For the Birds

Flying high with Murakami

The other night my dreams seemed to go on forever. I remember at some point standing in a burnt-out field watching birds fall from the sky, scores of them, in slow motion. I thought about it over morning coffee, tracing it to a Danish detective drama called The Investigation I had binge-watched before turning in. My kind of crime series, slow moving with subtitles and no real violence, just references to a hideous crime. For instance, in a particularly static yet riveting scene Chief Inspector Jens Moller waits for several moments for a fax of an image of the crime scene—a grainy shot of a homemade submarine. Later the beleaguered Inspector, perhaps to release stress, goes to a range to shoot moving targets. He’s a good shot, bringing to mind William Burroughs. William also liked shooting targets in his backyard in Lawrence, Kansas. At the end of the episode, after exhaustive fruitless efforts to nail the killer, Moller goes out into the woods with his dog, shoots a pheasant, then watches it spiral from the sky. I suppose that’s why I dreamed what I dreamed.

The next morning, over coffee, I opened my copy of First Person Singular, a new collection of stories by Haruki Murakami. I leafed through it, stopping at one called “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova.” The first line was “Bird is back,” referencing the great musician. The bird that soars above Murakami’s world is not just any bird of a feather, but Parker himself. He tells of a piece he wrote in 1963, a detailed review of a new record by Charlie Parker, which struck me as odd as Parker died in 1955, the same year Little Richard came out with “Tutti Frutti.” I was eight years old at the time, and I remember my father reading his obituary in the Philadelphia paper. I can picture my father sadly shaking his head saying Parker was so young and gifted. 

As a teenager I wasn’t listening much to Charlie Parker. I preferred John Coltrane and Roland Kirk, but it was clear that they revered him, as my father had. In early March, 1963, close to Parker’s birthday I was invited to enter a high school poetry contest. I decided to write a poem to comprehend Parker’s majesty, but mostly to please my father. My eulogy to Charlie Parker, called “Bird is Free,” won third prize and was printed in the local paper. I was sixteen and it was my first published work, a milestone in my young life. That same year Murakami wrote his piece about the new Charlie Parker album, which in truth he had made up, not out of disrespect but of a longing to give new life to his favorite player. I found it amazing that we made our youthful debuts with pieces on the same subject, mine on Parker’s death and his on an improbable yet intriguing return, an entirely abstract bird connection.

A few years ago, I was writing a book called M Train. At the time I became obsessed with Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, even incorporating it in my book in a chapter called “The Well.” I was so taken with its atmosphere that I read and reread it, despite its length. In it there is a ragtag piece of property in the Tokyo suburbs with a mystical well and an enigmatic bird sculpture. This property felt very real to me even though it was quite possibly imaginary. I was also enamored with the bird sculpture that inexplicably seemed to drop from existence, which I fretted over. I thought of writing him about it through our mutual publisher, but lost for words, I never did.  

Then in the fall of 2014 I was asked by a German newspaper to fly to Berlin to present Murakami with the Die Welt Literature Prize, and sing him a song. Now, it isn’t every day that one just up and flies across the ocean to hand a stranger an award. But to meet a beloved writer (who is actually alive) to say nothing of the opportunity to ask him what happened to the bird sculpture was too good to pass up. So, I packed my little suitcase and flew to Berlin. 

Toward the end of the ceremony I sang “Wing” and presented him with the award. Afterwards, I was introduced to him and his charming wife, Yoko, and we all retired to a drawing room for snacks and cocktails. The three of us, a bit socially awkward, sort of stuck together. Finally, I got up the courage to ask him about the whereabouts of the bird sculpture. He seemed, or pretended to seem, confounded. He insinuated that he had already covered that book with the topsoil of several others and the bird sculpture had flown from memory. Then, as I could not get past the fact that he might be pulling my leg, I told him that I actually knew where the elusive sculpture was. He seemed taken aback yet intrigued. It is under your bed, I said, adamantly. Yoko was amused, but he seemed deep in thought, as though making a private inventory. And that was my less than monumental but happy exchange with the meditative yet high-spirited Haruki Murakami.

In returning to First Person Singular, Murakami writes how Charlie Parker appeared to him in a dream. And it is within his description of that dream, talking of death and music, that Parker is fleetingly and lovingly resurrected. One can absolutely picture him play, speak, then fade away, a bird flying high and disappearing.

Speaking of birds, I guess in Berlin I should have started our conversation with the merits of the alto saxophone or the hidden talents of Gene Quill, then subtly veered into a discussion on the bird sculpture. But in the end, I really think I know where it is—silently presiding over the glowing cemetery of the writer’s imagination.



Recommended:    

  • First Person Singular. Haruki Murakami

  • The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Haruki Murakami

  • M Train. Patti Smith (the chapter called “The Well”)