Prizewinning Short Stories From a Japanese Master

Gentle and enchanted, the 24 stories of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s latest collection, are frequently brief, unassuming and understated—but never flat or vacant. Mr. Murakami presents new variations on familiar preoccupations: brooding mid-20’s or -30’s male narrators, adulterous lovers, and a panorama of jazz records, cats, whiskey and well-furnished apartments.

Many of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are structured around a character’s lucid recollection of a strange or vivid incident from his or her past. A young man thinks back on the bizarre daydreams of a hospitalized classmate in “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman”; a girl remembers a mysterious run-in with a restaurant owner on her 20th birthday in “Birthday Girl”; a young man recalls a haunting night spent as a watchman in “The Mirror”; the narrator’s polyamorous friend tells of a 40-day spell when he was visited by daily vomiting and punctual prank phone calls in “Nausea 1979.” A story called “A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism” is about the unexpected adult confessions of one man’s boyhood all-star classmate, and “The Seventh Man” is about another storyteller’s childhood brush with a typhoon. In each case the notable episode defies explanation, and the reader is led to believe that it’s precisely the lack of resolution that has spurred the retelling.

Paired with scattered references to the meaning of storytelling, the repeated narrative device of framing a story within a story also lends the collection as a whole a mood of literary/philosophical inquiry. “The Mirror” begins: “All the stories you’ve been telling tonight seem to fall into two categories,” and the opening of “The Seventh Man” announces that the speaker was “the last one to tell his story that night.” The opening paragraphs of “The Year of Spaghetti” include the explanatory line, “This is a story from the Year of Spaghetti, 1971 A.D.,” and near the end of “Nausea 1979,” the storyteller tells the narrator, “I guess that’s why you’re a writer and I’m not.” In a particularly flagrant display of writerly self-consciousness, “Chance Traveler” opens: “The ‘I’ here, you should know, means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story.” Mr. Murakami wisely uses these touches of metafictional speculation only sparingly; he trusts that the utter originality of his stories itself is enough to hold his readers.

And, as usual, it does. Mr. Murakami possesses a unique talent for fusing stark realism with unfettered imaginings. In this passage, from in “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” a man waits for his lover to give him an answer: “With her back to me, she allowed her slender fingers to trail in the water. It seemed as if my question were coursing through her fingers to be conducted to the ruined city beneath the water. It’s still down there, I’m sure, the question mark glittering at the bottom of the pond like a polished metal fragment. For all I know, it’s showering the cola cans around it with that same question.”

If Mr. Murakami’s novels tend towards somber reflections on mortality and the tragedy of life’s inherent uncontrollability, in his short stories, it’s more often a bittersweet zest for life—here, life at its most fantastic, unpredictable and otherworldly—that triumphs. Sections from “Man-Eating Cats,” for instance, reveal a softer and more whimsical version of passages from Sputnik Sweetheart (2001). In the novel, we get an exchange between a young woman and young man caught in a love triangle: The young man lusts after the young woman, who’s in the grip of an urgent, unrequited love for an older women. These thwarted passions give a newspaper account of the man-eating cats found in a dead woman’s apartment a dark absurdity. In the story, the same anecdote is shared between vacationing lovers, and the whole episode takes on a fresh levity.

“A Shinagawa Monkey” is another story that manages to tackle serious themes in a light-hearted way. The story opens with a young married woman noticing that “recently she’d had trouble remembering her own name.” Unable to find an explanation for these mysterious lapses of memory, and dissatisfied with the temporary solution of engraving her name on a charm bracelet, Mizuki Ando seeks the help of a tiny counseling center, which after several sessions tracks down a mischievous Shinagawa monkey lurking in sewers, waiting for the opportunity to snatch away names.

“I’m a monkey who takes people’s names,” the Shinagawa monkey tells Mizuki. “It’s a sickness I suffer from. Once I spot a name I can’t help myself.” The encounter proves profoundly life-changing: The monkey is able to tell Mizuki the things that have “stuck” to her name, and the truth is nothing short of devastating. “Your mother doesn’t love you. She’s never loved you,” says the Shinagawa monkey, and “you don’t truly love your husband.” That the entire episode manages to be both genuinely cathartic and delightfully fanciful is a testament to Mr. Murakami’s gift as a storyteller.

For Mr. Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is the product of insuppressible and spontaneous—as opposed to more deliberate, disciplined—expression. Some of the stories in this collection were written in the early 1980’s, but most of them date from 2005, when Mr. Murakami, inspired by a “powerful urge,” went on a story-writing binge: He wrote five in about a month, then churned out several more. Perhaps the strength of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (which recently won the $45,000 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award) ultimately derives from the fact that Haruki Murakami, as he notes in his introduction, finds “writing novels a challenge [and] writing short stories a joy.” As the Shinagawa monkey says of his own vocation, “It’s what I do.”

Mythili Rao is a graduate student in English and American literature at N.Y.U. and a reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

Prizewinning Short Stories  From a Japanese Master