By MURAKAMI Haruki
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum
I used to love listening to stories about faraway places. It was
There was a time, a good ten years ago now, when I went around
latching onto one person after another, asking them to tell me about
the places where they were born and grew up. Times were short of
people willing to lend a sympathetic ear, it seemed, so anyone and
everyone opened up to me, obligingly and emphatically telling all.
People I didn’t even know somehow got word of me and sought me out.
It was as if they were tossing rocks down a dry well: they’d spill
all kinds of different stories my way, and when they’d finished,
they’d go home pretty much satisfied. Some would talk contentedly;
some would work up quite an anger getting it out. Some would put
things well, but just as often others would come along with stories
I couldn’t make head nor tail of from beginning to end. There were
boring stories, pathetic tear-jerkers, jumbles of half-nonsense.
Even so, I’d hold out as long as I could and give a serious listen.
Everyone had something they were dying to tell somebody or shout to
the whole world –who knows why? I always felt as if I’d been handed
a cardboard box crammed full of monkeys. I’d take the monkeys out of
the box one at a time, carefully brush off the dust, give them a pat
on the bottom, and send them scurrying off into the fields. I never
knew where they went from there. They probably ended their days
nibbling acorns somewhere. But that, after all, was their fate.
That was the thing about it. There was so little return on all the
effort involved. Thinking back on it now, I’ll bet if there had been
a World’s Most Earnest Listener contest that year, I’d have won
hands down. And I’d probably have won a box of kitchen matches.
Among the people who talked to me were a guy from Saturn and another
from Venus, one each. Their stories really got to me. First, the one
“Out there, it’s . . . awful cold,” he groaned. “Just thinking about
it, g-gives me the willies.”
He belonged to a political group that had staged a take-over of
Building 9 in the university. Their motto was “Action Determines
Ideology – Not the Reverse!” No one would tell him what determined
action. No matter, Building 9 had a water cooler, a telephone, and
boiler facilities; and upstairs they had a nice little music lounge
complete with Altec A-5 speakers and a collection of two thousand
records. It was paradise (compared to, say, Building 8, which
smelled like a racetrack restroom). Every morning they’d shave
themselves neat and clean with all the hot water they wanted, in the
afternoon they’d make as many long-distance calls as they felt like,
and when the sun went down they’d all get together and listen to
records. By the end of autumn, every member had become a classical
Then one beautifully clear November afternoon, riot police forced
their way into Building 9 while Vivaldi’s L’Estro Armonico was
blaring away full blast. I don’t know how true all this is, but it
remains one of the more heartwarming stories of 1969.
When I snuck past their “barricade” of stacked-up benches, Haydn’s
Piano Sonata in G Minor was playing softly. The atmosphere was as
homey and inviting as a path along a bluff blooming with sansanquas
bushes leading toward a girlfriend’s house. The guy from Saturn
offered me the best chair in the place, and poured lukewarm beer
into beakers lifted from the science building.
“On top of that, the gravity is tremendous,” he went on about
Saturn. “There’ve been chumps who broke their instep spitting out a
wad of gum. A r-real hell!”
“Well, I guess so,” I prompted after a couple of seconds. By this
time, I had command of nearly three hundred or so different
small-talk phrases to throw in during awkward pauses.
“The sun’s so small, too. J-just one of those things. Take me–as
soon as I get out of school I’m going back to Saturn. And I’ll start
a gr-great nation. A r~rev~revolution!”
In any case, suffice it to say I enjoyed hearing about faraway
places. I had stocked up a whole store of these places, like a bear
getting ready for hibernation. I’d close my eyes, and streets would
materialize, rows of houses take shape. I could hear people’s
voices, feel the gentle, steady rhythm of their lives, those people
so distant, whom I’d probably never know.
* * *
Naoko often spoke to me about these things. And I remember her every
“I really don’t know how to put it.” Naoko forced a smile, sitting
in the sunlit university lounge, elbow on the table and cheek
propped up on her palm. I waited patiently for her to continue. As
always, she took her time, searching for just the right words.
We sat, red plastic tabletop between us on which a paper cup spilled
over with cigarette butts. A high window let in a shaft of sunlight
straight out of a Rubens painting, splitting the table down the
middle into light and dark. My right hand rested on the table in
light, the left in shadow.
The spring of 1969, you see, we were in our early twenties. And what
with all the freshmen sporting brand-new shoes, carrying brand-new
course descriptions, heads packed with brand-new brains, there was
hardly room to walk in the lounge. On both sides of us, freshmen
were perpetually bumping into one another, exchanging insults or
“I tell you, the town is really nothing to speak of,” she resumed.
“There’s a straight stretch of track, and a station. A pitiful
little station that the trainmen could easily miss on a rainy day.”
I nodded. Then for a full thirty seconds the two of us gazed
absently at the cigarette smoke curling up through the beam of
“A dog’ll be walking from one end of the platform to the other. You
know the kind of station.”
“Right out in front of the station there’s a bus stop and a circular
drive so cars can pick up and drop off passengers. And some shops .
. . real sleepy little shops. Straight ahead, you run into a park. A
park with a slide and three swings.”
“And a sandbox?”
“A sandbox?” She thought for a moment, then nodded in confirmation.
“It’s got one.
Once more we fell silent. I carefully put out the stub of my
cigarette in the paper cup.
“A terribly boring town. I can’t imagine what possible purpose there
could have been for making such a dull place.”
“God works in wondrous ways,” I quipped.
Naoko shook her head and smiled to herself. It was a sort of
straight-A coed smile, but it lingered in my mind an oddly long
time. Long after she’d gone, her smile remained, like the grin of
the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. And it occurred to me how
much I wanted to see that dog pacing the length of the station
* * *
Four years later, in May of 1973, I visited the station alone. Just
to see that dog. I shaved for the occasion, put on a tie for the
first time in six months, and brought out my Cordovan shoes.
* * *
Stepping down from the sorry two-car local train that seemed ready
to rust up any minute, the very first thing to hit me was the
familiar smell of open grassy spaces. The smell of picnics way back
when. Nostalgic things, all blown my way on the May breeze. I cocked
my head and strained to listen, and I could make out the twittering
Letting out a long yawn, I sat down on a station bench and
dejectedly smoked a cigarette. That invigorating feeling I’d left
the apartment with in the morning had utterly vanished. Nothing but
more of the same, over and over. Or so it seemed. An endless deja
vu, growing worse at every turn.
There had been a time when friends and I used to fall asleep
sprawled out any which way on the floor together. At dawn, someone
would invariably step on my head. Then it would be “Oops, sorry,”
followed by that same someone taking a leak. More of the same, over
and over again.
I loosened my tie and, cigarette dangling from the corner of my
mouth, I scraped the soles of the not-quite-broken-in shoes on the
platform. To lessen the pain in my feet. Not that the pain was all
that bad, but it gave me the uneasy feeling that my body was somehow
broken into bits and pieces.
No sign of any dog.
* * *
An uneasy feeling ...
This uneasiness comes over me from time to time, and I feel as if
I’ve somehow been pieced together from two different puzzles.
Whatever it is, at times like these I toss down a whiskey and hit
the sack. And when I get up in the morning, things are even worse.
More of the same, one more time around.
One time when I woke up, I found myself flanked by twin girls. Now
things like this had happened to me many times before, but I had to
admit a twin to each side was a first. The both of them sleeping
away, noses nestled snugly into my shoulders. It was a bright, clear
Finally, they both woke up–almost simultaneously–and proceeded to
worm into the shirts and jeans they’d tossed under the bed. Without
so much as a word, they went into the kitchen, made toast and
coffee, got butter from the fridge, and laid it all out on the
table. They knew what they were doing. Outside the window, birds,
which I couldn’t identify either, perched on the chainlink fence of
the golf course and chattered away rapid fire.
“Your names?” I asked them. I had a nasty hangover.
“They’re not much as names,” said the one seated on the right.
“Really, nothing special as names go,” said the one on the left.
“You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said.
So we sat facing each other across the table, munching toast and
drinking coffee. The coffee was good.
“Does it bother you, us not having names?” one of them asked.
“Hmm ... what d’you think?”
The two of them gave it some thought.
“Well, if you simply must have names for us, choose something that
seems to fit,” proposed the other.
“Call us whatever you like.”
The girls always took turns speaking. It was like an FM stereo
check, and made my head even worse.
“For instance?” I asked.
“Left and Right,” said one.
“Vertical and Horizontal,” said the other.
“Up and Down.”
“Front and Back.”
“East and West.”
“Entrance and Exit,” I managed to get in, not to be outdone. The two
of them looked at each other and laughed contentedly.
* * *
Where there’s an entrance, there’s got to be an exit. Most things
work that way. Public mailboxes, vacuum cleaners, zoos, plastic
condiment squeeze bottles. Of course, there are things that don’t.
For example, mousetraps.
* * *
I once set a mousetrap under my apartment sink. I used peppermint
gum for bait. After scouring the entire apartment, that was the only
thing approaching food I could find. I found it in the pocket of my
winter coat, along with a movie ticket stub.
By the third morning, a tiny mouse had flirted with fate. Still very
young, the mouse was the color of those cashmere sweaters you see
piled up in London duty-free shops. It was maybe fifteen or sixteen
in human years. A tender age. A bitten-off piece of gum lay under
I had no idea what to do with the thing now that I’d caught it. Hind
leg still pinned under the spring wire, the mouse died on the fourth
morning. Seeing it lying there taught me a lesson. Everything needs
an entrance and exit. That’s about the size of it.
* * *
Skirting the hills, the tracks ran so straight they seemed ruled.
Far ahead you could see woods, like little wads of dull green paper.
The rails glinted in the sun, merging into the green distance. No
matter how far you went, the same scenery would go on forever. A
depressing thought if there ever was one. Give me a subway any day.
I finished my cigarette, then stretched a bit, looking up at the
sky. It had been a long time since I’d really looked at the sky. Or
rather, it had been a long time since I’d tried to take a good look
Not a cloud in the sky. Moreover, the whole of it was veiled in that
languid opaqueness unique to spring. From above, the blue was making
a noble effort to penetrate that intangible veil, as sunlight
silently sifted down like fine dust from the atmosphere, and
unnoticed by anyone, seemed to form a layer over the ground.
Light was swaying in the warm breeze. The air flowed as easily as a
flock of birds flitting among the trees, grouping to take flight. It
glided down the gentle green slope alongside the tracks, crossed
over, and slipped through the woods, hardly stirring a single leaf.
The call of a cuckoo rang out straight across the softly luminous
scene, the echo disappearing over the ridge. A succession of hills
rose and fell, like sleepy giant cats curled in the pooled sunlight
* * *
The pain in my foot grew still worse.
* * *
So let me tell you something about this well.
Naoko had moved to the area when she was twelve. 1961. The year
Ricky Nelson sang “Hello Mary Lou.” It was a peaceful green valley
at the time, not a single thing to claim your attention. A handful
of farmhouses with a few fields, a stream full of crayfish, a
one-track local railroad, barely a yawn of a train station, that was
it. Most farmhouses had persimmon trees planted in the yard, and
weather-beaten old barns standing to one side–or rather, tottering
and ready to fall apart. And there were those cheap tin signs
advertising tissue paper or soap nailed on barn walls that faced the
tracks. The place really was like that. Not even a dog anywhere,
Naoko had said.
The house she moved into was a two-story Western-style villa built
sometime around the Korean War. Nothing very spacious, mind you, but
the sturdy post timbers and quality lumber chosen for each part gave
the house a comfortably solid look. The exterior, painted in three
shades of green, had faded handsomely in the sun and wind and rain
to blend in perfectly with the surrounding countryside. There was a
huge yard, and in it several stands of trees and a small pond. In
among the trees was a quaint little octagonal arbor that had been
used as a studio, its bay windows hung with lace curtains faded to a
nondescript color. Down by the pond, daffodils were in riotous
bloom, and every morning birds came to bathe.
The first owner of the house, who was also its designer, had been an
elderly oil painter, but his lungs gave out on him and he died the
winter before Naoko moved in. That was in 1960, the year Bobby Vee
sang “Red Rubber Ball.” It had been an awfully rainy winter that
year. Snow hardly ever fell in these parts; instead you got a
freezing-cold rain. The rain soaked into the ground, stinging the
topsoil with a damp chill. But deeper down, it made for a table of
Five minutes’ walk along the tracks from the station lived a
well-digger. There in the dank bottom land by the stream, summers
brought hordes of mosquitoes and frogs in around the house. The
well-digger was a difficult, ill-natured man of fifty or so, but
when it came to digging wells he was a bona fide genius. When hired
to dig a well, he’d first spend a couple of days just walking around
the site muttering to himself as he sniffed handfuls of dirt he’d
scoop up here and there. Then, when he’d found some spot that agreed
with him, he’d call in some co-workers, and they’d dig straight
That’s why people hereabouts could drink sweet well water to their
heart’s content. The water was cool, and so crystal clear you’d
almost swear there wasn’t a glass in your hand. Some folks claimed
the water came from the melting snows of Mt. Fuji, but that was
impossible. No way it could come that far.
The autumn of Naoko’s seventeenth year, the well-digger was killed
by a train. A driving downpour and cold sake and a hearing problem
were to blame. Several thousand chunks of his body were strewn over
the fields. Five buckets’ worth were collected while seven policemen
with spiked prods fended off a pack of hungry dogs. Even so, a whole
bucketful of the stuff got spilled into a pond. Fish bait.
The well-digger had two sons, both of whom left the area without
following in his footsteps. Nobody went near his house after that,
and abandoned, it slowly but surely rotted out. And ever since,
sweetwater wells have been hard to come by in the area.
I like wells, though. Every time I see a well, I can’t resist
tossing a rock in. There’s nothing as soothing as the sound of a
pebble hitting the water in a deep well.
* * *
It was all her father’s doing that Naoko’s family moved into the
area in 1961. He had been a close friend of the dead painter, not to
mention, of course, that her father liked the place.
He apparently had been a well-respected scholar of French
literature, when all of a sudden, while Naoko was still in
elementary school, he quit the university and thereafter spent his
time leisurely translating curious old texts and the like. Fallen
angels and debauched priests, diabolists, vampires, tracts on sordid
and sundry topics. I don’t really know the details. Only once did I
come across his photograph, in a magazine. According to Naoko, he’d
led something of a colorful and offbeat life in his youth, and the
photograph betrayed more than a hint of that style about him. In it
he wore a hunting cap and black-rimmed glasses, his piercing gaze
focused a few feet above the camera. He must have seen something.
* * *
Back around the time Naoko and her family moved in, something of a
colony of these cultured eccentrics had congregated in the area. By
all accounts, it had been like one of the Siberian penal colonies
for exiled ideological criminals in Imperial Russia.
I’ve read a little about those penal colonies in Trotsky’s memoirs,
but for some reason, the only passages I remember clearly had to do
with cockroaches and reindeer. So here goes about the reindeer.
It seems Trotsky escaped from a penal colony under cover of night by
stealing a reindeer sleigh. The four reindeer raced headlong across
the silver expanse of frozen tundra, their breaths turning to white
mist in the cold air, their hooves churning up the virgin snow. Two
days later when they reached a train station, the reindeer keeled
over from exhaustion, never to get up again. Trotsky hugged the dead
reindeer and made a vow, tears streaming from his eyes. Whatever it
takes, said he, I’ll bring justice and ideals, and above all,
revolution to the nation.
And to this very day, standing in Red Square is a bronze statue of
the four reindeer. One facing east, one north, one west, and one
south. Even Stalin couldn’t bring himself to tear down these
reindeer. Visitors to Moscow should be sure to go to Red Square
early Saturday mornings. That’s when rosy-cheeked middle school
children come out, breaths all white in the cold, and mop down the
But to continue about the local colony: The group purposely avoided
the more accessible flatland near the station, choosing instead
places back in the foothills to build their dream houses. Each and
every one of these had incredibly spacious grounds, with ponds and
hillocks and whole groves of trees left intact within their
boundaries. One estate even had its own brook teeming with real live
These free spirits would wake to the early morning cooing of turtle
doves, tread on beechnuts while strolling the gardens, stop to take
in the morning light cascading through the leaves.
But times changed, and little by little the exponential sprawl of
suburbanization made inroads here. Right around the time of the
Tokyo Olympics. The vast acreage of mulberries that once spread out
below the hills like a fertile sea was bulldozed into a dark,
scarred wasteland, which gradually took the shape of your regular
tract town, fanning out from the station.
The new residents were for the most part middleclass commuters.
They’d spring up like clockwork at a little after five, have barely
enough time to wash their faces before they’d be off to board their
train, and return late at night looking half-dead.
Sunday afternoons were the only times they could relax enough to
appreciate their new town and homes. Also, as if by consensus, most
had dogs. The dogs interbred, and strays were everywhere. That’s
what Naoko meant when she said there used not to be a dog around for
* * *
One whole hour I waited, and not a dog showed. Ten cigarettes I lit
and crushed out. I walked to the middle of the platform, and took a
drink of the crisp, cold water from the faucet there. Still no dog.
To the side of the station was a large pond. A long, serpentine
pool, as if they’d dammed up a stream. The banks were overgrown with
tall marsh grasses, and from time to time a fish broke the surface
of the water. Spaced out along the banks sat some men, tightlipped,
fishing lines cast into the cloudy water. The lines never so much as
twitched; they might as well have been silver needles stuck into the
water. Yet there under the lazy rays of the spring sun, a big white
dog that one of the men had probably brought along was eagerly
sniffing around in the clover.
When the dog came within ten yards of me, I leaned over the station
fence and called to it. The dog looked up and gazed at me with the
most sorrowful light brown eyes, then wagged its tail a couple of
times. I snapped my fingers, and the dog came over, thrust its nose
through the fence and licked my hand with its long tongue.
“Hey, come on in,” I called to the dog as it withdrew. The dog
turned away hesitantly, then resumed wagging its tail as if the
message hadn’t quite gotten through.
“Come on in. I’m tired of waiting.”
I fished a stick of chewing gum out of my pocket, and held up the
wrapper for the dog to see. The dog stared at the gum for a while
before making up its mind to crawl under the fence. I gave the dog a
few pats on the head, rolled the gum up into a ball in the palm of
my hand, and chucked it toward the other end of the platform. The
dog dashed off straight as an arrow.
I went home satisfied.
* * *
On the train ride back, I told myself over and over again, it’s all
over with now, you got it out of your system, forget it. You got
what you came for, didn’t you? Yet I couldn’t get it out of mind,
that place. Nor the fact that I loved Naoko. Nor that she was dead.
After all that, I still hadn’t closed the book on anything.
* * *
Venus is a sweltering planet covered with clouds. Half the
inhabitants die young from the heat and humidity. It’s a feat just
to live thirty years. But by the same measure, that makes them all
the more tenderhearted. Every Venusian loves all Venusians. They
don’t hate or discriminate or hold grudges against anyone. They
don’t even curse. No murders or fighting, only love and
“Even if, say, someone dies, we don’t feel sad,” said the guy from
Venus, an ultra-quiet type. “We’d rather just show that much more
love while the person’s alive. That way, there’s no regret
“So it’s like you get your loving done ahead of time?”
“Hmm ... the words you folks use sound so strange to me,” he said,
shaking his head.
“And everything really comes off with no hitches?” I asked.
“If it didn’t,” he said, “Venus would be buried in sorrow.”
* * *
I returned to the apartment to find the twins in bed, snug under the
covers like two sardines in a tin, giggling away to themselves.
“Welcome back,” said one of them.
“Where did you go?”
“Train station,” I said, loosening my tie, and snuggled in between
them. I was bushed.
“What station, where?”
“What did you go for?”
“A station a long ways away from here. Went to see a dog.”
“What kind of dog?”
“You like dogs?”
“A big white dog, it was. And no, I’m really not so crazy about
I lit up a cigarette, and until I’d finished, the neither of them
said a word.
“You sad about something?” one of them asked.
I nodded silently.
“Why don’t you get some sleep?” said the other.
And so I slept.
* * *
So far, I have been telling this story as my very own, but it is
also the story of another guy, whom we’ll call the Rat. That autumn,
the two of us – he and I – were living nearly five hundred miles
September 1973, that’s where this novel begins. That’s the entrance.
We’ll just hope there’s an exit. If there isn’t one, there wouldn’t
be any point in writing anything.
ON THE ORIGINS OF PINBALL
First of all, we’ll need to know the name of one Raymond Maloney. It
seems that there used to be someone by that name, but he has since
died. That’s about all there is to know about his life. Which is to
say that nobody knows him from nothing. Not any more than they know
a water spider at the bottom of a well.
To be sure, it’s a historical fact that by this man’s very hands the
first prototype of the pinball machine was brought unto this realm
of defilement in 1934 from out of the great, golden cloud of
technology. Which is again the very year that, across that giant
puddle called the Atlantic, one Adolf Hitler was getting his hands
on the first rung of the Weimar ladder.
Raymond Maloney’s life story has none of the mythic color of the
Wright Brothers or Alexander Graham Bell. No heartwarming episodes
of youth, nor any dramatic “Eureka!” Only scant mention of his name
on page one of a strange tome written for a scant handful of curious
readers. A reference which may be summed up: in 1934, Raymond
Maloney invented the first pinball machine. Not even a photograph
with it. Needless to say, we find neither portrait nor statue to his
Now you’re probably thinking, had this Maloney never existed, the
history of the pinball machine would have been entirely different
from what it is today. Or worse, it might well not have come into
existence at all. And hence, might not our hasty underestimation of
this Maloney amount to the height of ingratitude? Yet if we had
occasion to personally examine that very first prototype “Ballyhoo”
created by Maloney’s own hands, all such thoughts would surely
vanish. For there we’d find not one single element to stir our
The progress of the pinball machine and of Hitler exhibit certain
similarities. Both have dubious beginnings, coming on the scene as
mere bubbles on the froth of the times; it is through their
evolutionary speed rather than any physical stature per se that they
acquire their mythic aura. And of course, that evolution came riding
in on three wheels: to wit, technology, capital investment, and last
but not least, people’s basic desires.
With devastating speed people kept providing the singularly
undistinguished protean machine with ever-newer capabilities.
Someone proclaimed, “Let there be lights!” Someone else shouted,
“Let there be electricity!” Still another shouted, “Let there be
flippers!” And so there came to be lights illuminating the field,
electricity to deflect balls magnetically, two flipper arms to whip
them back into play.
Scoring came to numerically convert players’ proficiency by a factor
of ten, while tilt lamps guarded against rough handling and rocking
of the machine. Next came the metaphysical concept of sequencing,
which led to such variations as the Bonus Light, Extra Ball, and
Replay schools. Actually by this time, pinball machines had come to
possess a magical fascination.
* * *
This is a novel about pinball.
* * *
The introduction to Bonus Light, that exegesis of pinball, has this
There is precious little you can gain from a pinball machine. Only
some lights that convert to a score count. On the other hand, there
is a great deal to lose. All the coppers you’d ever need to erect
statues of every president in history (provided, of course, you
thought well enough to erect a statue of Richard M. Nixon), not to
mention a lot of valuable and nonreturnable time.
While you’re playing yourself out in lonesome dissipation in front
of a pinball machine, someone else might be reading through Proust.
Still another might be engaged in heavy petting with a girlfriend at
a drive-in theater showing of Paths of Courage. The one could well
become a writer, witness to the age; the others, a happily married
Pinball machines, however, won’t lead you anywhere. Just the replay
light. Replay, replay, replay .... So persistently you’d swear a
game of pinball aspired to perpetuity.
We ourselves will never know much of perpetuity. But we can get a
faint inkling of what it’s like.
The object of pinball lies not in self-expression, but in
self-revolt. Not in the expansion of the ego, but in its
compression. Not in extractive analysis, but in inclusive
So if it’s self-expression or ego-expansion or analysis you’re
after, you’ll only be subjected to the merciless retaliation of the
Have a nice game.