All the stories you've been telling tonight seem to fall into two categories. There's the type where you have the world of the living on one side, the world of death on the other and some force that allows a crossing-over from one side to the other. This would include ghosts and the like. The second type involves paranormal abilities, premonitions, the ability to predict the future. All of your stories belong to one of these two I groups.
I’m sitting on a 777 as I write this, cruising somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on my way to Tokyo. I suppose it’s only fitting that I use this moment, and my remaining 2 hours of battery life, to make sense of another Haruki Murakami book – Blind Willow sleeping Woman.
“Make sense of” may be setting the bar too high. I love bathing in Murakami’s words. But it’s bathing in a river, instead of a tub. And you have to let the currents take you where they will. Put aside preconceived notions of a story that has a beginning, middle, and end because most Murakami stuff does not have that. Set aside the expectations and go along for the ride.
I enjoyed this book and most of the short stories in it. The plots are not the central elements of the stories – the characters and writing are. If you are okay with that, then I recommend Blind Willow Sleeping Woman.
Almost everything Murakami writes is about loneliness. You’ll see that theme echoed throughout these pages. Characters with friends, relationship, and spouse all still feel a profound loneliness and dissociation from the world.
Rather than trying to do a comprehensive review of how everything fits together in this book (which might be a good idea for a college lit class) I’ll simply share some thought and favorite passages from a few of the various short stories. There are other excellent ones in the book that I am not commenting on.
Yes, the part of the book people generally gloss over has some good stuff. In it, Murakami talks about what he enjoys about writing, and compares short stories to novels.
To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, I find writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure. The green foliage of the trees casts a pleasant shade over the earth, and the wind rustles the leaves, which are sometimes dyed a brilliant gold. Meanwhile, in the garden, buds appear on flowers, and colorful petals attract bees and butterflies, reminding us of the subtle transition from one season to the next.
He also explains the genesis of several stories in the book. I found myself flipping back to the Introduction often while reading just to get some context for the story.
This book naturally contains some stories I wrote after The Elephant Vanishes appeared. "Birthday Girl," "Man-Eating Cats," "The Seventh Man,' and "Ice Man" are some of these. I wrote "Birthday Girl" at the request of the editor when I was working on an anthology of other writers' stories on the theme of birthdays. It helps to be a writer when you're selecting stories for an anthology, since if you're short one story you can write one yourself. "Ice Man," by the way is based on a dream my wife had, while "The Seventh Man" is based on an idea that came to me when I was into surfing and was gazing out at the waves.
Often when reading a short story by Murakami, I’ll think, “This seems familiar.” I’ll have the same reaction with some of his novels. And it makes sense because he often draws from one to complete another.
There was a period when narratives I'd written as short stories, after I'd published them, kept expanding in my mind, developing into novels. A short story I'd written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake, and shout, "Hey, this is no time to be sleeping! You can't forget about me, there's still more to write!" Impelled by that voice, I'd find myself writing a novel. In this sense, too, my short stories and novels connect up inside me in a very natural, organic way
Blind Willow Sleeping Woman
This is a story about family and friends and dying too young. There’s a lot in this one and it is just beyond my reach.
The Birthday Girl
This is a fascinating story about wishes and eccentrics. I wanted to learn more, but as I expected just when I most wanted answers there were none.
Still, I loved this description:
She spoke only when necessary and always wore the same black dress. There was something cold and hard about her: if you set her afloat on the nighttime sea, she would probably sink any boat that happened to ram her.
This quasi-horror story contains this great gem on aging and maturing.
Anyway, there I was each night at nine and three, making my rounds, a flashlight in my left hand, a wooden kendo sword in my right. I'd practiced kendo in high school and felt pretty confident in my ability to fend off anyone. If an attacker was an amateur, and even if he had a real sword with him, that wouldn't have scared me. I was young, remember. If it happened now, I'd run like hell.
Who hasn’t been at that awkward part of a conversation where you want to leave but you’re not sure if you should?
He was silent for thirty seconds, maybe a minute. I uncrossed my legs under the table and wondered if this was the right moment to leave. It was as if my whole fife revolved around trying to judge the right point in a conversation to say goodbye. But I missed my chance: just as I was going to tell him I had to go, he spoke up.
A Perfect Day for Kangaroos
in this story about a trip to the zoo, and character is overwhelmed by his girlfriend.
"Yeah, but look," I shot back, "I've never seen a giraffe give birth, or even whales swimming, so why make such a big deal about a baby Kangaroo?"
'Because it's a baby kangaroo," she said. "That's why.'
I gave up and started leafing through the newspaper. I'd never once won an argument with a girl.
The Seventh Man
This story of personal redemption by confronting the past includes:
I stopped having my terrible nightmares. I no longer wake up screaming in the middle of the night. And I am trying to start life over again. No, I know it's probably too late to start again. I may not have much time left to live. But even if it comes too late, I am grateful that, in the end I was able to attain a kind of salvation, to effect some sort of recovery. Yes, grateful: I could have come to the end of my life unsaved, still screaming in the dark, afraid.
The Year of Spaghetti
This story gives use these great lines.
As a rule I cooked spaghetti, and ate it, alone. I was convinced that spaghetti was a dish best enjoyed alone. I can't really explain why I felt that way, but there it is.
When the phone rang at three twenty I was sprawled out on the tatami. staring at the ceiling. A pool of winter sunlight had formed in the place where I lay. Like a dead fly I lay there, vacant, in a December 1971 spotlight.
At first, I didn't recognize it as the phone ringing. It was more like an unfamiliar memory that had hesitantly slipped in between the layers of air. Finally, though, it began to take shape, and, in the end, a ringing phone was unmistakably what it was. It was one hundred percent a phone ring in one-hundred-percent-real air. Still sprawled out, I reached over and picked up the receiver.
Thinking about spaghetti that boils eternally but is never done is a sad, sad thing.
Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be if they knew that what they were exporting in 1971 was really loneliness?
The Iceman is a story about loneliness when a woman falls in love with a man essentially made of ice.
You're not skiing? I asked, trying to sound casual. The Ice Man slowly raised his head, looking like he was carefully listening to the wind blowing far away He gazed intently at me and then quietly shook his head. I don't ski, he said. I'm fine just reading and looking out at the snow. His words floated up in the air, a white comic-book bubble of dialogue, every word visible before me. He gently wiped away some of the frost from his fingers.
How about the South Pole? I said. I picked the South Pole because I was sure the Ice Man would be interested in going there. And, truth be told, I'd always wanted to go see it. To see the aurora, and the penguins. I had this wonderful mental picture of myself in a hooded parka underneath the aurora, playing with the penguins.
Then I wake up and find the Ice Man sleeping beside me. He makes no sound as he sleeps, like something frozen and dead. I love him, though. I start to cry, my tears wetting his cheeks. He awakens and holds me close. I had an awful dream, I tell him. In the darkness he slowly shakes his head. It was only a dream, he says. Dreams come from the past, not from the future. Dreams shouldn't control you—you should control them.
This is a story about the magical coincidence – that moment when the world lines up just right to give you an unexpected and joyous moment. Murakami seems to be talking about serendipity though he doesn’t use the word. But that's all I could think of as a read this tale.
It seems obvious to me that this is what the story is about, and yet it never appears in the text. I wonder if that’s because it’s a concept I’m looking for and that Murakami is not, or if this is a case of linguistic challenges. Murakami writes in Japanese and then his translators go to work. Is it possible there’s no word in Japanese that corresponds directly to serendipity and therefore the story was not structured around it? Or perhaps I’m just over thinking things.
Regardless, this is one of my favorite stories in the book. Perhaps because it doesn’t make my head spin as much, but also because I love the characters and the way they are dealing with the challenges they face.
Over his long career Tommy Flanagan has played and recorded countless pieces as a sideman in various groups, but it was the crisp, smart solos, short though they were, in these two particular pieces that I've always loved. That's why I was thinking if only he would play those two numbers right now it'd be perfect. I was watching him closely, picturing him coming over to my table and asking, "Hey, I've had my eye on you. Do you have any requests? Why don't you give me the titles of two numbers you'd like me to play?" Knowing all the time, of course, that the chances of that happening were nil.
And then, without a word, and without so much as a glance in my direction. Tommy Flanagan launched into the last two numbers of his set—the very ones I'd been thinking of. He started off with the ballad 'Star-Crossed Lovers," then went into an up-tempo version of "Barbados. I sat there, wineglass in hand, speechless. Jazz fans will understand that the chance of his picking these two pieces from the millions of jazz numbers out there was astronomical. And also—and this is the main point here—his performances of both numbers were amazing.
The second incident took place around the same time, and also had to do with jazz. I was in a used-record store near the Berkley School of Music one afternoon, checking out the records. Rummaging around in old shelves of LPs is one of the few things that makes life worth living, as far as I'm concerned. On that particular day I'd located a used copy of Pepper Adams's recording for Riverside called 10 to 4 at the 5 Spot. It was a live recording live recording of the Pepper Adams Quintet, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, recorded in New York at the Five Spot jazz club, "1o to 4," of course, meant ten minutes till four o'clock, meaning that they played such a hot set they went on till dawn. This copy of the album was a first pressing, in mint condition, and was going for only seven or eight dollars. I owned the Japanese version of the record and had listened to it so much it was all scratched. Finding an original recording in this good shape and at this price seemed, to exaggerate a little, like a minor miracle. I was overjoyed as I bought the record, and just as I was exiting the shop a young man passed me and asked, "Hey, do you have the time?" I glanced at my watch and automatically answered, "Yeah, it's ten to four."
"The music world is where child prodigies go to die," he said as he ground some coffee beans. "Having to give up the idea of being a professional pianist was a major disappointment. It was like everything I'd done up till then was a complete waste. I just wanted to disappear. But it turned out my ears are superior to my hands. There are a lot of people more talented than me, but nobody has as good an ear. I realized that not long after I started college. And that being a first-class piano tuner was a lot better than being a second-rate pianist."
'That's right," he said, and nodded several times. "That's the key. And is a pretty common thing after all. Those kinds of coincidences are happening all around us, all the time, but most of them don't catch our attention and we just let them go by. It's like fireworks in the daytime. You might hear a faint sound, but even if you look up at the sky you can't see a thing. But if we're really hoping something may come true, it may become visible, like a message rising to the surface. Then we're able to make it out clearly, decipher what it means. And seeing it before us we're surprised and wonder at how strange things like this can happen. Even though there's nothing strange about it. I just can't help thinking that. What do you think? Is this forcing things?"
Where I’m Likely to Find It
This story is one of the more typical Murakami stories in the book. In it, we have great use of language, a strange plot that is secondary to what’s happening, otherworldly elements, characters who just accept these things, and lots of loose ends.
"One of the reasons my husband bought this condo was that the stairs are wide and well lit," she said. "Most high-rise apartments skimp on the stairs. Wide staircases take up too much space, and, besides, most residents prefer the elevator. Condo developers like to spend their money places that attract attention—a library, a marble lobby. My husband, though, insisted that the stairs were the critical element—the backbone of a building, he liked to say."
I have to admit, it really was a memorable staircase. On the landing between the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth floors, next to a picture window, there was a sofa, a wall-length mirror, a standing ashtray, and a potted plant. Through the window you could see the bright sky and a couple of clouds drifting by. The window was sealed and couldn't be opened.
The old man shook his head and dropped his cigarette into the ashtray "As I'm sure you know, water always picks the shortest route to flow down. Sometimes, though, the shortest route is actually formed by the water The human thought process is a lot like that. At least, that's my impression. But I haven't answered your question. Mr. Kurumizawa and I never once talked about such deep things. We just chatted—about the weather, the apartment association's regulations, things of that nature."
This is just a sampling of the great lines and stories in Blind Willow Sleeping Woman. I also loved A Shinagawa Monkey, The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day, Dabchick 101, Man-Eating Cats, and more.
Blind Willow Sleeping Woman is definitely worth a read, but be aware of what your getting into when you open the book. Don’t expect the plots and stories to wrap up neatly; enjoy them for what they are.
Other Murakami Book Reviews I’ve written:
You can read more of my book reviews here.
Here is the back cover synopsis of the book.
From the bestselling author of Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles comes this superb collection of twenty-four stories that generously expresses Murakamis mastery of the form. From the surreal to the mundane, these stories exhibit his ability to transform the full range of human experience in ways that are instructive, surprising, and relentlessly entertaining.
Here are animated crows, a criminal monkey, and an iceman, as well as the dreams that shape us and the things we might wish for. Whether during a chance reunion in Italy, a romantic exile in Greece, a holiday in Hawaii, or in the grip of everyday life, Murakamis characters confront grievous loss, or sexuality, or the glow of a firefly, or the impossible distances between those who ought to be closest of all.