Haruki Murakami's First Person Singular is an intriguing collection of typically playful stories

Haruki Murakami. Picture: Elena Seibert

Haruki Murakami. Picture: Elena Seibert

  • First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami. Harvill Secker, $39.99.

The eight stories in Murakami's new collection deal with issues as diverse as jazz, memory, baseball, and the works of Schumann. There's even a talking monkey.

Mysterious and immensely entertaining, they are exciting additions to the catalogue of this popular and important writer.

"Cream", the first story, tells of a young man's misadventure, as he goes to a piano recital by an acquaintance. A series of strange, but also banal, events unfold.

There seems to be no meaning to the story, and, as the first person narrator says, "Inexplicable, illogical events that nevertheless are deeply disturbing' happen sometimes".

There is not necessarily a "truth" hidden behind the randomness. Anyone familiar with Murakami's novels will know that combination of bewilderment and fascination.

Music is a major presence in three stories in the collection. In "With the Beatles", a momentary vision of a young girl at school clutching an LP with the Beatles' photographs on the cover stands out as a kind of "critical message", but one that disappears within a few seconds.

Music of a different kind is played during a later relationship, and a woman's mysterious suicide is discussed (the mysterious death, or absence, of women is an ongoing theme in Murakami).

Again, there seems to be an indecipherable riddle lying somewhere behind the story, in which one character also suffers a kind of memory loss.

An amusing incident is related from the young Murakami's life, in which he reportedly wrote a review of a non-existent record by the jazz great Charlie Parker called "Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova".

The review, published "as an ordinary piece of music criticism", was Murakami's first publication, we are told.

Whether this review ever appeared, as the narrator says, is not that important, as it appears here, and provides the basis for the story of that name.

Once again, the divisions between truth and fiction are very blurry. He assures us that the rest of the story really happened, even Bird coming to him in a dream.

This is a delightful piece, and the idea of Charlie Parker playing the Brazilian samba-beat jazz confuses and entices.

The last story focusing on music is "Carnaval", which deals with Robert Schumann's solo work for piano, a relationship formed through a love of this music, and the idea of masks and behaviour.

The work starts with the sentence "Of all the women I've known until now, she was the ugliest", and women in the work are classified as "beautiful" or "ugly" in, it must be said, a rather demeaning way.

This story made me seek out the Schumann work, and it is a strength of Murakami's stories that he can fascinate readers so much that they may feel an obligation to go beyond the pages.

Appearance is also central to the last story in the book, that gives the collection its name, but here the emphasis in on clothes, and the narrator's rare decision to wear a suit.

Like many of the stories it seems to posit the question "But still - who is that in the mirror?"

There may be echoes of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus here.

A feature of a good short story collection is that each work is interesting in a slightly different way, and that is the case here.

For me, "Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey" was the highlight of the book, and yes, a "real" monkey engages the narrator in a detailed discussion.

The monkey turns out to be a stalker; how he makes his mark on the women he loves is once again disturbing. The movement between the realistic tone of the story and the impossibility of what is occurring make the reader shake her head as if to gain a clearer view. Magical, and mundane.

Murakami's love of baseball enlivens "The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection" which travels between Tokyo and Kobe, where he grew up.

Writing poetry about baseball, the narrator, who is, it seems, the "real" Haruki Murakami, produced a poetry chapbook (there seems to be no such poetry publication in the world outside this story).

Baseball is more familiar to Japanese and American readers than Australians, however, the poems interspersed in the story deal with themes familiar to many sport fans, such as supporting losing teams, and the appearance of those in the outfield (the amusing "Outfielders' Butts").

Poetry, in the form of tanka, also has a major role in "On a Stone Pillow", here written by another woman lost to the narrator.

Murakami's collection is playful, elusive and allusive, worrying and elegant. Each story presents as a kind of riddle, to which there is no answer.

A handsome volume, beautifully translated into English, this will delight legions of committed readers, and provide the ideal introduction for many more.

Murakami is a singular writer.

  • Dr Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.
This story New stories from a singular writer first appeared on The Canberra Times.