Like other writers of great ambition, Haruki Murakami has created his own distinctly identifiable world, an imaginary universe that can be found in even the smallest of his works. “The Year of Spaghetti,” a short tale that originally appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, takes up a mere five pages in his latest story collection, but it is about as concise an introduction to Murakami’s cosmos as one could wish. “In 1971 I cooked spaghetti to live, and lived to cook spaghetti,” the anonymous narrator informs us. Those are the horizons of his existence. He doesn’t seem to have a job or, for that matter, anything else to occupy him. We never learn how he pays for his pasta or comes up with the rent. If anything, he seems to be hiding from it all. “As a rule I cooked spaghetti, and ate it, alone. I was convinced that spaghetti was a dish best enjoyed alone. I can’t really explain why I felt that way, but there it is.”
This environment of low-temperature anomie, inhabited by a chronically underwhelmed main character, captive to a life so ordinary that it tips over into the bizarre, should be familiar to anyone who has sampled Murakami’s work in the past. Similarly, we know that we can also expect, soon after the story is underway, some notable eruption of the offbeat, whether it be a disconcerting ripple in routine or a manifestation of the overtly supernatural. In this case the spaghetti-obsessed narrator suddenly receives a call from a woman “so indistinct that, by four thirty, she might very well have disappeared altogether.” She turns out to be the ex-girlfriend of one of the narrator’s friends, and, as she explains, she needs his help in getting in touch with their common acquaintance about some pressing matter. But the narrator demurs. “I was through with getting caught up in other people’s messes. I’d already dug a hole in the backyard and buried everything that needed to be buried in it. Nobody could ever dig it up again.” This may be merely metaphorical, or it may be the real truth; we’ll never know. The narrator, in any case, falls back on evasion:
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “But I’m cooking spaghetti right now.”
“I said I’m cooking spaghetti,” I lied. I had no idea why I said that. But that lie was already a part of me—so much so that, at that moment at least, it didn’t feel like a lie at all.
I went ahead and filled an imaginary pot with water, lit an imaginary stove with an imaginary match.
“So?” she asked.
I sprinkled imaginary salt into the boiling water, gently lowered a handful of imaginary spaghetti into the imaginary pot, set the imaginary kitchen timer for twelve minutes.
“So I can’t talk. The spaghetti will be ruined.”
The girl hangs up in frustration, leaving the narrator …