I would not typically combine two works of fiction into a single review, but Hear the Wind Sing, and Pinball, 1973, by Haruki Murakami, are inextricably linked, wind-pinball-murakaminot only because they date back some thirty-five years yet were only released in the United States for the first time in 2015 – in a single volume entitled Wind/Pinball – but because together these two short novels neatly form the essential foundation for the exceptional artist that Murakami would become. The author emphasizes this connection, fondly tagging these as his “kitchen table novels.”

Murakami’s genesis as a novelist is an extraordinary story that he recounts in an introduction to this edition that is definitely worth the read. Apparently, he and his wife married young, opened a jazz club in the Tokyo suburbs and labored throughout their twenties just to pay the bills. In 1978, the nearly thirty year old Murakami decided one day that he wanted to be a writer, sat down at his kitchen table and struggled to find a style. Remarkably, he put initial frustrations aside and began composing in English, which he later translated back into Japanese. His reliance on direct, simple sentences to construct paragraphs and chapters was born in this exercise. The result was Hear the Wind Sing. He submitted his only copy of the manuscript to a journal, and basically forgot about it. Sometime later, he learned that he had won a prestigious literary prize! All at once, he was convinced he would become a full-time author. The following year, he wrote Pinball, 1973, also at his kitchen table, as a sequel to Hear the Wind Sing, then sold his jazz club and set off for fame and fortune.

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are considered the first and second volumes of the “Trilogy of the Rat” series, which precede A Wild Sheep Chase, the novel that really launched Murakami’s career. Together these works introduce the quintessential Murakami passive male protagonist who populates most of his novels, as well as “the Rat,” his existentially peculiar drinking buddy who reappears posthumously in A Wild Sheep Chase. There are also the familiar well-drawn quirky female characters who inhabit Murakami’s fiction as lovers and friends: a girl missing a finger in Wind; a pair of utterly indistinguishable twins in Pinball. Conspicuous in their absence for well-travelled Murakami fans, however, are erotic female earlobes, missing cats, or the author’s special brand of magical realism which first shows up in A Wild Sheep Chase. Both Wind and Pinball are composed more as a series of vignettes and character sketches than a narrative storyline; not an unusual Murakami construct but yet far more noticeable here than elsewhere by virtue of their brevity. Yet, the characters and events are both decidedly colorful and strikingly memorable.

To date, I have read all but one of the volumes of Murakami’s fiction. As a devotee, I felt an obligation to read these nascent works, but hardly expected to enjoy them as much as I did. Hear the Wind Sing indeed feels a bit like the writer working to find his voice, as described in the introduction, but it remains a pleasure to read. And Pinball, 1973, despite its brief length and its reliance on vignettes already has the feel of the product of a fully-formed craftsman. As such, I would recommend these first Murakami novels not only to longtime fans but to anyone who appreciates fine literature.