Skip to content
Careers have arcs. Writers develop and change, as evidenced by "I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 360 pp., $16), a new bilingual anthology of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" (Vintage: 384 pp., $14.95), a collection of 24 stories spanning more than two decades by Haruki Murakami. Neruda died in 1973 at 69, while Murakami, approaching 60, is happily very much still with us.
The two resemble each other in interesting ways: both world writers, both prodigiously prolific and immensely popular, both looking to American writers for their early inspiration, both translators themselves and the beneficiaries of brilliant and devoted translators who have delivered their work into English.
Neruda had a lonely childhood and adolescence, deep in southern Chile. "I emerged and became a part of the great crowd of humanity," he once said. He lived in Burma and India and witnessed the Spanish Civil War first hand. Fascists murdered his friends, the poets Federico García Lorca and Miguel Hernandez. "And one morning it was all burning, / and one morning bonfires / sprang out of the earth / devouring humans, / and from then on fire, / gunpowder from then on, / and from then on blood," Neruda writes in the poem -- one of his most famous -- that gives this new collection its title. From then on, Neruda manned the barricades, a lifelong communist and an iconic figure, revered by millions, reviled by some.
Neruda believed that fierce individual activism might bring actual effect. He achieved the peak of his fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s, just when Murakami was coming of age as a student in Japan. Murakami often references that time with its "tremendous spark of promise," as he writes in "A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism," one of the stories in "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman." "Heroism and villainy, ecstasy and disillusionment, martyrdom and betrayal . . . you could actually grasp them. They were literally lined up on a shelf, right before our very eyes. . . . Everything was simple and direct."
Murakami looks back without nostalgia but with a yearning for lost clarity. His great subject is the elusiveness of contemporary life, how hard it is to grasp, let alone rely upon, the reality of anything. The stories here abound with lost moments, bungled chances, failed love affairs and narrative devices that act as metaphors for life's randomness and uncertainty: holes in the ground, mirrors with supernatural powers, elevators or the gaps between floors in apartment buildings in which you might vanish.
Even before Sept. 11, Murakami was writing about sudden and unexpected tragedy. Yet he does so in a style so light and exuberant as well as mysterious that we're reminded that even scary things can have wonderful effects. Murakami's work always inspires and enlivens while imparting its unease. Hence its potency. As Neruda wrote, "your love walks / among them, / caressing the clean growth / of humankind on earth."
"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" shows Murakami's growth. The easy, seemingly casual voice was in place even when he was starting out, but the approach has shifted, moving from more Kafkaesque abstractions -- as in "Dabchick" (from the early 1980s) -- to the haunted simplicity of "Strange Tales From Tokyo," a sequence of five stories, written in a burst in 2005, that conclude the volume. "You change yourself, or, rather, you have to change yourself or you can't survive," says Kirie, the female high-wire artist in "The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day."
"I Explain a Few Things" offers a similarly dramatic curve, shooting upward with the ecstatic lyricism of Neruda's youth and the legendary "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair," then bending through the anger of "Residence on Earth" before eliding into the modest and thoughtful poetry of the later years. There are the almost sidelong autobiographical glances of "Isla Negra" and the beautiful "Elemental Odes": "With a single life / I will not learn enough, / with the light of other lives, / many lives will live in my song."
Neruda lived long enough to acquire sadness and maturity. His output was vast, almost oceanic, with crests and troughs, and a multitude of different moods. Reading Murakami, on the other hand, is a little like going to another planet, very similar to our own, but skewed in distinctive and dreamlike ways. Neruda gazed through the telescope of politics, Murakami examines the artifacts of pop culture with his fastidious eye. Neruda befriended Castro, yet wrote beautifully about "handsome and spacious" North America. Likewise, Murakami reveres, and has translated, Chandler and Carver -- the two great Rays.
In the end, of course, we love and remember writers for how they say things, not for what they say. "That time was like never, and like always. / So we go there, where nothing is waiting; / we find everything waiting there," writes Neruda in Sonnet IV of "100 Love Sonnets," a blissful, hopeful beat that finds an echo at the end of Murakami's splendid tale "A Shinagawa Monkey," in which a woman can't remember her own name and struggles to find out why.
"Things might work out," Murakami tells us. "And then again they might not. But at least she had her own name now, a name that was hers, and hers alone." These writers stun us with their insight and a grace that is worn almost casually.
The Short List
"Rogue Male," a novel by Geoffrey Household (NYRB: 224 pp., $14)
A lone gunman takes a potshot at an unnamed dictator (Hitler, presumably), misses, and Household's suspense classic is off and running. The would-be assassin escapes his captors and holes up deep in the Dorset countryside, tracked by a relentless foe in the most fiendish disguise of all -- that of the English country gentleman. In the history of the thriller, "Rogue Male" sits between John Buchan and Robert Ludlum, but Household was better than either one of them, crafting some of the best, and scariest, scenes of pure pursuit ever written.
"The Pillow Book" by Sei Shonagon (Penguin: 416 pp., $16)
Shonagon was a gentlewoman, a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress at the end of the 10th century. She was the contemporary and rival of Lady Murasaki, author of the epic novel "Tale of Genji," but a much more intimate, and strictly autobiographical, writer. "The Pillow Book" is a journal in which Shonagon records her observations, her likes and dislikes, the dialogues she hears, the minutest details of the life around her. Written in a spare, fast-moving style, it's a luminous and startlingly contemporary book, which, once discovered, tends to become an addiction. Newly translated by Meredith McKinney.
"Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love" (Faber & Faber: 304 pp., $20)
The scrapbook of a survivor: not a written book per se, but a collection of letters, journal entries, lyric hit and misses, Polaroids, collages and the like. On Meg Ryan's clothes in "The Doors": "She sucks, it sucks," notes Love, unafraid and larger than life, as usual. We get a big sense of her vulnerability and anger, and a perhaps more surprising one of her ambition too. "Hell hath no fury like the master plan," she writes, and after Kurt Cobain's death, scrawled in lipstick: "I can grow a new heart."
"Life Studies and For the Union Dead" by Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 176 pp., $14)
The two central books in the Lowell canon, reissued in a single volume. Here, he initiated his autobiographical project and changed how American poetry was written and read. Intimate poems such as "Myopia: A Night" and "Skunk Hour" are as forceful, formally beautiful and terrifying as when Lowell first composed them in the late 1950s and early 1960s. "A car radio bleats / 'O Love, O careless Love . . . ' I hear / My ill spirit sobs in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat . . . / I myself am hell; /Nobody's here . . . "
"Frost/Nixon: Behind the Scenes of the Nixon Interviews" by David Frost: (HarperPerennial: 368 pp., $14.95)
Never one to scorn a media opportunity, Sir David Frost rides in on the success of Peter Morgan's play "Frost/Nixon," and Ron Howard's forthcoming movie, to assemble this book. Actually, it's fascinating, taking us into the background of the interviews themselves, landmark events in our changing perception of politics. "Well, when the president does it . . . that means that it is not illegal," said Nixon, and Frost reports that he couldn't believe his own ears, or his luck. We are all still living with the ramifications.
"I Have the Right to Destroy Myself," a novel by Young-ha Kim (Harvest: 132 pp., $12)
Sex and the longing for death: seductive subjects. Coolly written and composed as intricately and artfully as a Chinese box, Young-ha Kim's brief novel -- his first to be published in English -- is narrated by a young Korean who seeks out potential suicides and is now writing their stories. "I only want to draw out morbid desires imprisoned deep in the subconscious," he tells us. The result is eerie, hypnotic and not without humor, like latter-day Camus filtered through a cinematic sensibility.
"Transit Maps of the World" by Mark Ovenden (Penguin: 144 pp., $25)
"Despite being just colored lines on a paper, this diagram has become a cultural icon; it is London," writes subway geek Mark Ovenden, describing Harry Beck's 1933 map of the London Underground. Beck reckoned that the actual physical distance from one station to the next was immaterial; what was important was the clarity of the map. Hence, a design masterpiece that both mirrors and distorts the metropolis, a notion that might have come from the pen of a literary fabulist like Calvino or Borges. Both of them would have loved Ovenden's fantastic and oddball book, which includes every urban train map on the planet, along with thumbnail histories of the systems themselves.
"American Gangster and Other Tales of New York" by Mark Jacobson (Grove: 288 pp., $14)
The title story, originally published in the Village Voice, tells of 1970s heroin kingpin Frank Lucas and forms the basis for the current Ridley Scott movie of the same name. In his introduction, Jacobson recalls going to a Hollywood meeting with his subject, who asked him, "Who's the guy in the room with the juice?" Jacobson's reply: "[T]he one with the whacked-off hair and the skinny tie" -- i.e. Brian Grazer. In another story, Jacobson hears an upscale pimp describe his $2,000-an-hour escort girls. "What we're selling is rocket fuel, rocket fuel for winners." You can't make this stuff up.
"The Book of Dave," a novel by Will Self (Bloomsbury: 512 pp., $15.95)
I thought I'd lost patience with Will Self, but then along came this massive, mad and fiendish novel in which a London cab driver's racist, misogynist and revenge-filled rantings are discovered 500 years from now and interpreted as a holy text. In this new world, people talk in "Mokni" (mock Cockney), pass on "The Knowledge" (the information London cabbies have to memorize before they can get licensed) and the generic word for food is "curry." In juggling the two time periods, Self manages a satire on received religion while taking perhaps the best stab at the great London novel since Martin Amis' "Money."
"Moist," a novel by Mark Haskell Smith (Grove: 320 pp., $14)
"Delicious," a novel by Mark Haskell Smith (Grove: 336 pp., $14)
"Salty," a novel by Mark Haskell Smith (Grove: 320 pp., $14)
Three comic thrillers from a screenwriter turned novelist, set, respectively, in L.A., Hawaii and Thailand, each of which is made in turn to seem like the last place you'd want be. Characters include a not-so-usual-suspect lineup of hustlers, sex addicts, supermodels, failed rock stars, wine-buff cops, psychos and flakes. Haskell Smith writes well, especially about sex and food, and the multilayered plots move so fast they feel fresh. Think Elmore Leonard meets Mario Batali -- it's a nifty, if somewhat overheated, combination.
Richard Rayner's "Paperback Writers" column appears monthly.