Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

When I was about 16, I was seduced by a glowing review of the short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami. There was a passage that held my breath: the imagery of a man making enormous pots of spaghetti for no one. I thought, what an achingly lovely way to portray loneliness. I had never heard of Murakami before, but I had to have this book. When I spotted the paperback in a local bookstore, it quickly became mine.

Unfortunately, at 17 I went through a pretentious period where I read literary fiction not for enjoyment, but to dissect all symbolism and elements the author had put in place. At 17, the only feelings my self-imposed exercise produced were dejection and frustration. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was no different. I had no idea what a beautiful ear symbolized in “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” or what the knife in “Hunting Knife” signified. I give up, I had thought after 100 pages, I just don’t understand these stories; they’re too weird and I’m too stupid to get them. My symbolism-sleuthing days were officially over. I felt more stupid when I realized that Murakami was an adored contemporary writer.

During my final year of university, I had to read the Murakami short story “The Elephant Vanishes”. To my surprise, I really liked it. So with no small amount of trepidation, I gave Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman another try.

I couldn’t stop smiling by the time I got to the second story “Birthday Girl”. I couldn’t stop thinking that Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman would be one of my favorite books of the year while reading the rest.

At 17, I went with the completely wrong approach for Murakami. His prose is more meant to be savored than analyzed. The style isn’t beautiful in the lyrical or melodic sense but it isn’t spare either. I feel his descriptions are just right, neither meager nor fussy. Clean and elegant would be a good way to explain it. I did wonder if some people found Murakami’s style stilted as there’s a smidgen of formality in the prose and dialogue. All I knew was I found Murakami’s writing so wonderful I wanted to grab other people and read to them passages from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

Murakami loves the strange and fantastical, yet everything is done in an accessible way. Yes, there are talking animals and vanishing people and Ice Men – things that are off-kilter. But somehow the coincidences Murakami portrayed could happen in our everyday existence.

Murakami’s protagonists are average men and women. Most of the time they are aware of their mediocrity. The protagonist of “A Shinagawa Monkey” thought:

Nothing approaching the dramatic had ever touched her. If her life were a movie, it would be one of those low-budget environmental documentaries guaranteed to put you to sleep. Washed-out scenery stretching out endlessly to the horizon. No changes of scene, no close-ups, nothing exciting, just a flatline experience with nothing whatsoever to draw you in (341).

Often they’re passive, often they’re nameless, sometimes they’re jerks. The protagonist of my favorite story “Man-Eating Cats” explained away his adultery with:

It’s not like I’m in love […] It’s a special relationship, but completely different from what I have with you. Like night and day. You haven’t detected anything going on, right? That proves it’s not the kind of affair you’re imagining (119).

The man-eating cats of the story is from a newspaper article where an old woman is reported to have died alone. Her cats, after days of not being fed, started eating her corpse. The protagonist of “Man-Eating Cats” was read the story by his girlfriend Izumi. The protagonist and Izumi were married to other people but delved into an affair. Their spouses found out and left them. Feeling purposeless, the protagonist and Izumi took all their savings and exiled themselves to Greece where the relationship began a slow and inevitable decay. We don’t hold out much hope for them. Izumi’s preoccupation with the newspaper story added to the atmosphere. “Man-Eating Cats” isn’t an action-packed story, but the mood and feelings were perfectly rendered.

“Man-Eating Cats” is my favorite story, but I also really enjoyed “A Folklore for my Generation: A Pre-History of Late Stage Capitalism” and “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day”.

I researched Murakami after reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, proof of how much I enjoyed it, and gathered that he works with mainly 2 styles: realist and magical realism. I prefer a realist style and could do without the stories about talking animals. It’s a personal preference, not an indictment of Murakami as a writer. Overall, it was difficult finding stories I didn’t like. I must have enjoyed 20 out of the 24 stories in the collection.

I don’t think Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a particular favorite among Murakami fans. Yet I love it so much and if it is one of Murakami’s lesser work, I am excited to read more of what he has to offer. I’ve already picked up Norwegian Wood as I know it is classic realist Murakami.

6 thoughts on “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

  1. I had exactly the same feeling. The very first time I Murakami’s work (in my cas Kafka on the Shore) honestly I was really annoyed with its strangeness, peculiar plots, and ‘not so satisfying’ ending.

    But then I slowly understand that, just like you say, Murakami’s writings are not to be analyzed but to be savoured. After that, I found Murakami’s prose to be much more interesting (I have read 1Q84 which is nearly a thousand page). His brilliance to includes philosophical and metaphorical expressions in every paragraphs is just unparalleled by another living writers.


  2. You read IQ84? That book really intimidates me… My congratulations on finishing that monster.

    Yes, the “go with the flow” approach seems to work best when reading Murakami.

    Do you recommend Kafka on the Shore? I’m thinking of buying one of Murakami’s more abstract “magical realism” novels but I’m not sure which one yet.


    1. Yes, strangely I read it in less than 3 weeks, considering its enormous size and surrealistic theme. But it was really a great reading, I’d recommend it.

      Hmm, I wouldn’t recommend Kafka on the Shore for your first Murakami’s novel. I think ‘Norwegian Wood’ is a great choice. It was one of the first Murakami’s novel, and although I haven’t read it yet I found a lot of readers admire it.


  3. Thanks for the advice! I did enjoy Murakami’s more realistic stories (well, as realistic as Murakami can manage) more than the surrealistic ones.

    I already own Norwegian Wood and I’m hoping to pick it up sometime this year. If I enjoy it, I might take another step and read his more “bizarre” novels.


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