Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
Introduction to the English Edition
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
New York Mining Disaster
Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry
A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism
A Perfect Day for Kangaroos
A “Poor Aunt” Story
The Seventh Man
The Year of Spaghetti
The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes
The Ice Man
Where I’m Likely to Find It
The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day
A Shinagawa Monkey
About the Author
Also by Haruki Murakami
Acclaim for Haruki Murakami’s: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
INTRODUCTION TO THE ENGLISH EDITION
To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure. The green foliage of the trees casts a pleasant shade over the earth, and the wind rustles the leaves, which are sometimes dyed a brilliant gold. Meanwhile, in the garden, buds appear on flowers, and colorful petals attract bees and butterflies, reminding us of the subtle transition from one season to the next.
Since my debut as a fiction writer in 1979 I’ve fairly consistently alternated between writing novels and short stories. My pattern’s been this: once I finish a novel, I find I want to write some short stories; once a group of stories is done, then I feel like focusing on a novel. I never write any short stories while I’m writing a novel, and never write a novel while I’m working on short stories. The two types of writing may very well engage different parts of the brain, and it takes some time to get off one track and switch to the other.
It was only after I began my career with two short novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, that I started, from 1980 to 1981, to write short stories. The first three I ever wrote were “A Slow Boat to China,” “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” and “New York Mining Disaster.” I knew little about short story writing then so it was rough going, but I did find the experience very memorable. I felt the possibilities of my fictional world expand by several degrees. And readers seemed to appreciate this other side of me as a writer. “A Slow Boat to China” was collected in my first English short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes, while the other two can be found in the present collection. This was my starting point as a short story writer, and also when I developed my system of alternating between novels and short stories.
“The Mirror,” “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos,” “Dabchick,” “The Year of Spaghetti,” and “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” were all in a collection of “short shorts” I wrote from 1981 to 1982. “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes,” as readers can easily see, reveals my impressions of the literary world at the time of my debut, in the form of a fable. At the time, I couldn’t fit in well with the Japanese literary establishment, a situation that continues to the present day.
One of the joys of writing short stories is that they don’t take so long to finish. Generally it takes me about a week to get a short story into some kind of decent shape (though revisions can be endless). It’s not like the total physical and mental commitment you have to make for the year or two it takes to compose a novel. You merely enter a room, finish your work, and exit. That’s it. For me, at least, writing a novel can seem to drag on forever, and I sometimes wonder if I’m going to survive. So I find writing short stories a necessary change of pace.
One more nice thing about short stories is that you can create a story out of the smallest details—an idea that springs up in your mind, a word, an image, whatever. In most cases it’s like jazz improvisation, with the story taking me where it wants to. And another good point is that with short stories you don’t have to worry about failing. If the idea doesn’t work out the way you hoped it would, you just shrug your shoulders and tell yourself that they can’t all be winners. Even with masters of the genre like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver—even Anton Chekhov—not every short story is a masterpiece. I find this a great comfort. You can learn from your mistakes (in other words, those you can’t call a complete success) and use that in the next story you write. In my case, when I write novels I try very hard to learn from the successes and failures I experience in writing short stories. In that sense, the short story is a kind of experimental laboratory for me as a novelist. It’s hard to experiment the way I like inside the framework of a novel, so without short stories I know I’d find the task of writing novels even more difficult and demanding.
Essentially I consider myself a novelist, but a lot of people tell me they prefer my short stories to my novels. That doesn’t bother me, and I don’t try to convince them otherwise. I’m actually happy to hear them say that. My short stories are like soft shadows I’ve set out in the world, faint footprints I’ve left behind. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart, and it makes me happy as a writer to be able to share these intimate feelings with my readers.
The Elephant Vanishes came out in 1991 and was subsequently translated into many other languages. Another collection in English, after the quake, was published in 2002 (2000 in Japan). This book contained six short tales all dealing in one way or another with the 1995 Kobe earthquake. I’d written it in the hope that all six stories would form a unified image in the reader’s mind, so it was more like a concept album than a short story collection. In that sense, then, the present book, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, is the first real short story collection I’ve brought out abroad in a long time.
This book naturally contains some stories I wrote after The Elephant Vanishes appeared. “Birthday Girl,” “Man-Eating Cats,” “The Seventh Man,” and “Ice Man” are some of these. I wrote “Birthday Girl” at the request of the editor when I was working on an anthology of other writers’ stories on the theme of birthdays. It helps to be a writer when you’re selecting stories for an anthology, since if you’re short one story you can write one yourself. “Ice Man,” by the way, is based on a dream my wife had, while “The Seventh Man” is based on an idea that came to me when I was into surfing and was gazing out at the waves.
To tell the truth, though, from the beginning of 1990 to the beginning of 2000 I wrote very few short stories. It wasn’t that I’d lost interest in short stories. I was just so involved in writing a number of novels that I couldn’t spare the time. I didn’t have the time to switch tracks. I did write a short story from time to time when I had to, but I never focused on them. Instead, I wrote novels: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; South of the Border, West of the Sun; Sputnik Sweetheart; Kafka on the Shore. And in between, I wrote nonfiction, the two works that make up the English version of Underground. Each of these took an enormous amount of time and energy. I suppose that back then my main battleground was this—the writing of one novel after another. Perhaps it was just that time of life for me. In between, like an intermezzo, was the collection after the quake, but as I said, this really wasn’t a short story collection.
In 2005, though, for the first time in a long time I was struck by a s
“Crabs,” “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” “Hunting Knife,” and “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” have all been greatly revised prior to their translation, so the versions here differ significantly from the first versions published in Japan. With some of the other older stories, too, I found spots I wasn’t pleased with and made some minor changes.
I should also mention that many times I’ve rewritten short stories and incorporated them into novels, and the present collection contains several of these prototypes. “The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women” (included in The Elephant Vanishes) became the model for the opening section of the novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and likewise both “Firefly” and “Man-Eating Cats,” with some changes, were incorporated as parts of, respectively, the novels Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart. There was a period when narratives I’d written as short stories, after I’d published them, kept expanding in my mind, developing into novels. A short story I’d written long ago would barge into my house in the middle of the night, shake me awake, and shout, “Hey, this is no time to be sleeping! You can’t forget about me, there’s still more to write!” Impelled by that voice, I’d find myself writing a novel. In this sense, too, my short stories and novels connect up inside me in a very natural, organic way.
Many people have encouraged me and led me to write short stories. Every time I see Amanda Urban, my agent at ICM, she repeats this mantra-like exhortation: “Haruki, write more short stories!” Gary Fisketjon at Knopf, editor of The Elephant Vanishes, also edited the present collection and was pivotal in seeing Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman into print. Both Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, my hardworking, skilled translators, have their own unique touch, and it’s been a real pleasure to read my stories again in their superb translations. I’ve also been greatly inspired by Deborah Treisman, and her predecessor, Linda Asher, literary editors at The New Yorker, which has published many of my stories. Thanks to all of them, this new collection of short stories is now published and—as a short story writer—I couldn’t be more pleased with what we’ve accomplished.
BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN
When I closed my eyes, the scent of the wind wafted up toward me. A May wind, swelling up like a piece of fruit, with a rough outer skin, slimy flesh, dozens of seeds. The flesh split open in midair, spraying seeds like gentle buckshot into the bare skin of my arms, leaving behind a faint trace of pain.
“What time is it?” my cousin asked me. About eight inches shorter than me, he had to look up when he talked.
I glanced at my watch. “Ten twenty.”
“Does that watch tell good time?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
My cousin grabbed my wrist to look at the watch. His slim, smooth fingers were surprisingly strong. “Did it cost a lot?”
“No, it’s pretty cheap,” I said, glancing again at the timetable.
My cousin looked confused. The white teeth between his parted lips looked like bones that had atrophied.
“It’s pretty cheap,” I said, looking right at him, carefully repeating the words. “It’s pretty cheap, but it keeps good time.”
My cousin nodded silently.
My cousin can’t hear well out of his right ear. Soon after he went into elementary school he was hit by a baseball and it screwed up his hearing. That doesn’t keep him from functioning normally most of the time. He attends a regular school, leads an entirely normal life. In his classroom, he always sits in the front row, on the right, so he can keep his left ear toward the teacher. And his grades aren’t so bad. The thing is, though, he goes through periods when he can hear sounds pretty well, and periods when he can’t. It’s cyclical, like the tides. And sometimes, maybe twice a year, he can barely hear anything out of either ear. It’s like the silence in his right ear deepens to the point where it crushes out any sound on the left side. When that happens, ordinary life goes out the window and he has to take some time off from school. The doctors are basically stumped. They’ve never seen a case like it, so there’s nothing they can do.
“Just because a watch is expensive doesn’t mean it’s accurate,” my cousin said, as if trying to convince himself. “I used to have a pretty expensive watch, but it was always off. I got it when I started junior high, but I lost it a year later. Since then I’ve gone without a watch. They won’t buy me a new one.”
“Must be tough to get along without one,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“Isn’t it hard to get along without a watch?” I repeated, looking right at him.
“No, it isn’t,” he replied, shaking his head. “It’s not like I’m living off in the mountains or something. If I want to know the time I just ask somebody.”
“True enough,” I said.
We were silent again for a while.
I knew I should say something more, try to be kind to him, try to make him relax a little until we arrived at the hospital. But it had been five years since I saw him last. In the meanwhile he’d grown from nine to fourteen, and I’d gone from twenty to twenty-five. And that span of time had created a translucent barrier between us that was hard to traverse. Even when I had to say something, the right words just wouldn’t come out. And every time I hesitated, every time I swallowed back something I was about to say, my cousin looked at me with a slightly confused look on his face. His left ear tilted ever so slightly toward me.
“What time is it now?” he asked me.
“Ten twenty-nine,” I replied.
It was ten thirty-two when the bus finally rolled into view.
The bus that came was a new type, not like the one I used to take to high school. The windshield in front of the driver was much bigger, the whole vehicle like some huge bomber minus the wings. And the bus was more crowded than I’d imagined. Nobody was standing in the aisle, but we couldn’t sit together. We weren’t going very far, so we stood next to the rear door in back. Why the bus should be so crowded at this time of day was a mystery. The bus route started from a private railway station, continued up into a residential area in the hills, then circled back to the station, and there weren’t any tourist spots along the way. A few schools along the route made the buses crowded when kids were going to school, but at this time of day the bus should have been empty.
My cousin and I held on to the straps and poles. The bus was brand-new, straight from the factory, the metal surfaces so shiny you could see your face reflected in them. The nap of the seats was all fluffy, and even the tiniest of screws had that proud, expectant feeling that only brand-new machinery possesses.
The new bus, and the way it was unexpectedly crowded, threw me off. Maybe the bus route had changed since I last rode it. I looked carefully around the bus and glanced outside. But it was the same old view of a quiet residential district I remembered well.
“This is the right bus, isn’t it?” my cousin asked worriedly. Ever since we got aboard I must have had a perplexed look on my face.
“Not to worry,” I said, trying to reassure myself as much as him. “There’s only one bus route that goes by here, so this has got to be it.”
“Did you used to take this bus when you went to high school?” my cousin asked.
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Did you like school?”
“Not particularly,” I said.
My cousin thought about what I’d said.
“Do you still see them?”
“No, not for a long time,” I said, choosing my words carefully.
“Why not? Why don’t you see them?”
“’Cause we live so far away from each other.” That wasn’t the reason, but I couldn’t think of any other way to explain it.
Right beside me sat a group of old people. Must have been close to fifteen of them. They were the reason the bus was crowded, I suddenly realized. They were all suntanned, even the backs of their necks dark. And every single one of them was skinny. Most of the men had on thick mountain-climbing types of shirts; the women, simple, unadorned blouses. All of them had small rucksacks in their laps, the kind you’d use for short hikes into the hills. It was amazing how much they looked alike. Like a drawer full of samples of something, all neatly lined up. The strange thing, though, was that there wasn’t any mountain-climbing route along this bus line. So where in the world could they have been going? I thought about this as I stood there, clinging to the strap, but no plausible explanation came to mind.
“I wonder if it’s going to hurt this time—the treatments?” my cousin asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t hear any of the details.”
“Have you ever been to an ear doctor?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t been to an ear doctor once in my life.
“Has it hurt before?” I asked.
“Not really,” my cousin said glumly. “It wasn’t totally painless, of course; sometimes it hurt a little. But nothing terrible.”
“Maybe this time it’ll be the same. Your mom said they’re not going to do anything much different from usual.”
“But if they do the same as always, how’s that going to help?”
“Well, you never know. Sometimes the unexpected happens.”
“You mean like pulling out a cork?” my cousin said. I glanced at him, but didn’t detect any sarcasm.