(Re-)Reading: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

(Featured image: Murakami collage via 99designs.)

I call it the Murakami reset: everytime my reading habit starts to slip (which since I moved from being college boy to corporate slave has become quite frequent) I do a cold reboot by reading something by Murakami (Haruki – though, I’m also a big fan of the other guy, Ryu). This was quite effective the past three years when I still had about half his bibliography left untouched, but now I’ve been doing this reboot way too frequently, and the man can only write so much, that I’m practically running out of books to jump into when the reading just won’t come easy. I knew that one of these days I’m going to have to do a re-read.

…each of the stories in this collection… center on a series of characters in a variety of situations but who are always troubled by the same thing: their identity.

Which isn’t really a problem for me. I’ve re-read books before, and consider it just as entertaining and worthy use of my time as reading something for the first time. I remember when I first read Salinger’s Catcher, the very moment I finished I went right back to page one. I’ve re-read Gatsby every year since I first fell in love with Fitzgerald’s doomed dreamer back in my sophomore year in university. Every now and again I’ll come back to a book I loved once and without fail I fall in love all over again. Loving a piece of literature, for me, is no different from marriage as Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes it in Love In The Time Of Cholera (read count: 3, if you’re interested): it ends moments after you close the book and must be rebuilt next time you open it.

But to get back to the Reboot, why exactly it has to be Murakami I can attribute to a number of reasons. Chief among them is that Murakami reserves a special spot among my favorite authors in that while he’s not exactly someone I completely admire – much like Hemingway he has the tendency to turn me off with his portrayal of women – the subjects he deals with, like pain, trauma, and social disconnection, always hit home for me. Coming from a psyche that’s historically Japanese but ever-looking towards the West, he gives a unique dimension to his characters’ psychologies. It’s no mistake that this early in his career (the man looks like he’s still got a number of books in him) people have already coined an adjective after him: Murakamiesque. His characters all mostly live in Tokyo, follow Japanese social mores, walk and talk Japanese lives, and yet they trod a psychogeography that’s distinctly, unmistakeably the creation of one man.

The 2006 short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, translated in tandem by his long-standing collaborators Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin, presents a perfect and condensed case study of this. Despite putting together 24 short stories, from his first attempts back in 1980 and all the way to 2005, the book manages to pull off a level of tonal consistency that just falls short of novelistic. Of course there’s the usual smattering of trademark-Murakami imagery (caves, wells, disappearing women, cats, talking animals, cryptic messages delivered via said talking animals), but beyond that each of the stories in this collection (his first real collection, so claims Murakami) center on a series of characters in a variety of situations but who are always troubled by the same thing: their identity.

I first read the collection when I was in college, somewhere on my third year, back when my only publishing credits were for the WWII nonfiction piece that won second place in a national contest and subsequently published in the Inquirer, plus another Inquirer essay for their Young Blood section, and I was still trying to learn this whole short story business. I took on the collection partly because I’d read three other Murakami novels before (in order: Hear The Wind Sing, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage, and then finally Norwegian Wood) and was very much impressed by the author that I wanted to learn his methods but in a form that was more condensed and that I could directly apply to my own writing. The result was a shameless Murakami xerox that nevertheless did net me one of the university’s coveted literary prizes – usually reserved for their actual literary majors, which is why the year a nobody from the Statistics department received it, a number of heads were definitely turned).

So it only makes sense that among all his books, I would choose this one for my reboot. These stories have claimed a special place in my memory for giving me some of my first encounters with the form. But even taking that out of the equation, these stories, being condensed, allow Murakami to run with his subjects without the risk of dragging them out too long. This has been a struggle of mine with some of Murakami’s latest efforts, writing in particular of course about Killing Commendatore, reading which becomes rough going and tedious around the middle. The length restriction does absolutely no disservice to Murakami’s ability to get down to the heart of his characters’ turmoil – and in some stories, the constraint even further the stories’ dimensions.

One of my all-time favorites from this book concerns a nameless narrator’s obsession with cooking spaghetti. The Year of Spaghetti opens with a long monologue by the narrator about the process and nuances of the Italian dish, peppered here and there by the Italian names of its variants. Already the story takes off on an unusual direction – for nearly all but the last quarter of this very short piece, we learn nothing in the way of plot or character. Until, out of nowhere, he receives a phone call from someone who appears to be an estranged friend’s girlfriend. When the phone rings, the narrator has already steeped himself into a solitary reality of his own making, centered on the cooking (and consuming) of spaghetti, that he almost fails to recognize the call.

At first, I didn’t recognize it as the phone ringing. It was more like an unfamiliar memory that had hesitantly slipped in between the layers of air.

Even in the midst of an unsettling conversation – the girlfriend hassles the narrator regarding her beaux’s whereabouts, information that the narrator adamantly withholds – we are offered no explanation, no context of sorts on which to properly anchor our understanding of the encounter. Like with most Murakami stories, it opens up more questions than it intends to answer, but by the end of it, we come out with the realization that no answer is the point.

Exactly what was up between the two characters present on the scene, and the third missing, would only deviate from the highlight of the piece, which presents us with a character who – in true Murakami fashion – has created for himself an entire psychological framework in which he intends to remain sheltered, and which he will defend at all costs from the intrusions of the outside world. The unnamed emcee of The Year Of Spaghetti gives us a shorthand for the kind of experiences that Murakami’s regulars in his more novelistic attempts all go through, and the coping mechanisms they craft in response. It just so happens that in this case, it’s got to do with spaghetti.

But I wasn’t about to tell her where he was. Do that, and next I’d have him on the phone, giving me an earful. I was through with getting caught up in other people’s messes. I’d already dug a hole in the backyard and buried everything that needed to be buried in it. Nobody could ever dig it up again.

My amazement, on my first reading, with the kind of narrative magic that Murakami can pull off with no more than a suggested conflict and crafty misdirection later inspired the aforementioned piece that won the Amelia-Lapena-Bonifacio Prize courtesy of the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature. And though my appreciation for this particular story would later wane in favor of other, more emotionally resonant pieces like The Ice Man, Firefly, and the titular Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (which would, in turn, inspire the recently-published The Girl In The Ticket Booth).

In his introduction to the book, Murakami claims that he considers writing short stories “a joy” – which only makes sense, as reading through them, in this collection, certainly was. If ever I have to do another reboot to jumpstart a reading habit gone cold, and provided Murakami still hasn’t released any new material by then, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is something I definitely wouldn’t mind giving another round.

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