“Some novelists hold a mirror up to the world and some, like Haruki Murakami, use the mirror as a portal to a universe hidden beyond it.” — The Wall Street Journal
“An essential addition to any Murakami fan’s library.” — Kirkus
Haruki Murakami tells the story of a young vendor at a baseball game apologizing to him for only having dark beer. “No need to apologize,” the narrator says. “I’ve been waiting a long time for someone selling dark beer to come by.”
Some might say the work of Murakami is an acquired taste. I, for one, am fully acquired — hook, line and sinker. He is one of my favorite writers on the planet, constantly able to create relatable characters facing ordinary and extraordinary circumstances.
“When I write novels,” he continues in the short story “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” “I often experience the same feeling as the young man. I want to face people in the world and apologize to each and every one. ‘I’m sorry, but all I have is dark beer.’”
EIGHT NEW THOUGHT-PROVOKING STORIES
I often find myself stopping in my tracks to share one of the author’s beautiful sentences with my wife: “Loving someone is like having a mental illness that’s not covered by health insurance.” Other times I will tell her about things like the narrator engaging in a conversation with a monkey and she’ll say she doesn’t get it. I see her judging me. “A monkey raised in Shinagawa? Fluent in human speech? How was that possible?” Murakami asks. “This was a monkey, for goodness sake.” A monkey who loves music, Strauss in particular, enjoys a stiff drink and works at the local inn.
Such is the wonderful experience of reading Murakami’s First Person Singular (Knopf), a collection of eight short stories published in Japan last year and just now making its U.S. debut, thanks to longtime Murakami translator Philip Gabriel. Murakami covers topics ranging from love, relationships, coming of age, music and baseball to a parade of quirky characters introduced to evoke a feeling, condition or memory that proves touching, sometimes disturbing, but always thought-provoking. It is unclear whether the narrator in the stories is Murakami himself or a fictional replica. Either way, it doesn’t matter.
LITERARY CRAFTSMANSHIP AT ITS FINEST
Readers will marvel at the language and literary craftsmanship. In the story “On a Stone’s Pillow,” the narrator tells of a carnal relationship with a woman in love with another man, but whose love is unrequited. “He calls me whenever he wants my body,” she says. “Like ordering takeout over the phone.”
In the story “Charlie Parker Plays the Bossa Nova,” he sees an album of the same name in a record store, initially deciding not to buy it. But later, upon changing his mind, he can’t find the record, and the store proprietor says they never carried it. The bossa nova, of course, broke through as a musical genre seven years after Charlie Parker passed away.
Take his philosophical commentary in “With the Beatles”: “I’ve heard it said that the happiest time in our lives is the period when pop songs really mean something to us, really get to us. … Pop songs may, after all, be nothing more than pop songs. And perhaps our lives are merely decorative, expendable items, a burst of fleeting color and nothing more.”
In the same story, the sister of the narrator’s lover doesn’t seem to have much affection for our hero: “She looked at me with strange eyes, totally devoid of emotion — as if she were judging whether some dried fish at the back of the fridge was still edible or not.”
SIPPED OR FULLY DIGESTED, ITS A SATISFYING READ
Some stories contain a confluence of ingredients that readers may struggle to grasp. To be honest, sometimes I’m not sure if I’m getting the full message behind Murakami’s words. And sometimes, whether I comprehend the full meaning or not, I am more than satisfied to sip the fine wine of his writing and sigh with pure contentment.
The narrator is a lover of baseball. He describes the sensation of the “breeze caressing his skin, sipping an ice-cold beer, observing the people around me.”
He loves it when his team wins. But in the grand scheme of things, how important is it really? “Winning or losing doesn’t affect the weight and value of time. It’s the same time, either way. A minute is a minute, an hour is an hour. We need to cherish it.”
ELEGANTLY EXPRESSED AND PROFOUNDLY FELT
First Person Singular (the full collection as well as the name for an individual story) is a work that is most highly recommended. Murakami’s experiences and observations are so eloquently expressed and so subtly or profoundly felt.
Reflecting on his relationships and their place in his life, and maybe their place in ours, he writes in “Carnaval”: “Even if they hadn’t happened, I doubt my life would have wound up much different from what it is now. But still, these memories return to me sometimes. … And when they do, their unexpected power shakes me to the core. Like an autumn wind that gusts at night, swirling fallen leaves in a forest, flattening the pampas grass in fields, and pounding hard on the doors to people’s homes, over and over again.”
Enjoy your beer.
Murakami: Putting Normal Characters in Weird Situations