Book Reviews

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin

Alfred A. Knopf (USA) and Harvill (UK)

Like a magician who pulls a rabbit out of his hat (or in Murakami's case, a monkey or an elephant) or makes bodies vanish into thin air, Haruki Murakami uses words to perform such miraculous feats right before our eyes. And in each moment of astonishment, we too are suspended above the real world. In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a collection of 25 stories that spans much of the author's career—it's his second full short story compilation in English in 15 years—Murakami is a conjurer of stories that astonish, expand belief, and magically transport a reader into other worlds that are at once familiar and fantastic.

So much of what makes good magic is that no explanations or answers are ever given. The same "Now you see it, now you don't" remains a familiar refrain that runs through much of Murakami's work. The world is out of kilter for his characters, many of them moving through their lonely lives slowly losing some aspect of themselves. In the title story, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman," a half-deaf boy is taken to a doctor's appointment by his older cousin. While waiting for the bus to come, the boy talks about the John Ford movie, Fort Apache, where a colonel arrives at the fort and tells John Wayne, "I did see a few Indians on the way over here"—to which John Wayne replies, "Don't worry. If you were able to spot some Indians that means there aren't any there." To untangle the boy's confusion, his older cousin explains, "I think it means that what can be seen by anybody isn't all that important…" It is a theme that Murakami returns to over and over. In "Man-Eating Cats," the narrator's girlfriend disappears, and he finds his own identity vanishing as he searches for her, while in "Crabs," a young couple gorge themselves eating crab, only to have the young man vomit it all up—and along with the worm-covered crab, life as he has known it irrevocably disappears. In "The Mirror," a man sees his reflection in a mirror that "looked exactly like me on the outside, but it definitely wasn't me," only to find there never was a mirror, and in "A Shinagawa Monkey," the narrator begins to lose her identity after a monkey steals her name tag. 

Murakami's landscapes are Kafkaesque, surreal, sometimes ghostly, always thought-provoking, populated by blind, cake-eating crows, cats that have devoured their owner, a monkey who talks and steals, and by lonely men and women who appear and disappear. Yet underneath these dreamlike, modern-day fairy tales is the author's ability to touch upon a wide spectrum of the human experience. While Murakami's stories may not initially be for everyone, the magic of his storytelling will stay with you long after you've put the book down. 

In his introduction to the collection, Murakami writes: "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." With seeds of profound insight and dazzling originality, Murakami's garden is filled with vibrant colors.  

Reviewed by Gail Tsukiyama