Haruki Murakami

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

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Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman Summary

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Haruki Murakami’s short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006), includes 24 stories composed between 1980 and 2005. Titled Mekurayanagi to nemuru onna in Japanese, the stories were translated into English by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin, each responsible for roughly half the collection’s total. Murakami notes in the introduction to Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman that he prefers writing short stories to novels, explaining, “I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.”

In the eponymous short story, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman,” an unnamed narrator and his cousin wait for a bus to arrive to take them to the hospital. The cousin has a longstanding ear problem. The narrator reflects on his relationship with his cousin as they travel to the hospital; when they arrive, he recalls the last time he was at a hospital. The narrator remembers visiting the girlfriend of a friend. She had had to have an operation on one of her ribs. After she came to, she recited a strange poem to the narrator about a woman that cannot wake up. She is doomed to sleep forever because of what the girlfriend describes as a “blind willow.” The willow sends flies laden with its poisonous pollen to crawl into the woman’s ears at night. Over time, the flies that have burrowed into the woman eat her alive from inside. All attempts to help her fail. The narrator’s cousin returns from his appointment. Over lunch, they discuss the cousin’s condition, how it affects him, and how it will continue to affect him. On the bus ride home, the narrator begins to daydream again, recalling a botched attempt to give his friend’s girlfriend, the one who had told the story about the blind willow, a gift of chocolates.

Another notable story within the collection is “Birthday Girl,” first published in 2002 (2004 in English) in Murakami’s collection Birthday Stories. “Birthday Girl” begins as a woman recalls her 20th birthday. Working as a waitress at an Italian Restaurant, she is told she has to deliver food to the restaurant owner who lives on the building’s sixth floor. The owner receives dinner from the restaurant every night at 8 p.m., but normally, the restaurant manager brings it up to him. However, this night, the woman explains, the manager was ill. The woman does as she is told, bringing the meal up to the sixth floor. An old man opens the door to the apartment; the woman enters the room with the food, and the old man asks if he may speak to her for a moment. He asks how old she is, and she tells him that she is now 20 years old—Japan’s legal age of adulthood. The old man wishes her a happy birthday and then tells her that he will grant her a wish. The woman makes her wish and then leaves the apartment, never to see him again. At that point, the story returns to the present, and the woman’s friend asks if her wish came true. The woman evades the question, asking it back to her friend. The friend equivocates, saying she doesn’t know, and the woman counters that that’s because the wish has already been made. Murakami never makes clear either what the woman’s wish was or if it came true.

The stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman range far and wide, evincing Murakami’s trademark surreality and humor throughout. Their topics span a man who is cursed to vomit for 40 days, a mafia boss waterfowl, and a man who ends up with a ghostly dead aunt attached to his back. As in his full-length novels, Murakami’s stories rarely head in the expected direction; but where in novel format his dreamlike plotlines can become tiring and feel forced or self-indulgent, in short-story form, the impression is different. Here, Murakami’s defiance of traditional literary expectations and his refusal to clarify or make explicit the symbolic meaning, if any, of his plot points and characters, gives his short stories a Kafkaesque, haunting quality, as if they flowed along according to an inevitable internal logic.

Murakami is perhaps best known for his stories Norwegian Wood (1987) and 1Q84 (2009). He has been the recipient of innumerable international awards, including the Jerusalem Prize, World Fantasy Award, Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and the Franz Kafka Prize. Steven Poole of The Guardian has described him as “among the world’s greatest living novelists.”