Sunday, November 28, 2021

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


A couple of years ago, I had my first experience of Murakami when I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. That book is, shall we say, a bit weird. It combines Magical Realism with Japanese history, and, well, some really weird stuff. I don’t know entirely how else to describe it, but you can read my post about it at the link above.


Having essentially set my expectations about Murakami through that book, it was interesting to read Norwegian Wood, which is surprisingly normal. I mean, it is a thoughtful love story, a saga of trauma and mental illness, and it isn’t filled with magic, history, or any of the bizarre symbolism that Murakami is known for. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The book is filled with gorgeous writing, thoughtful nuance, and a great set of characters. The narrator, Toru, is particularly compelling, and his journey from high schooler through his college years to become a more mature adult is believable and interesting. 


I should warn the potential reader that this book has no fewer than four suicides, as well as a lot of fairly graphic sex, so if that isn’t okay for you, this might not be the book for you. 


There has been some speculation about whether Norwegian Wood is autobiographical to some degree. Murakami has denied this, claiming that if it were autobiographical, it would have been 17 pages long, because his youth was completely boring. He may be protesting a bit too much. There are some obvious similarities between the narrator and the author, and some narrative parallels between the romance of Toru and Midori and Murakami’s courtship of his wife. Since Murakami is notoriously private and reticent about his family, we may well never know exactly how much came from his own life. In any case, the writing clearly indicates that he has drawn from the emotional landscape of that time in his life: the characters are drawn with so much love and care that they seem true to life despite the cultural differences. 


The basic plot is this. Toru and Naoko grew up together, along with their friend Kizuki, who is Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend. Alas, all is not well with Kizuki, who unexpectedly kills himself at age 17. Toru and Naoko are haunted by this, yet united by their grief and trauma. In Naoko’s case, the trauma is compounded by the suicide of her old sister, who she believed was perfect. For a time, Naoko and Toru are companions, but eventually, Naoko has a mental break and ends up in an asylum. Toru is in love with her, but she is still bonded to Kizuki, and cannot truly return his love, even though she wants to. Toru hopes his love can save Naoko, but, unsurprisingly, he cannot. 


In the meantime, Toru meets Midori, a fellow student dealing with her own grief. Her mother has died of brain cancer, which is now slowly killing her father. Midori is a free spirit, an unreliable narrator of her own life, and in love with Toru. The problem is, Toru is still sweet on Naoko, and even as he falls in love with Midori, he worries about abandoning Naoko. Midori is also, quite frankly, aggressively sexual, even though she and Toru do not have sex with each other during the book. 


Other characters in the book are Reiko, a middle-aged divorcee who shares Naoko’s room at the asylum; and Nagasawa, a “playa” extraordinaire, who drags Toru on his stag hunts, and treats his long-suffering girlfriend like trash. Part of Toru’s maturing is his rejection of Nagasawa’s values, and his embrace of a less selfish and juvenile approach to women. 


The novel is haunted by a sense of grief, the lingering damage of trauma, and a melancholy that colors everything with a bit of grey. And perhaps the most touching scene is when Toru cares for Midori’s dying father in his hospital bed for several hours so she can get a much needed reprieve. As sad and heart-rending as the scene is, it marks a turning point in Toru’s maturation, when he is able in a sense to caretake someone the way he wishes he had for Kizuki and wishes he could for Naoko. It also marks the point when Midori realizes just how drawn she is to Toru. 


This translation was by Jay Rubin. Unlike in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, this book doesn’t have any unfortunate cuts (the publisher demanded them of Rubin, to fit the book in a certain size.) In general, I find Rubin’s translations to capture a certain cadence that I assume is in the original. The language is evocative and beautiful. Since my second kid is learning Japanese, I might have to have her compare the original with the translation someday. 


The novel opens with Toru looking back years later on a day in a mountain meadow near the asylum with Naoko, where she describes her vision of a hidden will in the meadow - the well that she fears, or even knows, will eventually suck her down. Wells are a metaphor that Murakami uses often. In this book, rather than a recurring motif, like in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it is introduced at the beginning, and essentially sits in the back of Toru’s consciousness, even if it is barely alluded to. The description is amazing. 


From that day forward, the image of a thing I had never laid eyes on became inseparably fused to the actual scene of the field that lay before me. I can go so far as to describe the well in minute detail. It lay precisely on the border where the meadow ended and the woods began - a dark opening in the earth a yard across, hidden by the meadow grass. Nothing marked its perimeter - no fence, no stone curb (at least not one that rose above ground level.) It was nothing but a hole, a mouth open wide. The stones of its collar had been weathered and turned a strange muddy white. They were cracked and had chunks missing, and a little green lizard slithered into an open seam. You could lean over the edge and peer down to see nothing. All I knew about the well was its frightening depth. It was deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world’s darknesses had been boiled down to their ultimate density. 


This is Murakami at his best, plumbing the depths of the darkness of the human psyche through metaphor and carefully chosen language. Another theme that runs through the book, but more explicitly is the idea of death as an integral part of life. 


Until that time, I had understood death as something entirely separate from and independent of life. The hand of death is bound to take us, I had felt, but until the day it reaches out for us, it leaves us alone. This seemed to me the simple, logical truth. Life is here, death is over there. I am here, not over there. 

The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. 


Unlike Toru, Naoko’s family has enough money to send her to a rather posh private high school. 


She was also in her second year and attending a refined girls’ high school run by one of the Christian missions. The school was so refined you were considered unrefined if you studied too much. 


As Toru and Naoko spend time walking the streets of Tokyo together, keeping each other company, he realizes that he is just not enough for her. 


My arm was not the one she needed, but the arm of someone else. My warmth was not what she needed, but the warmth of someone else. I felt almost guilty being me. 


Toru becomes friends with Nagasawa through their shared love for unfashionable Western literature: Balzac, Dante, Conrad, and Dickens. And Gatsby. Nagasawa explains with a line I have quoted before as part of my own philosophy of reading. 


“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs.” 


That is one reason I try to read broadly, not spending all my time in any one era. And also why I seek out books in translation. America is not the only place that matters, and English is not the only language that matters. 


Eventually, one night when Naoko is in a bad place emotionally, she asks Toru to sleep with her. They do, and it is both good and really, really bad. Naoko never entirely seems to be okay with what happened, even though she wanted it. We don’t find out the reason until far later in the book, but it is all tied up with her experiences with Kizuki, and her own emotional issues. One line particularly stood out in this achingly sad scene. 


Her cry was the saddest sound of orgasm I had ever heard. 


The book is set against the background of the student protests of the late 1960s, and it is clear that Murakami is no revolutionist, although he is hardly an establishmentarian either. He describes the protests in fairly unflattering language, particularly when he describes the signs and speeches, which seem flat. As he puts it, “The true enemy of this bunch was not State Power, but Lack of Imagination.” Yeah, pretty much. Later in the books, Toru elaborates further.


People screamed there’d be revolutionary changes - which always seemed to be just ahead, at the curve in the road. But the “changes” that came were just two-dimensional stage sets, background without substance or meaning.


Midori’s family lives above their small bookstore, in a neighborhood that has seen better days. 


The whole atmosphere of the place suggested that most of the people who used to live here had become fed up with the cars and the filthy air and the noise and high rents and moved to the suburbs, leaving only cheap apartments and company flats and hard-to-move shops and a few stubborn holdouts who clung to old family properties. 


I grew up in Los Angeles, and this sure evoked places I knew. I suspect every major city has these sorts of neighborhoods, not trendy enough to gentrify yet, and with the kind of grit and malaise that you can taste in the air. 


Midori’s family sounds like mine in one way: they feel the need to feed guests well. She is a bit cynical about it, but Toru loves it - when he shows up, she feeds him in style. 


“It’s no feast,” answered Midori without turning my way. “I was too busy to do any real shopping yesterday. I’m just slapping together a few things I had in the fridge. Really, don’t worry. Besides, it’s Kobayashi family tradition to treat guests well. I don’t know what it is, but we like to entertain. It’s inborn, a kind of sickness.” 


Midori is quite a character, often saying bizarre things, sometimes just to shock Toru, but sometimes, as part of her defense mechanism against her traumatic life. For example, she explains why the idea of dying in a fire doesn’t bother her that much. 


“No, I just wanted to see how you’d react,” Midori said. “But dying itself, I’m not afraid of. Really. Like here, I’d just be overcome with smoke and lose consciousness and die before I knew it. That doesn’t frighten me at all, compared with the way I saw my mother and a few relatives die. All my relatives die after suffering with some terrible illness. It’s in the blood, I guess. It’s always a long, long process, and at the end you almost can’t tell whether the person is alive or dead. All that’s left is pain and suffering.” 


It is easy to see why, and Toru understands once he spends that afternoon with Midori’s dying father, talking to him about his life. This passage was interesting - it rather reflects my own love of ironing as a pleasure and therapy. 


“I mostly do laundry on Sundays - wash the stuff in the morning, hang it out on the roof of my dorm, take it in before the sun goes down, do a good job of ironing it. I don’t mind ironing at all. There’s a special satisfaction in making wrinkled things smooth. And I’m pretty good at it too.” 


The slow evolution of Toru’s relationship with Midori is fascinating. One does wonder if it resembles Murakami’s own grand romance. I find it has some interesting parallels to my own relationship with Amanda. Midori has a perhaps exaggerated level of sexual aggression, but it is clear that for Toru, it is a breath of fresh air to have a woman who knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to just say it. She also doesn’t play the games like other women - and men - Toru knows. For most of the book, Midori has a boyfriend, but she finds him uptight and boring, and eventually breaks up with him when she realizes she loves Toru. I love the line she gives Toru when she finally admits here love. 


“But you, well, you’re special to me. When I’m with you I feel something is just right. I believe in you. I like you. I don’t want to let you go.” 


Toru is a bit slow on the uptake, and can’t figure out why she would break up with a guy who is, on paper, a better catch than he is. 


“Why?!” she screamed. “Are you crazy? You know the English subjunctive, you understand trigonometry, you can read Marx, and you don’t know the answer to something as simple as that? Why do you even have to ask? Why do you have to make a girl say something like this? I like you more than I like him, that’s all. I wish I had fallen in love with somebody a little more handsome, of course. But I didn’t. I fell in love with you!”


I’m pretty sure Amanda fell in love with someone a lot less handsome than her ideal, although since she wasn’t planning on falling in love at all, I suppose she wasn’t spending that much time fantasizing about “tall, dark, and handsome” but was fine with “short and funny looking.” 


That gives a bit of a feel for the book. It is fairly straight forward for a Murakami book, but it is a lovely story. Murakami himself was shocked and a bit disturbed when this book went on to become a huge bestseller. His previous books were successful, but within a certain literary sort of readership, while Norwegian Wood exploded into a universal book, the kind everyone was reading. One could argue whether his other books are better or not, but there is a certain charm and beauty about this book that clearly has resonated with millions of people not just in Japan, but around the world. 

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