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BOUND TO PLEASE / Murakami’s debut works have much to offer

The Yomiuri Shimbun

By James Coulson / Japan News Staff WriterWind / Pinball

By Haruki Murakami

Alfred A. Knopf, 256pp

In Haruki Murakami’s introduction to “Wind / Pinball,” his first two works comprising a single volume, he takes us back to 1970s Tokyo. He was in his 20s, in love with jazz, working before graduation and already married — “the exact opposite to what was considered normal” in Japan’s conformist society.

Murakami scraped together enough money to open a jazz bar — his very own establishment — where he happily mingled with those of a similar ilk. Finding a “gap in the system,” he says, was easier back then. But at a baseball game in 1978 — the very moment a Swallows batter struck a resounding left for a double — Murakami had an epiphany that changed everything: He would write a novel.

In the 30-plus years since, Murakami’s oeuvre has rendered him a literary oxymoron: a multimillion-selling yet cult author, who many believe is on the cusp of Nobel immortality. He writes of universally relatable themes including love, loss, alienation and introspection. But in Murakami’s universe, they mix with the unlikely and the downright surreal: alternate worlds, shady organizations, mysterious girls, deep wells, beautiful ears and subterranean monsters are just a few signature devices (not to mention countless American pop culture references).

The first story in this volume, fully titled “Hear the Wind Sing,” was written in 1979. It follows a young, insouciant biology student on summer break. In a sleepy coastal town, he swigs beer and puffs countless cigarettes at J’s Bar with his best friend, the Rat — an angry rich kid whom many will recognize from two later Murakami novels.

The protagonist recalls, in entertainingly frank prose, his three sexual encounters so far, and also a host of other memories. He then begins a fourth love affair with a girl who has a terse tongue, tough exterior and, in typical Murakami style, only nine fingers. “Wind” packs 40 captivating chapters into a mere 101 pages, and they dart between memory and the present like a jumbled-up slideshow.

The second story, “Pinball, 1973,” was penned in 1980. It is slightly longer than “Wind,” and the protagonist is operating a small translation firm in Tokyo while having an affair with identical twin girls who moved into his apartment one day without explanation. They also make amazing coffee.

An obsession with tracking down a classic pinball machine from his younger days soon consumes the protagonist. The Rat reappears, still stuck in the town from “Wind” and unable to cope after a relationship breakdown. His existential crisis unfolds in at-the-counter conversations with the owner of J’s Bar, and Murakami’s writing here, perhaps due to his inexperience, feels prone to cliche. But it takes a special author to infuse a funeral for a telephone switch panel with genuine poignancy, and then, in the story’s crescendo, to fill the reunion of man and (pinball) machine with temptation and danger bordering on the erotic.

What will delight Murakami’s fans about “Wind / Pinball,” whose publication in this volume marks the first time they have become widely available in English, is that they reveal he was “Murakami the author” right off the bat — just a little rougher round the edges. They are two coming-of-age novellas whose length makes them a perfectly accessible entry point for newcomers.

Where to Read

Where else but your local jazz bar?

Maruzen price: ¥2,850 plus tax (as of March 30)Speech

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