Saturday 10 October 2009

74 - 'Pinball, 1973' by Haruki Murakami

The first thing which comes to mind as I write this review is that I really should be more organised in future; this really should have been book 73... Oh well, moving along, please have a look at the beautiful cover picture on the left; nice isn't it? I imagine that it's an artist's rendition of J. and the Rat at J.'s bar (although I think I would have made it a lot darker and grimier). Sadly, I do not have that (or any) edition, and I am unlikely to in the near future. Shortly before starting this review, I had a quick look on Amazon to see how much it would set me back. Would you believe that a battered copy is available for US$446.20 while a (nearly) new copy is being offered for a cool US$2000?

The reason for this incredible over-pricing is that while 'Hear the Wind Sing', Murakami's first 'novel', is still readily available in the translation produced to help EFL learners, the English version of the follow-up book went out of print very quickly and is, therefore, now only available to the disgustingly rich. Luckily, a quick web search usually brings up a link to a PDF version - one more reason for book lovers to say hurrah for computers...

This novella takes up the story three years after the conclusion of 'Hear the Wind Sing', with our unnamed hero (who, for the sake of convenience - and for reasons which will be obvious to any true Murakami fans -, I will call Toru) now living on the outskirts of Tokyo and working in a translation agency which he has set up with a friend from university. Meanwhile, the Rat is still living in their home town, watching the sea, hanging out by the graveyard and whiling his hours away at J.'s bar at the end of the day.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that neither of our old friends are particularly happy with their lot. Toru is stuck in a rut, accomplishing the same tedious translations day after day and spending several hours a day fighting the notoriously soul-destroying Tokyo commute; the Rat, having dropped out of university (and rich enough not to really need to do anything else), is just drifting around, waiting for something, or someone, to give his life some meaning.
The two friends, hundreds of miles apart, find different ways to deal with their existential angst (a pompous expression which, nevertheless, is particularly apt here). Toru reads Kant, spends his spare time with a nameless pair of identical twins who somehow seem to have stumbled into his life, and later goes on a quest in search of the pinball machine he used to spend his money (and time) on. The Rat, struggling to stay interested in life, falls into a convenient, yet unsatisfying, relationship with (yet another) unnamed woman, while mulling over whether or not to leave his town and follow his fate elsewhere...

At only 79 pages, the book is fairly brief, but Murakami packs a lot into his second novel, including many of the features which have won him worldwide fame. Anyone who has watched a lot of French films will be reminded of them by the mood of the book (it may, dare I say it, invoke a sense of deja vu...): the constant rain, the ever-present drinking and smoking... I think you could easily transplant this story to Paris (and the hometown to Brittany) and make a great interpretation. The sense of time passing wastefully and regret for times past are palpable, and the reader senses that something has to give. The lack of names only adds to this sense of disorientation (as do the twins; in a funny way, having two girlfriends - if that's what they are - instead of one, seems to make Toru appear lonelier than he would if he were alone).

Having talked about French films, it's an English one which comes to mind as you ponder the method to Murakami's madness - "What's it all about, Alfie?". Murakami certainly doesn't answer the big questions of life, but his protagonists definitely ponder them. Their respective efforts to shake themselves out of the rut they've fallen into may make many readers reconsider their own lifestyle choices (living in the outer suburbs of Melbourne - which, in England, would be in another county -I definitely sympathise with Toru). The big question, though, is how do the two friends resolve their issues?

Of course, Murakami's first two (short) works set up the third part of 'The Trilogy of the Rat', 'A Wild Sheep Chase', his first full-length novel, and the book where his passion for the bizarre really comes to fruition. Therefore, it's a shame that the great man is unwilling to sanction the publication of his first literary efforts; yes, I know that he probably doesn't need the money, but he'll definitely gain new fans (yes, and a few dollars too; I, for one, would snap them up in a heartbeat). You never know, it may just help him in the quest for that elusive Nobel Prize too...