Until recently, Murakami's first two books—Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973—have never been available in English, which is strange. In an introduction to a new combined edition of these two novels, Murakami tells the story of the day he decided to become a writer, and how an early draft of Hear the Wind Sing was originally written in English.
One day, Japanese author Haruki Murakami decided to check out a baseball game. He wasn't a writer at that stage. At 29, he and his wife owned a small jazz bar that was a popular hangout with students. Murakami thought running a bar would easy. He could listen to music all day, make sandwiches, and serve the occasional customer. Instead, he and his wife found the work, especially the long hours, hard. Still, for Murakami, it was better than being a salary man. "I didn't have to squeeze onto packed commuter trains," he writes, "or attend mind-numbing meetings, or suck up to a boss who I disliked."
That day, instead of going for his afternoon walk, Murakami decided to go to a game. He sat on the grass with a beer and watched his favourite team—the Yakult Swallows—lose like they always did.
"Back then, the Swallows were a perennially weak team (you might guess as much from their name) with little money and no flashy big-name players. Naturally, they weren’t very popular. Season opener it may have been, but only a few fans were sitting beyond the outfield fence. I stretched out with a beer to watch the game. At the time there were no bleacher seats out there, just a grassy slope. The sky was a sparkling blue, the draft beer as cold as could be, and the ball strikingly white against the green field."
Sounds lovely, right? So pleasant—so normal and mundane, but reassuring.
And just like one of his novels, the perfect set-up for something strange to happen.
"I think Hiroshima’s starting pitcher that day was Yoshiro Sotokoba. Yakult countered with Takeshi Yasuda. In the bottom of the first inning, Hilton slammed Sotokoba’s first pitch into left field for a clean double. The satisfying crack when the bat met the ball resounded throughout Jingu Stadium. Scattered applause rose around me. In that instant, for no reason and on no grounds whatsoever, the thought suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel."
The idea had never occurred to him before. Just like his film noir-tinted characters, he didn't go looking for trouble so much as trouble came looking for him.
"I can still recall the exact sensation. It felt as if something had come fluttering down from the sky, and I had caught it cleanly in my hands. I had no idea why it had chanced to fall into my grasp. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. Whatever the reason, it had taken place. It was like a revelation. Or maybe epiphany is the closest word. All I can say is that my life was drastically and permanently altered in that instant—when Dave Hilton belted that beautiful, ringing double at Jingu Stadium."
On his way home from the baseball game, Murakami bought some paper and a fountain pen. That night he sat at his kitchen table and started writing. He did this every night for the rest of the baseball season, and by its end, he had a first draft of a novel, Hear the Wind Sing.
However, reading this first draft, he felt depressed. It was boring. He thought about giving up, but the memory of his epiphany at the baseball game kept something alight inside him.
"In retrospect, it was only natural that I was unable to produce a good novel. It was a big mistake to assume that a guy like me who had never written anything in his life could spin off something brilliant right off the bat. I was trying to accomplish the impossible. Give up trying to write something sophisticated, I told myself. Forget all those prescriptive ideas about 'the novel' and 'literature' and set down your feelings and thoughts as they come to you, freely, in a way that you like."
So, he tried again, but this time he tried something radical—he rewrote the opening of the novel in English.
His experiment was difficult work. He just didn't have the vocabulary, but stuck at it anyway. As he did, he noticed something change. Writing in English forced him to simplify his ideas—his sentences, dialogue and description.
Once he finished rewriting the opening, he set about translating it back into Japanese. The effect was immediate. Murakami found what he had been looking for. His first tongue, Japanese, was too heavy with literature and history for him to express himself. English, on the other hand, was free of that.
"The vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed. Writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that entailed, removed this obstacle. It also led me to discover that I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, as long as I combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner. To sum up, I learned that there was no need for a lot of difficult words—I didn’t have to try to impress people with beautiful turns of phrase."
"What I was seeking by writing first in English and then 'translating' into Japanese was no less than the creation of an unadorned 'neutral' style that would allow me freer movement. [...] I wanted to deploy a type of Japanese as far removed as possible from so-called literary language in order to write in my own natural voice."
Fictional food can be so appetising
I like Murakami's books because they're easy to read. Reading Murakami is like sitting on grass, drinking a cold beer on a clear day.
As much as Murakami's stories are fueled by intrigue and magic, they are also full of simple pleasures: reading, sleeping, shopping, washing dishes, listening to music, making meals, thinking about cats that have vanished and women with strangely attractive earlobes and other features.
There's so much pleasure to be found in the mundane everyday details he transplants into print.
It's like when you read Asterix, and at the end of every adventure that Asterix and Obelix go on there ends up being a great feast where everyone eats big hunks of wild boar. I don't know what wild boar tastes like, but whenever I read those comics and it gets to that scene, I really want to eat what they're eating (and I'm a vegetarian!).
To finish up, I wanted to quote something from one of Murakami's books—and I swear to god—this was the passage I opened to when I picked The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle off the shelf.
"One morning after Kumiko rushed through breakfast and left for work, I threw the laundry into the washing machine, made the bed, washed the dishes, and vacuumed. Then, with the cat beside me, I sat on the veranda, checking the wanted ads and the sales. At noon I had lunch and went to the supermarket. There I bought food for dinner and, from a sale table, bought detergent, tissues, and toilet paper. At home again, I made preparations for dinner and lay down on the sofa with a book, waiting for Kumiko to come home." (24)
At this stage in the book, on this very page, Murakami's male protagonist has quit his job and as a consequence he is starting to notice things and entertain questions he never noticed or entertained before. "And why not?" he asks himself. "Probably because my hands had been full just living. I had simply been too busy to think about myself."
"Something trivial got me started, just as most important things in the world have small beginnings." (24)
It's often with simple pleasures and small beginnings that his characters' adventures start—like just making dinner or listening to music. As if moments of quiet solitude and unfocused ambling give us space to hear, or see, or think things that may transform us, like what happened to him in real life, watching that baseball game and realising he wanted to be a writer.
And in that space ideas find you. You just have to follow them when they arrive.
I suddenly feel like eating a bowl of thick noodles and drinking a cold beer. Afterwards, maybe clean up the kitchen, have a nap, or go on an adventure.
p.s. I enjoyed writing this week's post so much, I thought I might keep it going all this week on Rabbit's Facebook page. If you're a Murakami fan as well, I'd love to read your thoughts, favourite bits of his work, and observations about his writing.