In the Introduction, Murakami likens the writing of short stories to planting gardens and writing novels to planting forests. In this book, he planted a lush, colorful collection of stories written from 1981 to 2005. The book is like Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebook, containing studies for bigger works, studies that are complete art by themselves. One story, Firefly, is a study that he eventually developed into the novel, Norwegian Wood, the work that brought Murakami into the nova of international bestseller authors.
One gets the feeling that a lot of the stories are autobiographical. In Chance Traveler, for instance, he specifically names himself as the narrator and places himself in the story.
I’m not fond of short stories. Most of the time, they’re weird, vague, ending abruptly leaving me scratching my head muttering, what the fafaya was that about?!? (Interrobang intended.) And then there’s Haruki Murakami, known for his delving in the bizarre and surreal.
The combination of short stories and Murakami really intimidated me.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is very low on the weirdometer; not intimidating at all. And the biggest surprise is that most of the stories have very neat, complete plots, with dénouements not usually seen in short stories. Some are so well developed, they seem more like novellas than short stories.
Wiki describes Murakami’s work as “accessible yet profoundly complex.” With this book as basis, I have to agree. His prose is easily understandable, the narrative simple and fluid, and the themes universal. Though some stories have a touch of the bizarre and most exhibit Murakami’s style of magical realism, they are stories that are easy to relate to. Because underneath the fantastic plots are emotional themes most people can identify with.
The one that resonated with me best was the story of Tony Takitani, whose wife was obsessed with the accumulation of clothes. In my case, my obsession is amassing books. I’ll spare you the spoilers so I won’t say much about it except that it shows Murakami’s dry humor as well as his splendid way of taking what’s ordinary to weave extraordinary tales.
A Poor Aunt Story is more fantastic but still very easy to grasp, which is not to say that it is simplistic or dumbed down. The narrator in the story suddenly finds himself bearing on his shoulder a poor aunt that just won’t go away. It’s great how this metaphor can be interpreted in different ways by different readers. The shoulder-borne aunt may represent limiting mindsets, bad habits, debilitating fears, and counterproductive behavior. Or whatever you think it is.
So relatable are the stories that if you take away the Japanese names of people and places, these stories could happen to anyone anywhere in the world. Anyone who suffers loss, experiences love, and wonders at life. Maybe because of it being so universal, what is missing is the "Japaneseness" of it. If you look closer though, the issues can be those which are prevalent in Japan. Suicide, for instance.
Expectedly, the stories show Murakami’s obsession with death, particularly suicide. A character says, “Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” Even then, death is not trivialized; his characters ponder much on the loss of life and the sorrow that comes with it.
Before this, the only Murakami piece I’ve read was Kafka on the Shore, which wowed me with the writing but freaked me out with the oedipal theme. After reading this, I have not yet decided if I should become a fan. This might not be the book to convert me into a Murakamite. It is not iconic like Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Kafka on the Shore. It is rarely listed among his notable works. But if this well written book is not one of his best, then I would certainly like to read the rest of Murakami’s works.