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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #27 (July 3, 2007), page 15.
Love, longing, and an occasional kangaroo
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
By Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
Hardcover, 334 pages, $24.95
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, is Japanese novelist and short-story and non-fiction author Haruki Murakamiís newest collection of shorts. Some of these stories were written in the early 1980s and have been published elsewhere, others are newly released and translated from Mr. Murakamiís native Japanese. All are wonderful, wonderous, in the authorís usual unique mix of banal and dreamy reality. "To put it in the simplest terms," Mr. Murakami writes in his introduction to the English version of Blind Willow, "I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy." This collection of 24 tales is a joy.
For the uninitiated, Haruki Murakami (Japanese order: Murakami Haruki) may well be your easiest, simplest ramp into contemporary Japanese fiction. Indeed, it is his accessibility, often critiqued as "pop" by Tokyoís starchy literary elite earlier in his career, that has made Mr. Murakami madly popular in over 30 languages.
Readers cannot help but be taken in by his pedestrian scenes of urban life, its tidiness, its Kafkaesque soul-lessness, nonetheless brimming with potential for sudden departures into dreamy worlds, just inside a fire stairwell or around the turn of a blind alley, or an unexpected departure between moments of a characterís reflection. Off you go, into odd places, some subtle, some scary, almost always humorous.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of stories taking off into the latter, those dreamy psychological alleyways rather than the fantastical, Behind-the-Looking-Glass-style detours so characteristic of many of his other writings.
In "Crabs" a young man gazes at his girlfriend, her face sunk deep in her pillow, snoring peacefully, oblivious. She has no idea that heís just seen, in the huge lump of crab meat he retched into their toilet, countless tiny "worms the same color as crabmeat, millions of them, clinging to the surface of the meat."
"Gazing at his sleeping girlfriend, he pictured the countless tiny worms in her stomach. Should he wake her up and tell her about it? Shouldnít they do something? Unsure what to do, he thought for a while, and decided against it. It wouldnít do any good. She hadnít noticed anything. And that was the main problem."
Everything changed that night for the young man. "The world felt out of kilter. He could hear it as it creaked through this new orbit." Inexplicable change for his inexplicable behavior.
Itís not all wretchedness for Mr. Murakami. Thereís tenderness too. In many stories a sexy realism, and often real good sex, keeps readers and characters alike from dreaming too far. Many of Mr. Murakamiís stories in Blind Willow ache with nostalgia for lovers past, their imprints not forgotten.
In "A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism," for example, a dissonance different from that of his crab-eater seems to possess Mr. Murakamiís main character. "I havenít forgotten the promise I made to you," Yoshiko said to him, over the phone. That is, her promise to sleep with the most popular guy in high school, after she gets married ó to him or whoever. It has been at least 15 years since heís seen her. Nothing in his former model-studentís life ó not in college, not in business, nothing in his worldly travels, has occupied a place so true to his core than his high school sweetheart. Indeed, nothing in his life seems to have worked well after their youthful, "pure" relationship, after that unforgettable promise, and then: he gets the call. And then we feel his, and our, way through what loving, longing, remembering, really mean to a man with somewhat tread-bare tires. And what not. And then what?
These are stories that take exactly (Iíve done the science) ten times longer to get over, than to get through.
Precisely what great art is supposed to do.
The authorís publisher, Random House, parent corporation of Alfred A. Knopf, has built an impressive website for the writer and his work at <www.harukimurakami.com>.