Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Confession: I actually wanted to read one of Murakami’s other books, Norwegian Wood, but our library system’s only copy had gone missing. So I went with my second choice. In any case, this is the first Murakami book I have read. Since I do not read Japanese, I read the Jay Rubin English translation. (More about this later.)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a somewhat peculiar book. It definitely has the classical elements of Magical Realism - Murakami is considered a major figure in the Japanese version of the tradition. The story is in a modern setting, and deals mostly with real life and historical events. However, parallel to the “real” world is a supernatural, or perhaps metaphysical world which the characters inhabit. The fantastical elements run alongside the realistic ones, yet the characters seem to take the bizarre things which happen to them without much of a shock. As in most Magical Realist works, the supernatural element is never really explained. Much mystery remains.
The protagonist is Toru Okada, a rather unambitious youngish man, who is supported by his wife Kumiko. He has just quit his dead-end job, and isn’t sure what he will do next, other than search for their cat, who has disappeared. Soon, however, things start to go both wrong and crazy. Kumiko disappears, and her wealthy, powerful, and creepy older brother, Noburu, says she has had an affair and wants a divorce. But he won’t let Toru see or speak to her directly.
A psychic Kumiko hired to find the cat contacts Toru, and the psychic’s daughter alleges that Kumico’s brother violated her. Toru gets weird phone calls asking for him to have phone sex with the caller. He meets a teenage neighbor, and ends up having disconcerting discussions about death and trauma - and she helps him discover a dry well in an abandoned (and seemingly cursed) house nearby. Toru spends a couple days at the bottom of the well, and has some sort of a supernatural experience which leaves him puzzled, and also with a bizarre new birthmark on his cheek.
The old man who Kumiko’s family introduced him to - a veteran of the portion of World War Two which took place between Japan and Russia - dies and leaves Toru an empty box - delivered by a fellow veteran who tells Koru a series of harrowing stories about his role in the war.
Later, a mysterious woman sees him randomly, and recognizes his birthmark as identical to that of her father. She and her mute son recruit Toru into their psychic healing business.
Somehow, all of these are connected. The war in Manchuria, Noburu’s successful political career, Kumiko’s childhood trauma, Malta and Creta Kano (the psychic and her sister) and their stories, “Nutmeg” Akasaka and her mute son, the cat, and the cursed house. Everything fits together somehow, and Toru, who is one of the most passive heroes in literature, finds himself having to endure all of the fallout from these interconnected threads, and absorb all of the traumatic stories, before he can find his way out of the labyrinth.
Murakami uses a number of ideas, themes, and objects to tie the threads together. The title is one: a mysterious bird which sounds like the winding up of some toy or clock. Nobody ever sees it, but certain people can hear it before a momentous change in their lives - some catastrophe. It is never stated outright, but it is implied that the sound is Fate winding the gears of the universe, and that the characters are about to be carried along by events and destiny out of their control.
While the Wind-Up Bird may not be an actual bird, real birds are prevalent throughout the story, culminating in a family of ducks in the last section.
The book was originally a three volume set - and the divisions have been retained in the English version, although it is in one volume. These are, in order “The Thieving Magpie,” “The Book of the Prophesying Bird,” and “The Book of the Bird-Catcher Man.” Classical Music fans will recognize at least two of the references. The first is obviously Rossini’s opera, the overture of which figures prominently in the narrative. (Toru is a fan of classical, as is the mute man, and music runs throughout the book.) The last is a reference to Mozart’s opera, Die Zauberflöt, specifically to Papageno, the bird-catcher. The middle one is much more obscure, and I had to look it up. It references a set of piano pieces by Schumann, Waldszenen, “Forest Scenes,” which has a movement entitled “Bird as Prophet.” There are many more references that tie in with the mood or theme or character at a particular time. Apparently Murakami does this in his other books as well. For a Classical buff, the book is a bit of an easter egg hunt.
There are themes that run through the book too. Alienation is definitely the core idea. Toru becomes increasingly isolated as time passes. After his marriage, his life revolves around her. With the loss of his job and her departure, he sees very few people - and nobody really “normal,” in the usual sense. In the central turning points in the story, he intentionally isolates himself in the dry well, depriving himself of sensory stimulation in an attempt to access the metaphysical realm and push through the labyrinth that holds him.
Desire and power are also central to the book. Neither is viewed as particularly good, as both result in sickening results. Ultimately, however, Toru has to go beyond his default passivity and find the power in himself to seek his desire: to have Kumiko back.
Even objects end up connecting the threads. The cat is to a degree a metaphor for the life which Toru and Kumiko have built together, but it also connects the characters, and finds a parallel in the big cats at the zoo who are killed by the soldiers on the eve of invasion. A baseball bat connects a rebellion by Chinese troops, a murder in a Soviet gulag, an fight between Toru and a mysterious musician and magician, and a metaphysical confrontation between Toru and Noburu. Clothes take on significance. Baseball uniforms, military uniforms, a garish red hat, anachronistic fashions, Toru’s slovenly outfits, Nutmeg’s impeccable outfits, a dress at the dry cleaners, Kumiko’s abandoned clothes - all of these take on a significance in the plot.
The well too becomes a theme. The old man mentions a well to Toru, Lt. Mamiya nearly dies in one in Mongolia, and Toru must find his epiphanies there as well. The past and the present become less distinct as the book goes on.
It is difficult in any translated work to know exactly how much of the writing is that of the author, and how much the translator. Certainly, translation is an art of itself - and translation is by definition interpretation. Disentangling the work from its translation is perhaps an impossible task for those of us who are unable to read the work in the original. However, I think it is fair to say that the writing is excellent, which probably means that both Murakami and Rubin write well. I found the language enjoyable, the metaphors surprising yet fitting, and the mystery baffling. Despite its 600 page length, it seemed to go quickly.
I do have one quibble with the translation, however. Apparently, under orders from the publisher, Rubin cut about 60 pages from the book. You can find a summary of the missing material on Wikipedia - and you should definitely read that after you read the book. I really wish that the cuts had not been made. While you can guess at what is missing, it would have been nice to have had some of those gaps filled in. Just as one example, the story mentions that the cursed house was torn down - but the scene in which May and Toru watch it come down is omitted. In any event, I am irritated that financial constraints led to an unfortunate alteration of the author’s intended art.
Despite this, the book was enjoyable. Let me quote the opening, which is excellent.
When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful 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.
There were a couple of other lines that I can’t resist quoting. One was from Lt. Mayima’s narrative of the war, specifically the run-up to hostilities.
Taking Outer Mongolia would amount to sticking a knife in the guts of the Soviets’ development of Siberia. Imperial Headquarters back in Tokyo might be trying to put the brakes on, but this was not an opportunity that the ambitious Kwantung Army General Staff was about to let slip from their fingers. The result would be no mere border dispute but a full-scale war between the Soviet Union and Japan. If such a war broke out on the Manchurian-Soviet border, Hitler might respond by invading Poland or Czechoslovakia.
Wait, what?! It is always fascinating to see a completely different perspective on an event that you think you understand. I mean, Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland and that started the war, right? Well, not from the Japanese perspective. With the American-centric, or perhaps Euro-centric point of view we learn our history from, the entry of Japan into World War Two is often an afterthought at best. But the world was indeed a powder keg in the aftermath of the first world war, between the humiliation of Germany and the crumbling remains of the Colonialist European empires, Japan saw a chance to become a world power - and go after longstanding enemies in China and Russia.
A note here may be appropriate: while this book isn’t non-stop horror (like, say The Garlic Ballads), there are some gruesome scenes of violence in this book, mostly centering on the war. Nobody is innocent either. The Japanese, Mongolians, Chinese, and Soviets are all brutal and horrifically cruel, given the upper hand. Fortunately, these scenes are brief. Still, they may stick with you more than you wish. Murakami makes a pretty solid argument for the stupidity of war. One might even say that residual collective guilt and trauma from the war reach into the present in this story in so many ways, the book might be said to be about that as much as the other themes.
Another fascinating line came in a series of letters which May (the teenager) writes to Toru, who never receives them. In one, she muses on the question of causality - she is basically David Hume, seeing no reason why the world should be logical or make sense. This is in contrast to her parents.
Those people believe that the world is as consistent and explainable as the floor plan of a new house in a high-prosed development, so if you do everything in a logical, consistent way, everything will turn out right in the end. That’s why they get upset and sad and angry when I’m not like that.
This one hits a bit close to home - I mean, the whole point of cults like the one my parents joined is go guarantee results. Follow the formula, and you are guaranteed things will turn out like promised. But the world isn’t like that - reality isn’t like that. And, despite being a definite Order Muppet (if you don’t get the reference, here is Dahlia Lithwick’s classic work on the topic), the order of MY life - and of my family - doesn’t fit. And that has, alas, caused a certain amount of upset and sad and angry.
The final line I want to mention is another one from Lt. Mayima’s story (which is told in pieces throughout the book.) He ends up involved with a ruthless Soviet prisoner with ties to the Secret Police, who advises him that if he wants to get out of the Gulag alive, he should avoid imagination. However, evil and cruel and loathsome this man is, he has a pretty good grasp on the realities of Stalinism. Marx had ideas, Lenin took a few of them and used them for power, while Stalin, who had little understanding of either, used what he grasped to multiply his own power. But here is the killer line:
The narrower a man’s intellectual grasp, the more power he is able to grab in this country.
Damn. How true is that in our own country (and throughout much of the West) these days? That someone as ignorant and intellectually challenged as Trump could leverage a combination of general stupidity and incompetence with brilliant demagoguery into power is sad, but perhaps shouldn’t be surprising.
This line comes very near the end of the book, and it serves, to a degree, as inspiration to Toru. For much of the book, he has been puzzled by the psychic’s description of him and Noboru as polar opposites, as inhabiting different metaphysical worlds. It is Noboru’s obsession with power and glory which makes him an empty vessel, not really human, but reflecting what the demos wants to see. Although this book was written in the mid 1990s, Noboru seems to be a familiar popularist/nationalist sort. In contrast, Toru’s passivity and lack of ambition is his strength. He in his own way has to become an empty vessel himself to allow his true self to repossess himself, if that makes any sense.
One final thing I thought I might mention regards the criticism of Murakami from within the Japanese literary world. He has been accused of being “too Western” - or “not Japanese enough,” whatever that means. I am hardly equipped to resolve that question - although Murakami sure has sold a lot of books in Japan, not just abroad. What I can say is that to me at least, his writing has more in common with other Japanese or Japanese-born authors I have read than with, say, British or American authors. Sure, there is a difference between his writing and that of Junichiro Tanizaki (who Murakami cites as an influence) - but no more so than between a contemporary Brit and, say, E. M. Forster. I saw striking similarities in themes and styles between Murakami and Ishiguro as well. Whatever the case, I find such distinctions as silly as the dispute between the fans of Borodin and Tchaikovsky over who was more authentically “Russian.” Good music is good music, and good writing is good writing. Murakami writes well, and this book was good. I definitely want to read more.
Music, because of course.
Rossini is fun to play - this one is a staple of youth orchestras for that reason.
Schumann is underrated in my opinion. Even if the Scherzo in his 2nd Symphony is proof he hated the 1st violins.
And, of course, Papageno's aria:
True story here: for years, the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra did an annual opera concert, where we had soloists associated with USC come up and do a concert version. (Recitatives replaced by narration, no sets, but usually costumes.) We haven't done this in a few years - I wish we could do them again, because they were a ton of fun, and my kids liked them. (Particularly Don Giovanni - go figure...)
Anyway, something like 15 years ago, we did The Magic Flute. The part of Tamino was sung by Kevin Courtemanche (he was a regular in our productions for a number of years.) He is a fine singer - I particularly remember "La Donna e Mobile" as a fine performance of his. But, I confess that as Tamino, during the scene when the maidens find him sleeping and extol his extreme beauty and manliness, it was really hard to keep from laughing. It wasn't his fault, of course - it is the injustice of the universe that short guys with bald heads get no romantic respect. (And, let's be honest, The Magic Flute is almost as silly as Cosi Fan Tutte...except it is trying so hard to be serious. Unintentional comedy factor: very high.) Anyway, this brought back memories of those good times. Kevin Courtemanche, if you somehow run across this post, here's a hello from Bakersfield, California. It was a pleasure making music with you back in the day. All the best.