Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

A couple of minutes with Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

At the start of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, the narrator is rung-up by a mysterious female voice who demands, like a survey-taker, ten minutes of his time:

“Ten minutes, please,” said a woman on the other end.
I’m good at recognizing people’s voices, but this was not one I knew.
“Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?”
“To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. That’s all we need to understand each other.” Her voice was low and soft but otherwise nondescript.”

How long does it take to understand someone, on first meeting? It’s akin to the underlying question we pose ourselves when we browse a pile of books to choose something new to read. How much do you have to read before you’re convinced to forego other choices and settle down with the book in your hands? Is it enough to read the blurbs? Or the first couple of pages?

I’ve foregone  other choices, for the moment, convinced in a page and a half by Murakami’s intriguing opening:

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potrul of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been somebody with news of a job opening. I lowered the flame, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.

“Ten minutes, please,” said a woman on the other end.

I’m good at recognizing people’s voices, but this was not one I knew.

“Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?”

“To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. That’s all we need to understand each other.” Her voice was low and soft but otherwise nondescript.

“Understand each other?”

“Each other’s feelings.”

I leaned over and peeked through the kitchen door. The spaghetti pot was steaming nicely, and Claudio Abbado was still conducting The Thieving Magpie.

“Sorry, but you caught me in the middle of making spaghetti. Can I ask you to call back later?”

“Spaghetti!? What are you doing cooking spaghetti at ten-thirty in the morning?”

“That’s none of your business,” I said. “I decide what I eat and when I eat it.”

“True enough. I’ll call back,” she said, her voice now flat and expressionless. A little change in mood can do amazing things to the tone of a person’s voice.

“Hold on a minute,” I said before she could hang up. “If this is some new sales gimmick, you can forget it. I’m out of work. I’m not in the market for anything.”

“Don’t worry. I know.”

“You know? You know what?” 


“That you’re out of work. I know about that. So go cook your precious spaghetti.”

“Who the hell-”

She cut the connection.

With no outlet for my feelings, I stared at the phone in my hand until I remembered the spaghetti. Back in the kitchen, I turned off the gas and poured the contents of the pot into a colander. Thanks to the phone call, the spaghetti was a little softer than al dente, but it had not been dealt a mortal blow. I started eating-and thinking.

Understand each other? Understand each other’s feelings in ten minutes? What was she talking about? Maybe it was just a prank call. Or some new sales pitch. In any case, it had nothing to do with me.

After lunch, I went back to my library novel on the living room sofa, glancing every now and then at the telephone. What were we supposed to understand about each other in ten minutes? What can two people understand about each other in ten minutes? Come to think of it, she seemed awfully sure about those ten minutes: it was the first thing out of her mouth. As if nine minutes would be too short or eleven minutes too long. Like cooking spaghetti al dente.

I couldn’t read anymore. I decided to iron shirts instead. Which is what I always do when I’m upset. It’s an old habit. I divide the job into twelve precise stages, beginning with the collar (outer surface) and ending with the left-hand cuff. The order is always the same, and I count off each stage to myself. Otherwise, it won’t come out right.

The start of any novel, like a conversation between strangers, is a delicate matter. The short paragraphs and matter of fact description that open The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle give a steady and relaxed footing immediately for the reader. And yet everything recounted is peculiar. Murakami manages to create an intricate picture of a character in the space where many other authors are merely clearing their throats, setting the scene. Within a page and a half, where every line and every fact is called upon to bear more than its own weight, we know a huge amount about the narrator, without any sneaky asides. In three simple acts – the cooking of pasta, the telephone call, and his seeking refuge in the ironing of shirts – we have a complex and intriguing portrait, open to a world of narrative possibilies yet grounded, at least partly, in the mundane.

The simple act of cooking pasta, for example brings to the table a dossier-sized profile of our narrator. He likes order, and to do things properly – the pasta must be al dente, and there is an appropriate soundtrack to the cooking. All precise, and reassuringly ordered. Everything in its proper place, as it were. Except for the fact that its ten-thirty in the morning.

His reaction to the strange telephone call also speaks volumes. He’s reluctant to answer, but does so eventually because it may be a job offer. And yet, while his pasta is rapidly softening, he doesn’t hang up on his strange caller – quite the opposite, he asks her to call back later (the invitation coming before he asks whether its some sales gimmick).

I’m hooked. It reminds me of something James Meek, author of The People’s Act of Love, and We are now beginning our descent said in interview with TMO:

I love to be surprised not so much by a twist of plot as a twist of characterisation. As soon as I read, in the very early pages of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, the sentence “It was rumoured the director was homosexual, but in reality he was simply a drunk”, I knew I would read the book to the end.


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