A few years before his translation of Murakami's third novel A Wild Sheep Chase would debut in America, Alfred Birnbaum was interested in bringing the literary world of Murakami Haruki to an English speaking audience. His first translation was Murakami's second novel Pinball, 1973. Birnbaum had hoped that the novel would be distributed internationally by Kodansha, but instead it and Birnbaum's 1987 translation of Murakami's debut novel Hear the Wind Sing were regulated to Kodansha English Language Library. This meant that instead of reaching a broader audience, the translated novel would solely be released in Japan with an appendix at the end that explained several obscure English terms.
Unlike the translation of Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973 soon became out of print and with the growth of Murakami's popularity and his reluctance to have either Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball, 1973 released to a wider English speaking audience, the book has become quite a collector's item fetching between 350-500 dollars on Ebay and the like. However, is the novel really a good read? I would say that it is near vital in understanding the formation of Murakami's writing and the importance of his distant first-person narrator.
Having won the Gunzo literary prize for new writers in 1979, Murakami penned Pinball, 1973 at a table within the confines of his bar called Peter Cat. Within this thin tome he returned to his characters "Boku," a masculine personal pronoun, and his friend the Rat. Whereas the first book was a bit disjointed and seemed more like a collection of vignettes than one cohesive story, Pinball, 1973 is a bit more cohesive and Boku actually has a goal: to find a long lost pinball machine called the Spaceship. Actually, the novel consists of two narratives: the first person account of Boku and the third-person account of the Rat. The two friends never meet each other within the book nor do they even mention each other, but there is a loneliness within the pages of the book that makes it evident how important the friendship they share is in between them.
After graduating college, Boku and a friend start a small translation business and are successful enough to hire a pretty secretary, whom Boku will later marry, and live with comfort. However, there is emptiness inside Boku as he continues to translate useless articles concerning such things as ball bearings and the like. One morning this emptiness is slightly filled when twin girls appear on each side of Boku in his bed. Cute and perfectly identical, the twin girls take care of Boku's needs, but he longs for something more: his deceased girlfriend Naoko and the Rat. Naoko is mentioned within the pages of Hear the Wind Sing as a French major who hung herself near the tennis courts. It is not evident within that book how much the suicide effected Boku, but within this book we learn that after her death he spent all of his time within an arcade playing the Spaceship pinball machine and he became quite good at the machine and fully understood it, something that he was unable to do with Naoko. He eventually almost forgets about the machine, but one day it pops up and grabs his heart and he decides to go on a quest to find it and his own history in the process. Unlike Boku who has at least a goal, the Rat broods, drinks alcohol, and chain smokes. His depression is quite deep, and the reader learns why he flees to Hokkaido within the pages of this book.
Whereas Hear the Wind Sing is quite barebones and its sentences clearly show Murakami's newness as a writer, Pinball, 1973 displays a maturing Murakami whose world of magical realism is beginning to form. However, in my opinion, the true power of the novel is Murakami's emphasis on desire and substitution of the desired object when the original is no longer available. A pretty powerful novel that unearths many of the themes that would continue to grow in Murakami's body of literature for twenty-five years plus after this novel was published, Pinball, 1973 is invaluable in understanding Murakami's body of work and two of his most important characters: Boku and the Rat.