“BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN” 11/1995 (in BW, and Lexington Ghost; revised from a story first published in 1983)
Narrator, I, is a guy in his mid-20s who has quit his job and returned home to Kobe. He’s taking his 14-year-old cousin to the hospital for an ear checkup. The kid lost the hearing in one hear when he was a kid – got hit by a baseball – and sometimes the other ear goes out, too. Doctors have been trying to heal him ever since, with no success. Today they’re on the bus to a new place.
A description of the trip with the cousin, and the gentle bonding they experience even though they’re ten years apart in age, is intermingled with I’s reminiscences of a previous trip to a hospital with his high school friend, to visit the friend’s girlfriend, in the hospital for a routine chest operation. On that trip, the girlfriend had shown them a picture and read them a poem she’d made about a girl in a house on a hill surrounded by “blind willows,” a plant of her own invention that looks nothing like willows. Flies are attracted to its pollen, which they then carry into the ears of the girl, putting her to sleep. Then they eat her.
The story ends with I looking into his cousin’s ear and marveling at the mysteries of the ear, and being temporarily paralyzed by the end of the memory – the chocolates he and his friend had taken had melted through their carelessness.
A very mysterious story. Does it mean to hint that the girlfriend died in the hospital, and their carelessness contributed to it, on a symbolic level? Mainly I think it’s a bit of surrealism that explains, better than anything else, Murakami’s ear fetish: they’re dark holes that lead into the head. They’re wells.
“THE SEVENTH MAN” 2/1996 (in BW, and Lexington Ghost)
Murakami seems to have all but abandoned the short story form for most of the ‘90s. This and the yet-untranslated title story in The Lexington Ghost seem to be the only wholly-new stories he wrote between 1992 and 1999.
This story is clearly Murakami’s first attempt to respond in print to the twin disasters of 1995. He’d go on to craft more elaborate responses, both fictional and nonfictional; meanwhile, this story is not so far removed from the kind of things he’d been doing up to this point. He’d already staked out loss as one of his primary themes – it’s there from the very beginning – and horror and darkness had been a part of his work for nearly a decade now. Still, this does seem to say something about dealing with tragedy.
The story is a first-person I narration, but it’s given a frame. The I, a fiftyish man, seems to be in some sort of group encounter session; we’re told how he stands up, at the beginning, and concludes his remarks, at the end, in third person. In between is his story, verbatim (more Dead Heat).
He was a kid, playing on the beach with his best friend during a typhoon. The eye of the storm was over them, and they thought they had time to play safely. But then a mammoth wave comes unexpectedly and washes the friend away. The narrator wanted to run and try to save him, but ended up running away instead. Then a second waves comes, and as it crashes over him, the narrator thinks he sees his friend in its crest, grinning horrifically at him and reaching for him.
He’s been haunted by it ever since – for forty years he’s avoided water, avoided his hometown, stayed single. But just recently he forced himself to go back, and looking at some of his dead friend’s watercolors he felt closure. In the terms of the story he realized that his friend probably was not trying to pull him to the other side, but was either already unconscious, or was trying to warn him away. In any case: don’t give in to fear like I did. It’ll rob you of something important.
It’s rare that Murakami comes right out and states his lesson so nakedly. That’s why I see this as a specific response to the tragedies: he’s trying to offer his readers healing, unadorned by literary artifice. Even though it is a literary artifice. An important story, then, even if not a great one.