‘First Person Singular’ delves into lost love and strange happenings

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami offers a collection of imaginative short stories with skewed elements that his many fans are sure to applaud.

Penguin Random House
"First Person Singular" by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel, Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pp.

The announcement of a new Haruki Murakami title inspires gleeful anticipation: Will there be music (classical, jazz, Beatles – yes), baseball (certainly), local watering holes (take a seat), thwarted young love (indubitably), the impossible made ordinary (naturally), and ... cats (meow)?

The Japanese writer doesn’t disappoint in his latest collection to arrive stateside, “First Person Singular,” a phrase that also succinctly summarizes his preferred writing style: The eight stories are each revealed by a contemplative “I”-narrator. Over the 40-plus years Murakami has produced novels, short stories, nonfiction, and personal essays, he’s first and foremost a remarkably accessible storyteller. His books are an intimate invitation to revel in his perpetually unpredictable, yet remarkably convincing, imagination.

Take, for example, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” – the title already signals a willingness to suspend reality as monkeys don’t talk, much less confess. The plot outline could verge on the nonsensical: A traveler at a rural inn with hot springs; a low-voiced monkey offering back-scrubbing assistance; an evening sharing drinks, snacks, secrets; the narrator’s meeting five years later with an editor whose sudden inability to remember her own name confirms the lovelorn Shinagawa Monkey’s penchant for stealing women’s identities. Dubious …? And yet Murakami writes with such assurance as to turn the implausible credible, the outlandish engrossing. 

Each story enthralls. (Readers should be aware some of the stories are not appropriate for everyone.)

The collection opens with “Cream,” immediately drawing readers into a recognizable Murakami milieu. An older man shares an “incomprehensible, inexplicable” experience with a younger friend. At 18, the narrator arrived for a childhood piano duet-partner’s performance to find nothing happening, no one there. Leaving bewildered, he encounters a mysterious old man at a nearby park whose cryptic talk of circles correlates to understanding the “cream of your life.” 

Revisiting a youthful encounter also drives “On a Stone Pillow,” in which the narrator recalls an evening his 19-year-old-self spent with a slightly older woman. Her tanka poetry folio she later sends remains one of the most affecting memories of his young adulthood. Lost teenage love reappears in “With the Beatles,” featuring an aging narrator’s high school recollection of seeing a girl carrying a Beatles album, a once-in-a-lifetime glance so dazzling that it becomes the barometer by which he measures every romantic relationship.

Music, a common Murakami obsession, highlights two stories: in “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” Murakami magically resurrects “The Bird” with a 1963 album that couldn’t possibly exist, but somehow might; in “Carnaval,” the narrator quickly develops a rewarding, albeit short-lived, friendship with “the ugliest” woman he’s ever met over classical music, both agreeing Schumann’s “Carnaval” to be the one piano piece to take to a desert island. 

Baseball, another Murakami passion, headlines “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” unique in its revelation that Murakami – indeed a lifelong devotee of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows since 1968 when they were the Sankei Atoms – names himself as narrator. Additional autobiographical overlaps craftily create a challenging pastime for Murakami aficionados to glean fact from fiction. 

Murakami concludes with the titular “First Person Singular,” in which the casually dressed narrator occasionally dons a fancy suit and wanders out; this time he bypasses his local establishment where he might be recognized, and ventures to a further spot where he has a disturbing encounter with a stranger who claims to be the friend of a friend, accusing him of “a horrible, awful thing you did” three years ago. The experience turns “first person singular” into a possible “first person plural,” as if we might all somehow, sometimes, be someone else doing something unknown – a concept Murakami tangentially also explores in “With the Beatles,” as well as other previous fiction. Suddenly, Murakami has managed to “[sweep] any sense of logic away” … and readers are left wanting more.

In this story collection, Murakami continues his partnership with University of Arizona professor Philip Gabriel, one of Murakami’s preferred translators. Avid fans might notice that six stories previously appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and Freeman’s, but to savor the collection in full will undoubtedly prove to be a beguiling gift. 

Terry Hong writes Book Dragon, a blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center 

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