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A Writer Tells (and Appears in) Daring Stories

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Since the late 1980s, the literary reputation of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has grown enormously. Alan Cheuse has a review of his latest story collection, titled Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

In a brief but revelatory introduction to this new collection, Haruki Murakami makes clear the pleasure he takes in writing short fiction rather than novels. I find writing novels a challenge, he tells us, writing stories a joy. Thanks to the persuasive translations of Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin, who have divided up the stories between them, most of these stories offer the same kind of pleasure for the reader as the writer had in making them.

The sincere and simple title piece, for example, tells the story of two cousins who take an odd bus trip to a hospital ear clinic. Their journey along with, as it turns out, a group of strangely inappropriate fellow passengers, sets a tone somewhere between the off-hand and the fantastic.

One of the story's many bizarre moments takes place when one cousin, who suffers hearing problems, asks the other to look inside his ear. I've never looked at anybody's ear so intently before, the fellow says. Once you start observing it closely, the human ear, its structure is a pretty mysterious thing with all these absurd twists and turns to it, bumps and depressions, surrounded by this asymmetrical wall, the hole of the ear gapes open like the entrance to a dark, secret cave.

The other stories in this book are equally whimsical, magical and daring. In, for example, Man Eating Cats, a young Japanese couple takes an extended getaway on a Greek island where the wind blows from the edge of the world, and consciousness takes a peculiar turn for both of them.

In the charming story The 1963/1982 Girl from Ipanema, the girl of the title takes time out from her samba-like walking to gulp a beer and stare at the hole in the top of the can as if the entire world were going to slip inside.

The Iceman tells the story of the ultimate cold marriage. Jazz pianist Tommy Flanagan appears in one story. Another stars a talking monkey. Murakami himself appears in a few others. The best of these linger far beyond the reading of them, creating an aura about the world that for many of us just wasn't present before we read them in the dark secret caves of our inner ears.

BLOCK: The book is Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.