"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." "Soon after he went into elementary school he was hit by a baseball and it screwed up his hearing."
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
“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.