As Japanese writer Haruki Murakami enjoys great international fame and popularity and his major literary work has been translated into English, a new collection of his short stories offers another enjoyable view of his quirky literary universe. What unifies the twenty-five short stories of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is the encounter with the extraordinary, if not outright supernatural, by characters who think of themselves as exceedingly normal or mundane. With great literary skill Murakami describes how these characters are shaken out of their apparently tranquil life when the unforeseen occurs, be it an old lover calling, a tidal wave snatching a life, or a talking monkey stealing a name tag.
Since the short stories collected in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman cover the first three decades of Murakami’s literary career, a reader can detect that Murakami has remained true to his key themes of contemporary urban alienation and the intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary lives as well as to his overweening humanity. Included are two of his first stories, written in 1981 and 1982, as well as many stories previously translated into English and published in various magazines. The final five pieces of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman were published by Murakami in Japan as Tokyo Kitanshu (2005; Strange Tales from Tokyo).
The title story, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman,” illustrates the special appeal of Murakami’s short fiction collected here. The story is told by a young man who has failed at his first attempts to manage adult life. Now he is accompanying his teenage cousin, whom a sports injury has left sonically impaired, to a hospital. Waiting for his cousin in the hospital cafeteria, typical of Murakami’s fondness for multilayered narratives jumping across time, the young man remembers another hospital visit in his own teenage years.
Then, eight years ago, he and his friend visited his friend’s girlfriend in a hospital where she recuperated from a routine operation. Amazingly, the teenage girl drew a scene from her own poetry on a cafeteria napkin. In her imaginary world, the fictitious plant of a blind willow produces pollen that tiny flies gather. They carry it into the ear of a young woman whom the pollen puts to sleep so the flies can devour her. Attempts to save her come too late.
In just a subordinate sentence, the narrator tells of his friend’s death soon after this visit. Leaving the hospital with his cousin, he muses about his past carelessness and experiences a moment where life around him seems to dissipate. Called back to reality by his cousin, he asserts that everything is all righttypical of Murakami’s characters, who generally survive encounters with the strange well.
Underlining Murakami’s fondness to withhold apparently crucial story details, “Birthday Girl” tells of a young waitress who is granted one wish on her twentieth birthday. This day, fixing the inevitable passing of youth in Japan, appears to pass as a nonevent. However, the kindly old restaurant owner learns of it by accident and promises to grant her one wish. Murakami teases his readers by having the old man commenting on the unusual nature of the young waitress’s wish that the author never reveals. This leaves behind a mystery, as do many of Murakami’s popular stories and novels.
Sense of loss, untimely death, and all-encompassing loneliness are never far from Murakami’s characters. “Tony Takitani,” a short story made into a film by Jun Ichikawa in 2003, tells of a quiet technical illustrator. His father is a drifting jazz musician who does not know what to do with his son after his wife dies suddenly three days after giving birth to him.
As so often happens in Murakami’s fiction, her death, like other potentially life-shattering events, just happens. An Italian American major in the United States Army that occupied Japan at the end of World War II becomes the baby’s godfather and gives him his Western first name. Tony grows up a loner without any emotional bond to his father. Then one day, as mysteriously and as suddenly as his mother died, he falls in love with an unnamed woman. Their marriage is exceedingly happy. The one thing bothering Tony is his wife’s addiction to shopping for clothes.
On Tony’s suggestion, his wife returns one coat and dress. On her drive home, her car gets hit...
(The entire section is 1813 words.)