July 2006

Michael Antman

fiction

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

One of the qualities that makes Haruki Murakami so compelling is that he has the courage of his obsessions. Again and again in his stories and novels, the same things recur, as in a fever dream: cats and zoos; tunnels and wells; a pot of spaghetti, a sandwich and a can of beer; jazz and the Beatles; Japan’s painful past and present; student rebellion and the sixties; women’s ears and transcendent sex; the irrevocability of time; wormholes between different spheres of reality that appear abruptly out of nowhere; and girlfriends and lovers that disappear just as abruptly into nowhere, without any explanation or resolution.  

Beyond each of these individual fixations, in fact, is a larger one: more than anything else, Murakami is preoccupied with the irresolvable and the ineffable. In his best novels -- including the epic metaphysical mystery The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and the sexually charged South of the Border, West of the Sun -- the baffling conundrums that his otherwise unexceptional characters stumble into are conveyed in a calm, utterly confident and yet seemingly wholly intuitive style that, like an unexpected cool breeze on a sweltering day, rarely fails to leave the reader with a little chill. 

But the fact that Murakami is “obsessed with his obsessions” also means that he doesn’t seem as capable as other writers of censoring himself. This isn’t always a bad thing: the many dangling plot threads in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which would have been cleaned up by a more conscientious and self-conscious writer, are part of what makes that novel so magical, suggesting as they do the inexplicability of existence. Yet in his sometimes wonderful and sometimes disappointing new collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, his typical modes of expression -- the cryptic, the mystical, and the absurdist -- at times begin to sound not like three notes in a chord, as they should, but rather like a single tinny-sounding key, pounded over and over again monotonously. Indeed, some of the weaker stories in this collection resemble in their weird whimsy the tales of the half-forgotten twee surrealist Richard Brautigan, whom Murakami apparently admires, though not always to good effect.   

Others are aimless, like “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos,” which is about a couple’s frustrated attempt to see a baby kangaroo and, well, that’s about it. And still others, such as the anecdotal “Chance Traveler,” are attempts to wring significance out of a few fairly interesting coincidences that Murakami presumably has experienced or heard from others (he narrates the story as himself). Even some stories with strong premises -- “Hanalei Bay,” for example, which concerns a Japanese mother’s annual return to the beach in Hawaii where her son died from a shark attack -- are marred by awkward organization, and may well make first-time readers wonder what the buzz around Murakami is all about.

There are three stories in this collection, however, that serve as ample evidence of Murakami’s genius: “Man-Eating Cats,” the poignant account of an adulterous couple hiding out on a Greek island; “Tony Takitani,” an even sadder story of a technical artist who overcomes loneliness by marrying a sweet young woman who loves clothes beyond all reason and caution; and “The Seventh Man,” which tells of a man’s lifelong obsession with a huge wave that swept away his childhood friend. 

In each of these exquisite stories, in fact, someone is abruptly “swept away,” and yet there is nothing arbitrary about these losses; they seem, in retrospect, terrifyingly inevitable. And, as Murakami notes with typically simple eloquence in “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” it isn’t only those that are swept away suddenly who are destroyed.

Time, of course, topples everyone in its path equally -- the way that driver beat his old horse until it died on the road. But the thrashing we receive is one of frightful gentleness. Few of us even realize that we are being beaten.

In some of Murakami’s allusive and elusive tales, the survivors are left with only a bit of hard-won understanding, and in others with nothing but bafflement and despair. But precisely because of Murakami’s stubborn refusal to resolve his stories, their experiences become the reader’s: the losses, and the irresolvable loneliness they bring with them, cling to the reader long after the book has been closed. In Murakami’s best work, we feel a kind of nostalgia for what others have lost, because it is our loss as well. 

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
Knopf
ISBN: 1400044618
352 pages