"A May wind, swelling up like a piece of fruit, with a rough outer skin, slimy flesh, dozens of seeds. The flesh split open in midair, spraying seeds like gentle buckshot into the bare skin of my arms, leaving behind a faint trace of pain." Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is the title of Haruki Murakami’s 2006 short story collection. The collection is name after one of Murakami’s earlier works, originally published in December of 1983 in the Japanese literary magazine, Bungakukai. Like many of his short stories, he rewrote it – and this one was rewritten in 1995. It appeared in Harper’s under the title “Blind Willow, Sleeping Girl” in June 0f 2002.
The first-person narrator is a 25-year old male who just quit his job, broke up with his girlfriend, and lost his grandmother to cancer. Talk about a clean slate.
When he returns to his small hometown, he recognizes what most college students find when they return home:
"Time alone had stood still."
At the beginning of the story, the narrator talks to his younger cousin as they wait for the bus. They are heading to the hospital so that his cousin can have his ear problem examined. While his cousin visits with the doctor, the narrator waits while he confronts layers upon layers of his memories.
The story explores a handful of themes we’ve come across before in Haruki Murakami’s works, including silence, memory, pain, deja vu, and time – all of which are invisible. The ideas of the French phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, are hard to ignore when reading Murakami, especially this short story, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
"My cousin can't hear well out of his right ear."
What seems like a subtle theme, and a quirky obsession with ears, actually taps into a the complexity of how we experience the world. We call this phenomenology. Phenomenology considers how phenomena – physical signs – appear to our consciousness.
What is visible or experienced through the sense of sight is often privileged, but phenomenology celebrates all sensory experiences in a way that offers new and complex insights about the world. Perhaps due to his love for music, the idea of sound removal or hearing loss is a haunting theme in several Murakami tales.
Marcel Proust expanded our understanding of sensory experience when the taste of the madeleine provoked a 4,215 page reverie into the narrator’s search for lost time. What Proust pursues in his masterpiece is a kind of unveiling of the invisible and involuntary memories hidden in that tiny cookie. Constantly striking a similar chord, and even evoking Proust from time to time, Murakami follows Proust’s lead in teasing out the discord between the visible and the invisible.
In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, the narrator invokes Proust’s spirit when he likens his cousin’s ear to a madeleine. Challenging our ability to articulate our sensory experience with any kind of certainty, Murakami draws the reader’s attention to question our own sensory experiences. This kind of reflection is rare unless external circumstances require a kind of hyper focus on our senses.
Whether it is a strange coincidence or a purposeful recurrence, Murakami’s protagonists often confront abnormalities through other characters instead of firsthand experience. Experience, it seems, is always communal.
"Soon after he went into elementary school he was hit by a baseball and it screwed up his hearing."
“Murakami’s characters take extraordinarily good care of their ears. They clean them obsessively so as to keep in tune with the unpredictable, shifting music of life.” Indeed, Jay Rubin, author of Murakami and the Music of Words and one of Murakami’s go-to translators, comments on Murakami’s ever-so-subtle ability to teach his readers to hear the wind sing, a practice that is central to his thought and works.
Matthew Carl Strecher, a professor of Japanese literature and Murakami scholar, suggests the ears are a conduit to the metaphysical realm – the other side of reality.
The protagonist’s cousin’s hearing comes and goes:
"The thing is, though, he goes through periods when he can hear sounds pretty well, and periods where he can't. It's cyclical, like the tides. And sometimes, maybe twice a year, he can barely hear anything out of either ear. It's like the silence in his right ear deepens to the point where it crushes out any sound on the left side."
In this scene, the narrator acknowledges there are problems associated with separating the right ear from the left ear. They are two sides of the same coin, just like the right brain and the left brain in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
This idea echoes Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s attempt to maintain a relationship between perceptual splits like the right hand and the left hand:
"If my left hand is touching my right hand, and if I wish to suddenly apprehend with my right hand the work of my left hand as it touches, this reflection of the body upon itself always miscarries at the last moment: the moment I feel my left hand with my right hand, I correspondingly cease touching my right hand with my left hand." Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
What this notion of touch offers is a way of being in the world in which we recognize a kind of intimacy between our right and left hand that extends to our right and left ear. As you might suspect, a recognition like this does not stop there. It implies our existence is a richly woven fabric.
Each time we confront phenomena, whether that encounter is with the Other or with a tree, we touch, and that touch carries an intimacy that is hard to wrap our minds around. Murakami understands this. These entities are described in his stories as two sides of the same coin. Each touch activates a kind of energy exchange – a kind of life – and a series of these touches solidifies our connections between ourselves and our world.
Murakami hides the most haunting part of touch in this short tale that I suspect very few people find: touch and pain have a kind of symbiotic relationship. When we open ourselves to new or recurring phenomena, that space makes room for wonder, and while this is incredible and life giving, it also invites the potential of pain. Murakami drives this point home a few years later in Norwegian Wood.
“Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of it. By living our lives, we nurture death.”
- Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
In the final scene of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, the narrator’s cousin jolts the narrator our of a trance-like memoryscape with touch. Immediately, the narrator’s involuntary reverie disappears. This scene echoes language Maurice Merleau-Ponty uses in the posthumuosly published work, The Visible and Invisible.
"My cousin grabbed my right arm in a tight grip. “Are you all right?” he asked me. His words brought me back to reality, and I stood up from the bench. This time I had no trouble standing. Once more I could feel on my skin the sweet May breeze. For a few seconds I stood there in a strange, dim place. Where the things I could see didn’t exist. Where the invisible did. Finally, though, the real number 28 bus stopped in front of me, its entirely real door opening. I clambered aboard, heading off to some other place."
We might not be able to touch the invisible, but it presents itself again and again. It often takes what Leonardo Da Vinci calls sapere vedere, knowing how to see, to witness the invisible. This is the gift of the artist. Experiencing the invisible is often a kind of sacred experience but it rarely relates to religion. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman starts in a moment suspended in time and paralyzed in space before the narrator is physically transported to a world promising new phenomena. One that remains unseen for the narrator – one that remains unseen for the reader.
Follow your reading of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman with Murakami’s Birthday Girl, a strange tale reaching into the complexity of desire. For even more Murakami, check out this long list of Haruki Murakami’s essays and short stories available online or the weird ways Murakami characters communicate love.