Arts Books By The Book literature Review

★★★☆☆ Book Review: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

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Quintessential Haruki Murakami reflecting on the little absurdities that make up our world. 

I first discovered Haruki Murakami as a teenager, diving into his works from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to 1Q84. Often, it was the ones that had a distinct, surreal touch that struck me, creating the idea that beyond what our usual senses could detect, there lay an entire layer of alternate reality, dangerous and dream-like. These were helped of course, by his (and his translators’) whimsical writing style and language, something that hits even harder in his short story collections, with their brief, punchy plots, and open-ended conclusions.

In First Person Singular, his latest collection that’s been translated to English (by Philip Gabriel), Murakami presents eight short stories that encapsulate everything his readers have come to recognise across his writing. There’s the sprinkling of magic realism; the mysterious women his narrators encounter; philosophical musings over life; and of course, his obsession with jazz and baseball. As its title suggests, each story is told from the first person point of view.

Because Murakami’s voice is so strong, and often, his various protagonists feel like different versions of the same person, it’s entirely possible to interpret the eight stories as distinct and separate, or all interlinked by a singular protagonist recounting these tales. There are times we even find ourselves wondering where the fiction ends and the memoir begins, and how much of Murakami himself exists in these stories, as an extension of his own memories.

Something I like to say when I describe the feeling of reading a Murakami work is ‘deliberate meandering’, where it feels like you’re getting completely lost in a story that’s seemingly going nowhere, only to end up with a surprisingly hard-hitting philosophical zinger by the end that makes the strange journey worth it.  

In the opening story, “Cream”, our narrator is an 18-year old between high school and college who receives an invitation to a girl’s piano recital. En route to the place however, he encounters a mysterious old man who spouts notions of people as concentric circles, dubbing our very essence the ‘crème de la crème’. There’s an almost apocalyptic atmosphere as he hears a car broadcasting an end-of-days message, but ultimately, he leaves unscathed. It is this feeling that matters more than the inherent meaning of the piece, and we are left to wonder what exactly makes up this ‘cream of life’ we all possess within us.

The twisting, abstract ideas refusing to conform to a set interpretation repeat throughout the collection, be it in ‘On A Stone Pillow’, where the narrator recounts a girl who wrote tanka poems; or the significance of wins, losses and fandom as art in ‘The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection’, containing a fascinating collection of poems on baseball. 

Murakami is strongest however, when he has a clear underlying ‘plot’ (as far as Murakami plots go), and introduces obvious instances of central figures and phenomena that’s out of place. Stand outs include ‘Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey’, which sees the narrator meeting a talking monkey at an onsen, as the two discuss classical music in an absurd but strangely acceptable scenario, while ‘Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova’ imagines a jazz fan dreaming up an impossible album (Charlie Parker passed before the term Bossa Nova was coined) and seeing the record in a store. These work because of the way his protagonists are subtly surprised at the occurrences, but quickly accept their reality, allowing our own minds and sense of logic to be transformed and similarly learn to adapt to the unexpected.

While I received this collection, I’d gotten interested in Japanese ambient music and ended up listening to Midori Takada’s classic “Through The Looking Glass” while reading it. In the same way that such music is all about immersing one in a sonic landscape to let the mind wander and dream up possibilities, so too does Murakami’s words in affecting our psyche and lulling us into a state of oneiros. First Person Singular won’t offer anything groundbreaking compared to Murakami’s other work, but it’s a welcome break for anyone who wants to get a quick dive back into his world, and a simple digest of all that makes him and his protagonists so unique.

Recommended for: Readers interested in getting a taste of the signature Murakami style, and getting lost for a moment in this surreal version of Japan. 

First Person Singular is distributed by Times, and will be available from 6th April 2021 at all major bookstores. 

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