Haruki Murakami

"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman"

(Reviewed by Leland Cheuk APR 18, 2008)

“I’d been thinking of the box of chocolates we’d taken when we went to that hospital on that long-ago summer afternoon. The girl had happily opened the lid to the box only to discover that the dozen little chocolates had completely melted, sticking to the paper between each piece and to the lid itself. On the way to the hospital my friend and I had parked the motorcycle by the seaside, and lay around the beach just talking and hanging out. The whole while we’d let that box of chocolates lie in the hot August sun. Our carelessness, our self-centeredness, had wrecked those chocolates, made one fine mess of them all. We should have sensed what was happening. One of us – it didn’t matter who – should have said something. But on that afternoon, we didn’t sense anything, just exchanged a couple of dumb jokes and said goodbye. And left that hill still overgrown with blind willows.”

I thought I was done with Murakami after Kafka on the Shore, a brilliant novel in its own right, but after reading eight novels from Japan’s master of the vague and surreal, I wondered how much more novelty could I find?

So when his book of 24 short stories, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, was published, I resisted buying it at first. When I finally did, it took all of the first story to realize what a mistake I’d made. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is proof that as good as Murakami is with the novel, he may be even better at the short story.

“Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman,” the first story in the collection, is a story of mourning and loss, told from the dispassionate voice of Murakami’s trademark first-person narrator. Like many of Murakami’s best writing, the scenes flow from one mundane episode to another and at first, all you get are the details and the acute perceptions of a character with uncommon intelligence but a vague interior life. Then, as the story moves along at a steady clip, the sadness is steadily revealed, almost matter-of-factly, and by the end, to the reader’s surprise, loss is everywhere. The protagonist’s cousin has lost his hearing, a friend has died, a girlfriend has left, a grandmother has died of cancer, and the reader realizes that everything is not all right and nothing is as mundane as you first read.

The title story in the collection is the best story in the collection, but there are plenty of good ones along the way. In “Birthday Girl,” a waitress chooses to work on her 20th birthday, to substitute for one of her ill co-workers, meets the reclusive owner of the restaurant who asks her what her birthday wish is. Then years later, when the waitress is married with children, she reveals that she may regret what she wished for. Other strong stories include “Tony Takitani,” “The Seventh Man,” and “A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism.”

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman does contain its fair share of throwaways and experiments, like stories about man-eating cats and a woman married to an ice-man, but Murakami has proven once again that he’s still in top form, no matter how prolific he is, and he continues to bring freshness to the page.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 62 reviews

Read an excerpt from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman at Random House

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"After the Quake"

(Reviewed by Bill Robinson AUG 13 2002)

Imagine walking into your living room and being confronted by a giant green frog. ("Call me 'Frog,'" the creature says the several times you seek to address him as "Mister Frog.") He has come to you, he relates, concerning "an urgent matter." You and he must travel underground to "do mortal combat with Worm," a giant subterranean creature who is set, with the aid of his underground undulations, to bring a major earthquake on Tokyo three days hence.

Read excerptImagine such a scenario, and you are in the surreal territory of impending doom, constant sadness, and occasional enlightenment that is the realm of fiction created by Japanese novelist and short story writer Haruki Murakami.

Fantastic creatures do not, as in "Super-frog Saves Tokyo," populate all of Murakami's short stories in his book After the Quake. In "UFO in Kushiro," the first story in the collection, a hi-fi and electronics salesman has been deserted by his wife, a rather dull woman, but a woman whom he thought he was in love. This happens five days after a major earthquake strikes Tokyo. His wife is leaving him forever, moving back with her parents who own an inn in the country.

Komura, the salesman, is devastated. Up to this point, his life had been uncomplicated, and his marriage of five years, he thought, relatively successful. Now, finding himself at loose ends, he embarks on an errand for a colleague. He is to deliver a small box to his friend's sister in Kushiro, another part of the country. The journey turns into a kind of pilgrimage, which ends with Komura's coming circuitously to a better understanding of himself.

Murakami's stories have the quality of Zen koans or riddles. They are not offered necessarily to be made sense of, nor to be figured out, but rather to be experienced. The reader leaves with a glimmer of new insight, primarily concerning our identity and the strange and unusual world that we populate.

Komura the salesman's wife left behind a note saying that living with him "was like living with a chunk of air." He relates this to Shimao, a woman he meets in Kushiro.

"A chunk of air?" Shimao tilted her head back to look up at Komura. "What does that mean?"

"That there's nothing inside me, I guess."

"Is it true?"

"Could be, Komura said. "I'm not sure, though. I may have nothing inside me, but what would that something be?"

"Yeah, really, come to think of it. What would something be? My mother was crazy about salmon skin. She always used to wish that there were a kind of salmon made of nothing but skin. So there may be some cases when it's better to have nothing inside. Don't you think?"

Murakami's book is full of these kinds of riddles, but they are narrated in much the way one might overhear a story told in a bar. The writing is straightforward, conversational, easily accessed. Meaning requires deeper digging.

The Western writer who comes most to mind is Frans Kafka. A Kafka story, such as "A Hunger Artist," would fit right in to Murakami's sad, yet fantastic collection.

"During these last decades," Kafka begins that story, "the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such performances under one's own management, but today that is quite impossible. We live in a different world now."

Indeed. A world, one of Murakami's characters might say, after the quake.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 68 reviews

Read an excerpt from After the Quake at MostlyFiction.com

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About the Author:

Haruki MurakamiHaruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949, and moved to Hyogo (Ashiya City) when he was one-year-old. He was then brought up in Kobe, a seaport where it is easy to get in touch with foreigners and English books.

Kobe's college years coincided with the war in Vietnam and even though Japan was not in the war, the youth of his country wanted to put an end to it. Like other rebellious young people who lived in the '70s, Murakami passed his days freely. Later he completed his degree in Classical Drama from the Department of Literature at Waseda University in 1973, and then he opened a jazz bar in Tokyo and managed it from from 1974 to 1981. It was while lying on the grass on a beautiful day in spring, in the April of 1974, sipping a beer and watching a baseball match, that he suddenly decided to write his first novel.

And that first novel, Hear The Wind Sing, won him the Gunzou Literature Prize. This novel, together with Pinball 1973 and The Wild Sheep Chase,which won the Noma Literary Prize For New Writers, are referred to as the The Trilogy Of The Rat.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, won the prestigious Tanizaki Prize. And in 1996, Murakami received the Yomiuri Literary Award for Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. His novel Norwegian Wood (which is named after the Beatle's song) sold 27 million copies in a year. For many Japanese readers, he is now their country's leading fiction writer. Because his novels and short stories are increasingly translated, he is also known in the United States and other countries.

During the first half of the 1990s he taught at Princeton University. In 1995, the physical and social landscape of Japan was transformed by two events: the Kobe earthquake, in January, which destroyed thousands of lives, and the poison-gas attacks in the Tokyo subways in March, during the morning rush hour. Following these twin disasters, Haruki Murakami abandoned his life abroad and returned home to confront his country’s grief. The subway attack led to his recent Underground. And out of the quake come the six stories in After the Quake, set in the months between natural catastrophe and man-made terrorism. His characters find their resolutely normal everyday lives undone by events even more surreal (yet somehow believable) than we have come to expect in his fiction.

Murakami is also known as a skillful translator of Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, John Irving, Paul Theroux, and other American contemporary authors.

He now lives near Tokyo.

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