For many authors, their first novels are often good, but few are great. Haruki Murakami’s Hear The Wind Sing falls squarely in the “good” category. The plot is a bit thin, and the characters aren’t very well drawn, but there’s something poetic tucked into the prose at times. Of course, Murakami is a celebrated author both internationally and in his home country of Japan. I admit that I’ve only read two of his books. One was a recently published collection of short stories under the title Men Without Women — and the second Hear The Wind Sing. The short story collection also rose to the level of “good” but it’s clear that Murakami is a much more skilled writer in his ability to craft more interesting structures and turns of phrases. In Hear The Wind Sing, the story isn’t all that interesting, but the characters are. The plot centers on an unnamed narrator who is home from his university studies in Biology. He’s 21, kind of lazy, and just sort of hangs around a local bar, drinking beer with his friend Rat. The conversations are about music, women, novel-writing, and life in general. It’s the kind of conversations many of us have had with all night bull sessions when we’re young and still trying to figure our way in the world.
One day, the narrator sees an unconscious woman in the bar’s restroom. He takes her home and stays with her all night until she wakes up. He informs her that she was injured and he and J (the owner of the bar) patched her up, and the narrator took her home and stayed with her all night after falling asleep. She’s rightfully scared and defensive when she wakes up naked in her bed with a stranger in the room. The narrator explains how he found her, but she’s brusque and uninterested in his side of the story. She just wants him out of her apartment. After time has passed, he meets her by accident in a record store where she works. He’s there to get birthday presents for his friend, Rat. But she’s still defensive and angry at him. Oddly enough, she tracks down his phone number from J, calls him and wants to get together for a drink.
There are other subplots where Rat and J’s stories get filled in, but the driving narrative is the narrator’s relationship with “the girl with four fingers on her left hand.” There’s a kind of cool distance to the narrator while he hears stories involving abusive family members, an abortion, and low self-esteem. He’s not callous, but perhaps owing to his age, he seems ill-equipped to fully support her through the crises she’s endured.
Would I recommend this book? I would — but with the caveat that it’s not Murakami’s best work. What captivated me more was the back story of how this novel was written. Murakami is a lot like the main character in Hear The Wind Sing. When he got married, he and his wife opened a cafe where he thought he could read and listen to his favorite jazz records all day — kind of like the lazy summer life of the 21-year-old narrator in the book. But he quickly found that running a cafe is more than a full-time job where one is in a near constant state of stress. Years passed before the cafe made any money, and it was during a point where Murakami felt he could take an afternoon off that he decided to write a novel. He was at a baseball game, and there was a play early on where the batter made contact with the ball that he resolved right then and there to write a book.
So, he carved out a few hours at his kitchen table each morning to write long handed. He found that what he was writing wasn’t very good, so he tried another approach: write with a typewriter — and only in English. Murakami’s English was okay, but it forced him to be more compact with his prose and get the action right way. Once he finished his work, he translated it back into Japanese and sent it off to a publishing house to be considered. A year passed, and he forgot about the submission. When the phone rang one morning, he was more than pleased to hear that his book had been selected for a literary prize. Murakami also noted that he had mailed the publisher his only copy of the manuscript. If he hadn’t been chosen for the prize, the book would have been lost — as the publisher didn’t return manuscripts if they were rejected.
So with that, Murakami’s writing career started. He and his wife sold the cafe, and he devoted himself to writing full-time since 1979.