Late Night Library

Famous First Words: Hear the Wind Sing

Haruki Murakami would very much like it if you kept your distance. It’s nothing personal. He doesn’t resent your interest; by the very nature of his profession, he actively (if indirectly) courts it. He may not go out of his way to schedule interviews or attend promotional soirées, but he certainly doesn’t lead anything resembling a hermetic existence. He’d just rather observe, that’s all. It’s his job.

Murakami, who was born in Kyoto but grew up in the busy port city of Kobe, was introduced to a steady stream of pop culture that came in off the docks, and he started skipping lunch as a teenager so that he could use the money to buy jazz records. He also gorged himself on the flood of cheap paperbacks that circulated through secondhand bookstores, gradually teaching himself English by way of Dostoevsky, Dickens, and Fitzgerald. He moved on to American crime fiction from there and devoured as much as he could, starting with Ross Macdonald and then gravitating toward the novels of Raymond Chandler. Inundated with Japanese literature at home by parents who both taught the subject, Murakami went looking for outside influences wherever he could find them. “That was my own world, my fantasyland,” he would explain in a Paris Review interview. “I could go to St. Petersburg or West Hollywood if I wanted.”

Coming of age during a period of social upheaval in Japan during the late 1960s, Murakami’s predilection for detachment wasn’t always easy to reconcile. He was a witness to the rising protest movement of his peers as a student at Waseda University in Tokyo, and though he could empathize with their frustration and understood the reasoning behind the issues being debated on and around the campus grounds, Murakami couldn’t ever bring himself to join in on the action, preferring to work alone. A drama studies major, he began to absorb screenplays and even tried writing a few, all of which he abandoned—in part because he didn’t care for the idea of having to operate with a potentially vast network of collaborators in order to create films.

He elected instead to tackle the curriculum on his own time in the university library, also becoming acquainted with the postmodern literature that would come to influence his career. Murakami didn’t plan on becoming an author, though. After getting married in 1971 to Yoko Takahashi, a fellow student, he left school, and the two worked in cafés and record shops to support themselves. With Yoko’s help, along with loans from family members and friends, he managed to realize an ambition more in keeping with a childhood obsession when he opened Peter Cat, a basement coffeehouse and jazz bar, in a Tokyo suburb two years later.

By 1978, Murakami had finished up his degree and Peter Cat had moved to a new location in downtown Tokyo. With his nights occupied by running the club, Murakami was sitting in the stands one day at a baseball game. His attention was transfixed by one particular batter, whose skill he found so compelling that, as he later related, he suddenly thought, “You know what? I could try writing a novel.” So he did, writing primarily in the hours after the club had closed for the night, and six months later, Hear the Wind Sing was done.

Set during the unrest of the summer of 1970, Hear the Wind Sing follows its unnamed narrator as he rummages through the inventory of his memories, employing an informal first-person narrative style and frequent pop culture references that were decidedly unique in Japanese literature of the time. Murakami entered the novel without much expectation into a Gunzo Magazine contest for new writers, and to his surprise, it won, spurring the author to follow it up the next year with Pinball, 1973, the second book in what became the Trilogy of the Rat, so named for a friend of the protagonist whose character is examined throughout the series. Before the third entry, A Wild Sheep Chase, was published in 1982, Murakami sold Peter Cat and retired from the night club business for good.

Another solitary passion began in earnest for Murakami after he closed the doors at Peter Cat: he took up long-distance running in order to develop and maintain the stamina required for long-form narration, establishing the excursions as part of his daily writing routine and participating in marathons around the world. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism,” he said. “Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”

Posted on: October 15, 2014 · Blog, Famous First Words, Homepage ·Tags: , , , .

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