Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Book in Focus
Stories written between 1980 and 2005, and published in various magazines in Japan. Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin. This edition published by Alfred A. Knopf (2006). Hardcover, 334 pages

Haruki Murakami’s unparalleled command of the short story form is on full display in this collection of twenty-four stories. These tales show his ability to reinterpret both the supernatural and the commonplace in educative and entertaining ways. In the collection’s title story, an unnamed narrator and his adolescent cousin wait at a bus terminal for a ride to the hospital. The narrator is accompanying his cousin, who is having his ear inspected due to an injury sustained when he was hit in the ear with a baseball.

Like many of Murakami’s stories, the title story begins in the present and flashes back to the past, in which the protagonist waits for his friend in a nearby hospital’s cafeteria. During their visit, his friend’s girlfriend—who is recuperating in the hospital—drew on a napkin a scene from one of her poems. In the drawing, tiny insects collect pollens from the made-up plant of a blind willow and transport it into the ear of a sleeping woman. This imagery has a parallel connotation with the preceding storyline.

All the stories in this anthology were first printed in Japanese periodicals between 1980 and 2005. Philip Gabriel translated around half of the tales, while Jay Rubin translated the other half. This anthology has translations from both of these writers, generally alternating between them. The main characters in each story have one thing in common: their encounters with the strange and, in some cases, the otherworldly.

Despite the fact that the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman span a wide range of subjects, they all share Murakami’s distinctive surrealism and sardonic sense of humor. Among the many topics they cover are: a man cursed to vomit for 40 days; a writer cursed for his stupidity with a phantom poor aunt who clings to his back; literary critics who transform into crows pecking each other’s eyes; and stories about a criminal monkey, a mafia leader’s ducks, an ice man who never melts, and many other themes of love lost or never found, dreams never fulfilled, and strange events that reveal deeper riddles.

Murakami does a wonderful job of depicting the random events that occur in the lives of his characters, who are usually thrown off their typical patterns. Time and space are fluid concepts in most of Murakami’s works, and an air of impermanence permeates the surreal worlds he creates with his intricate plot twists. This collection contains some of Murakami’s ghost stories and murder mysteries which retain their eerie, unsolved air—in keeping with the rest of his writing, he never explains anything, yet the effect is nonetheless deeply unforgettable.

Memorable Quotes

When I closed my eyes, the scent of the wind wafted up toward me. A May wind, swelling up like a piece of fruit, with a rough outer skin, slimy flesh, dozens of seeds. The flesh split open in midair, spraying seeds like gentle buckshot into the bare skin of my arms, leaving behind a faint trace of pain.

Opening paragraph, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

The person sitting on that plane was no longer me. My brain had mistakenly attached itself to some convenient packaging that looked like me. My mind was in utter chaos. I had to go back to Japan and get back inside my real body. But here I was in a jet, flying over Egypt, and there was no turning back.

Page 117, Man-Eating Cats from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

I want you to understand my position, though. At the time, I didn’t want to get involved with anyone. That’s why I kept on cooking spaghetti, all by myself. In that huge pot, big enough to hold a German shepherd.

Page 173, The Year of Spaghetti from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it. Say it aloud and it sounds trivial. Just plain common sense. But at the time it didn’t hit me as words; it was more like air filling my body. Death was in everything around me—inside the paperweight, inside the four balls on the pool table. As we live, we breath death into our lungs, like fine particles of dust.

Page 225, Firefly from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

Further Reading

What the hecks’a blind willow? by Riza, Pages and Coffee Cups

Box Set by Terrence Rafferty, The New York Times

A hole in the middle of the Pacific by Tobias Hill, The Guardian

Review of: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami by Stan Prager, Regarp Book Blog

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