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Review: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Haruki Murakami's works have been translated into thirty-eight languages, garnering praise and recognition from critics and writers alike. His novel Kafka on the Shore (2002) was chosen as one of the ten best books of 2005 by The New York Times Book Review. Author John Updike declared Kafka "a metaphysical mind-bender" and Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket christened Murakami "our greatest living practitioner of fiction."

Murakami's latest, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman continues Murakami's mix of realism and surrealism, blending the fantastical with the mundane. New York Times critic Laura Miller wrote, "While anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, itís the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves."

Set in venues around the world, including Murakami's native Japan, Blind Willow is a collection of stories the author has written throughout the last couple of decades, stories that feature a fascinating array of subjects: an iceman, a firefly, strange cats, an enterprising monkey, as well as humans facing loss, death, and their own sexuality.

I am new to Murakami's short fiction, but enjoyed my venture through Blind Willow. Below are three of the stories from the collection:

In "The Year of Spaghetti," a lonely young man attempts to offset the loneliness of one particular summer in 1971 with tubs of spaghetti that he methodically cooks for himself, using a huge aluminum cooking pot, "big enough to bathe a German Shepherd in." Using tantalizing ingredients ("fine particles of garlic, onion, and olive oil"), the young man designates each day Spaghetti Day as he voraciously cooks, eats, and obsesses over the pasta, at one point, ignoring a cry for help from an acquaintance, and rejecting any connection with real humanity. Instead he chooses to live in fantasy, pulling movie figures and images of old girlfriends into his numbed down life, letting a simmering pot of tomato sauce become his "one great hope in life." After his obsession subsides, he laments that summer and wonders whether the Italian farmers who reap the fields of golden wheat know that "they export loneliness."

"Crabs" begins with an innocuous stop at a local restaurant by a young couple seeking something different during their trip to Singapore. They think they've discovered a treasure when they happen on the restaurant where crab is cooked in tongue-savoring recipes and where the locals frequent often. However, one night the male lover discovers that the delicious crab dishes he's been ingesting is anything but innocuous, and that revelation will forever color how he sees the world, his lover, and himself.

In the title story, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman," the protagonist accompanies his younger cousin to a distant hospital to have his hearing loss checked on for the umpteenth time. Neither cousin expects a change, and the trip is more a matter of habit than hope. The protagonist is at a crossroads in his life, having come home to Kobe from Tokyo after his grandmother unexpectedly dies. Jobless and recently broken up with his girlfriend, he is suffering from a malaise that prevents him from moving forward in his life. Instead he settles into the comforts of his past as represented by his old room, unaltered, forever static. Waiting in the hospital cafeteria, he is transported to another occasion eight years before where he waited in a similar hospital cafeteria with a friend, now dead, and that friendís girlfriend, who was the patient at the time. During the visit, the girl relates a sad tale she's begun about a blind willow tree riddled with flies that produces a sleep-inducing toxin that overwhelms a young woman nearby, placing her into a deep slumber, allowing the flies to feast on her. On leaving the hospital with his cousin, the protagonist remembers that wistful summer with some regret, and finds he is nearly paralyzed by the memory. "For a few seconds I stood there in a strange, dim place. Where the things I could see didn't exist. Where the invisible did."

Murakami's prose, translated from his native Japanese, is descriptive but clean and not loaded down with unnecessary, self-conscious metaphors as happens with too many works of literary fiction. Again, this is not for those seeking a simple read. The fiction here will make the reader ponder even as it entertains.

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