Occasionally, galleries put on exhibitions of an artist’s sketches. Instead of finished works or acknowledged masterpieces, on display are doodles in which the painter experiments with the concepts that will eventually be incorporated into more mature work.
First Person Singular, a collection of eight short stories by the cult Japanese author Haruki Murakami, reads like that. Only instead of youthful preparatory work, these are the musings of an older man looking back on some of the Murakami-esque things that happened to him in his real, or imagined, youth.
“Once again, I was confused. It felt like bits of reality and unreality were randomly changing places,” Murakami announces at one point as if explaining the modus operandi that underlies all his writing.
In these stories, ordinary happenings take on a twist. The humdrum shifts, laying bare a psychological discombobulation as the narrator wonders whether his reality is the same as that experienced by everybody else.
A girl does not show up for a date that she seems to have planned deliberately and elaborately to humiliate him. A woman he encounters in a bar quizzes him angrily about an alleged offence of which he has no recollection. A hot-spring companion turns out to be not a chatty traveller, but a talking monkey with a penchant for beer and for stealing people’s names. The monkey aside, the slips of perception are so slight that what is real and what is imagined blur and elide.
There’s a touch of imposter syndrome here that may relate to Murakami’s own incomprehension at his phenomenal success.
There is also an Escher-like quality, in which reality and fantasy converge on a winding staircase of plot. A younger Murakami publishes a spoof review of a non-existent jazz record. Many years later, the same man is leafing through sleeves in a New York record shop when he comes across the very album he had invented. “Was this really New York?” he asks fearing he has fallen into some hyperrealist dream. “This was downtown New York — no doubt about it. And I was actually here, in a small used-record store. I hadn’t wandered into some fantasy world.”
The writing can be simple to the point of banal. The ideas are more elaborately developed in earlier, more complete works such as Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or 1Q84. For that reason, Murakami first-timers should probably skip this slight volume and go for one of those more substantial novels instead.
Yet there is something for Murakami aficionados in these stories by a writer at ease in his own skin. The search for truth is less urgent. The quests of earlier novels were “wild sheep chases” in which disorientated protagonists searched urgently and earnestly for an underlying meaning that was never really there.
An older Murakami is more resigned to life’s little absurdities and unexplained phenomena. The aborted date is just one of those things. The angry woman may have a point. And the monkey. Well, the monkey is just a monkey.
First Person Singular, by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99/Knopf, RRP$28, 256 pages
David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café