ted Goossen, a professor of Japanese Literature at York University in Toronto.
The lack of plot in Hear the Wind Sing can discourage readers, particularly those who are venturing into Murakami’s realm for the first time. The story of that summer of 1970 was built using anecdotes that the narrator recalled. There was a flow of images akin to a stream of consciousness type of storytelling, where there was no natural order. At one point, the narrator talked about his sexual overtures. At another point, he talked about his three uncles. There were also occasional interjections of philosophy as the main character muses on sex and life in general. There was an aimlessness in his inner monologue. But beyond the picture of a young man drifting through life was a young man coming into terms with a loss. Unconsciously, there was a yearning to know more about himself.
“For example, the wind has its reasons. We just don’t notice as we go about our lives. But then, at some point, we are made to notice. The wind envelops you with a certain purpose in mind, and it rocks you. The wind knows everything that’s inside you. And not just the wind. Everything, including a stone. They all know us very well. From top to bottom. It only occurs to us at certain times. And all we can do is go with those things. As we take them in, we survive, and deepen.”~ Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing
In this journey of coming to terms with loss and with himself, he found himself in the midst of unusual circumstances which inevitably led to a quandary and a decision. His coming-of-age journey, captured through the lenses of Murakami, was similar to the stories of Kafka in Kafka on the Shore, Toru Okada in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and K in Sputnik Sweetheart. The novella’s main protagonist was then the quintessence of a primary protagonist in the realm of the Murakami universe, from the fact that they were boys transitioning to be young men. They were also recluses who were jobless. There was also a general ambiguity that shrouded them in mystery.
Hear the Wind Sing did a resplendent job of setting the tone for the Murakami’s succeeding works. The novella encapsulated several fundamental elements that would be the trademark of Murakami’s literary corpus. The mysterious male protagonist and his coming of age were the most palpable. The novella had traces of magical realism, an element that would define Murakami’s succeeding works. The Japanese brand of magical realism has become synonymous with Murakami. Wells that were the access points to alternate worlds, reminiscent of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, was a concept briefly mentioned in the novella. And yes, the feline kind was represented; they were ubiquitous in the Murakami universe.
The girl’s twin was another recurring theme for Murakami whose compunction transcends alternate universes and doppelgangers. One quality of his storytelling was immediately palpable, one that would also shape his later works. The female characters in the novella were underdeveloped; Murakami has, later on, established quite a reputation for his monochromatic characterization of the female voice and role. They were mere literary devices. For instance, the female main protagonist in Hear the Wind Sing was a vessel in the growth of the male protagonist. It was through her that he was able to understand more of himself. She was also his antithesis. While he was unconsciously fighting his battle, she had to grapple with the ugly realities of the real world.
Cultural touchstones also abounded. Music, from pop to jazz, permeated the atmosphere of the novella. Murakami has always incorporated jazz music into his works; he initially envisioned his first cafe to be a place where people can listen to jazz music. The female protagonist working at a record was another reference to his love of music. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto number 3, Beach Boys LP with the song California Girls, Glenn Gould, and Backhaus were casually mentioned in a discourse on music while Brook Benton’s Rainy Night in Georgia was described as a great song. With the nature of writing as one of the main subjects, literary works such as Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace were referenced. Hartfield was critical of Tolstoy’s work while his favorite work was Marie Louise de la Ramée’s A Dog of Flanders.
“And so I continue writing this, plying my consciousness with cigarettes and beer to prevent it from sinking into the sludge of time. I take one hot shower after another, shave twice a day, listen to the same old records over and over again. In fact, the out-of-dae sounds of Peter, Paul, and Mary are playing behind me right now.”~ Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing
One might ask: where does Rat fit in all of this? While we read about the main characters’ concern and their flourishing friendship, we also get to learn more about Rat. He was troubled about a woman he met. However, Rat remained largely a mystery and he would also find himself moving in and out of Murakami’s first three works; Hear the Wind Sing, with Pinball, 1973 (1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), were collectively referred to as the Trilogy of the Rat. But even his presence in the two novels leaves so much to be desired. Is Rat perhaps the alter ego of the author? In the Murakami universe, anything can be possible.
The publication of Hear the Wind Sing did not escape the notice of Japanese literary pundits. The debut novella, woven together by the poetic quality of Murakami’s writing, earned him the 1979 Gunzo Literary Award. Sure, it was not spotless but the story flowed despite the general aimlessness of the main narrator’s thoughts. It provided an intimate peek into the direction that which Murakami would steer his career. Hear the Wind Sing set the tone for what would eventually be a formidable literary career. It was also in his debut work that Murakami demonstrated his fearlessness as a writer. He was a rebel who refused to fit in a prefabricated mold, undaunted by literary norms and conventions.
“Don’t take this as an excuse. I promise you – I’ve told my story as best I can right now. There’s nothing to add. Yet I can’t help thinking: if all goes well, a time may come, years or even decades from now, when I will discover that my self has been salvagted and redeemed. Then the elephant will return to the veldt, and I will tell the story of the world in words far more beautiful than these.”~ Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing
Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 14%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%
Lately, I have been drawn to the idea of reading the first works of popular writers. My curiosity was piqued and I wanted to know how their works have evolved to the state they are in right now. With this, I have resolved to read their debut works; for instance, I have recently obtained a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Grimus even though it was work the novelist was not proud of. Like Rushdie, Haruki Murakami is one of the writers who have gained my interest in me in the past half-decade or so. As part of my 2021 Japanese Literature reading month – a Murakami novel is a must – I have read his first-ever novel, Hear the Wind Sing; it is not technically a novel because of its length. Anyway, I was just excited to get to read his first works. What does it have in store? Oh well, it had a lot. All hallmarks of his succeeding works were there, from his love of music to a pseudo-anonymous male lead character to the ubiquitous presence of animals, particularly cats. It was an interesting literary piece, not bad but was not great either. Nevertheless, it did a great job of establishing Murakami’s tempo.
Author: Haruki Murakami
Translator (from Japanese): Ted Goossen
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: May 2016
Number of Pages: 101
Genre: Magical Realism
Hear the Wind Sing is the very first novel by Haruki Murakami. Written at his kitchen table in the hours before dawn, this remarkable short work – a powerful, at times surreal story about two young men coming of age – helped launch the career of one of the most acclaimed authors of our time.
In this novel, an unnamed narrator returns to his hometown for summer break, which he mostly spends drinking and smoking at nearby J’s bar with a friend known only as the Rat. As the long, hot days roll by and the radio plays a steady stream of Elvis and the Beach Boys, he reflects on women and writing.
Bearing all the hallmarks of Murakami’s later books, Hear the Wind Sing is a fascinating insight into a great writer’s beginnings.
About the Author
To know more about widely popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹), click here.