Magic in the ordinary world


BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 334 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

Just as fiction that is purely mundane can be, well, mundane, fiction that is only fantastic is often only dull. Authors such as Paul Auster and Jonathan Carroll are successful precisely because they don’t write in one mode or the other, but rather in both, and at the same time. By placing the mundane next to the fantastic these authors are able to show us the beauty of such everyday affairs as coffee or conversation; by placing the fantastic next to the mundane they provide the contrast necessary for readers to discern what makes their fancy other than facile.

No one does this better than Haruki Murakami, not only in his novels but also in short fiction, as his “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” demonstrates.

“I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy,” Murakami remarks in the introduction to this collection. It will be the joy of following Murakami’s characters through those challenging novels as they boil pasta, chase sheep, listen to records and descend to the bottoms of wells that will make most readers eager to open “Blind Willow,” and when they do, fans will not be disappointed. The stories are packed with the food, music and fantasy that Murakami readers relish.

Also present is the interest in chance and coincidence that characterizes much of Murakami’s work. The purest example of this, and also one of the finest tales in the collection, is “Chance Traveler.” The narrator, who identifies himself in the first sentence as “Haruki Murakami, the author of the story,” begins by relating two “strange experiences, . . . trifling, insignificant ones.” He attends a Tommy Flanagan Trio concert, but finds that the music “was missing that extra element that sends us flying to another world.” In his disappointment he begins to fantasize about what two songs he would, given the chance, request from Flanagan. The trio closes the show with sizzling renditions of just the two tunes Murakami had imagined.

The second introductory anecdote is also jazz-related. In a used-record store Murakami locates a copy of an album called “10 to 4 at the 5 Spot.” As he’s leaving the shop, a young man asks him the time. Murakami glances at his watch; it is, of course, 10 to 4.

“Neither one of these incidents was anything special,” Murakami the narrator explains. “It wasn’t like my life turned in a new direction. I was simply struck by the strange coincidences — that things like this actually do happen.” It is when Murakami the author is writing about strange things that actually do happen that he is at his best, and sometimes these odd events do turn lives in new directions, as in the third section of “Chance Traveler” in which a gay man and his sister, long estranged, are reunited by a bizarre and believable chain of coincidences.

At the end of this story Murakami the narrator confesses that he has no idea what ultimately happened to the principals in the tale, nor does he attempt to explain the coincidences he has related or to endow them with ponderous meaning. He wonders, however, whether there might be a god of jazz or a god of gays who had managed the events “unobtrusively, as if it were all coincidence.” But readers who recall the story’s first sentence will understand that the man behind the curtain, the one who has unobtrusively placed these three anecdotes of chance next to each other, is none other than the narrator’s creator.

The uncanny, in “Chance Traveler,” tiptoes in and barely makes a peep from its quiet corner of the stage, and most of the tales here assembled that deal with the paranormal handle it just that way. In “Birthday Girl,” for example, the story of a young woman granted a wish by a mysterious old man “wearing a withered-leaf-colored tie,” we never quite know what the birthday girl’s wish is or whether it comes true — she doesn’t know herself — and lacking that information we’re never quite sure whether, aside from Murakami’s mastery of narrative, there is any magic involved.

There are also stories that, eschewing the outrageous, are entirely naturalistic such as “Firefly,” which readers of “Norwegian Wood” will recognize as a section of that work. Understanding that it is the seed from which “Norwegian Wood” grew allows us to read both story and novel differently. On the other hand stories such as “Dabchick” and “A Shinagawa Monkey” bring fantasy to the fore.

There are those who have asserted that Murakami is a writer of small range. This collection should put that canard to rest. Whether you prefer his evocations of this world — jazz, beer, spaghetti — or the world next door — talking monkeys, crows who are critics, a man as cold as ice — you’ll find plenty that delights in “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.”