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[337] Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

” I have always loved Naoko, and I still love her. But there is a decisive finality to what exists between Midori and me. It has an irresistible power that is bound to sweep me into the future. What I feel for Naoko is a tremendously quiet and gentle and transparent love, but what I feel for Midori is a wholly different emotion. ” [268]

I’m bowled over by the racy nature of Norwegian Wood, consider that it is a simple coming-of-age story set in 1969-70 in Japan. Although it’s a complete stylistic departure from Murakami’s usual mysterious and surreal novels, Norwegian Wood can’t help delving in the complicated human nature in which a young man’s failed romance leaves him in a metaphysical shamble. Despite the emotional and psychological tug-of-war that entails, the story itself is straight-forward: Toru Tatanabe, a 37-year-old businessman, hears a version of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, which transports him 18 years back to his college days—just after his best friend, Kizuki, committed suicide. Toru then became involved with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko.

Kizuki and I had a truly special relationship. We had been together from the time we were three . . . So after he died, I didn’t know how to relate to other people. I didn’t know what it means to love another person. [112]

While Naoko is in a convalescent home for disturbed people, Toru meets Midori, a fellow classmate who is more than interested in him. Midori, open-minded and sanguine, lightened up Toru’s days with their long walk around Tokyo. As he slowly falls for her, he feels that he has a kind of responsibility and cannot turn his head back on Naoko, he is in an emotional turmoil. He know she lovesMidori, but he would not admit to that conclusion. He realizes he cannot continue his relationship with Naoko, who wasn’t in love with him anyway, and whose sanity is fast deteriorating.

Where the road sloped upward beyond the trees, I sat and looked toward the building where Naoko lived . . . I focused on that point of light for a long, long time. It made me think of something like the final throb of a soul’s dying embers . . . I went on watching it the way Jay Gatsby watched that tiny light on the opposite shore night after night. [113]

Norwegian Wood explores loneliness and isolation that befall the young generation in the political upheavals of the late 1960s. The heart of the book is about how memory of love is retained and preserved after death. Naoko doesn’t want to fall in love with Toru, let alone being sexually intimate with him, because she wants to preserve the last of her intimate memory of Kizuki. She knows she will always remember Kizuki and wants that memory to be unsullied, untainted by relationship with another person. This really brings out the (principally) different perspectives between men and women on relationship. What women are after is more than just physical fidelity: emotional fidelity. Watanabe tries to remain faithful to Naoko, who is not in love with him despite the lustful desire. The portrayal of sex in the book is relatively unusual—but the novel itself is more obviously Japanese than most of Murakami’s work. From the surfeit of suicides (beside the significant ones a couple of peripheral figures and relatives are also suicides) to Japanese customs and expectations some of the book will strike Western readers as odd. Most of the book, however, comes across very well in this universal story of love, loss, and finding one’s place in the world.

293 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[317] The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

” Everything was intertwined, with the complexity of a three-dimensional puzzle—a puzzle in which truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth. ” [3.27.527]

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a puzzle. The many realities and “unrealities” that slip into the narrative demand some rumination of thoughts long after the last page is turned. The meandering novel, probably Murakami’s most ambitious to date, doesn’t seem to offer a clear-cut plot—more a labyrinth with national and historical details. But it does have a story trimmed to the bone: Toru Okada is recently unemployed by choice. His wife Kumiko urges him to consult Malta Kano, a woman with psychic power, for the whereabout of their cat, which has gone missing for over a week. The search for the cat brings Okada into close interaction with his teenage neighbor May and Malta’s sister, Creta, who became a prostitute and was defiled by Okada’s brother-in-law, a rising politician whom Okada deems as the incarnation of evil. Then suddenly, Okada’s wife leaves him for an unknown lover and disappears without a trace.

Down in the pitch blackness at the bottom of the well, though, far removed from reality, the memory came back to life with searing vividness. [2.11.267]

For one hallucinatory moment, I felt I was dreaming. But no, this was the continuation of reality. [2.4.211]

The novel takes a wild turn into the cyberspace, as Okada spends time sitting at the bottom of a well, pondering and searching for personal and universal truths. As he enters a state of consciousness that entails an alternative reality, his perception, and more surrealistically, his identity fuse with what he sees, hears, and feels. His life becomes a hodge-podge of strange things that happen to him. Bits of his life identify with a skein of people whom he meets: the aging lieutenant who witness man skinning during the Japanese campaign in Manchuria, the fashion-snob woman whose father has a scar-face, a psychic prostitute whose experience would mirror that of his wife.

No thinking. You are not allowed to think. You are not allowed to use your imagination. Imagining things here can be fatal. [3.35.584]

I couldn’t help but feel that reality resided for him not so much in the earthly world but in his subterranean labyrinth. [3.19.467]

The novel is a walk around Okada’s brain. The people and incidents he encounters during a disintegrating marriage provoke some dormant, undefinable anxiety that has been the run of his life. Meditation in the well initiates him into some alternative reality in which he is constantly on the edge of discovering why such alternative reality exists. In other words, imagination takes over and becomes his reality. Phantasmagoria of pain and memory come into full play. The return of the prodigal cat is just a minor event that is not suffice to make light of the consequential unease. At the end the truth about his wife just gives one a disturbing view of human nature. Despite it’s being somewhat overwritten, the book is worth the effort put into reading it.

607 pp. Vintage trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[314] After Dark – Haruki Murakami

” Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city’s moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding. ” [Ch. 1]

After Dark, which captures a series of events that link a few random people together, is pregnant with foreboding. Set in Tokyo, in a seedy downtown entertainment district, a girl at Denny’s is reading an unnamed book over coffee, at four minutes before midnight. Mari wants nothing more than to be left alone—she’s buying her time at the restaurant with coffee and a sandwich that she scarcely touches.

She reads with great concentration. Her eyes rarely move from the pages of her book . . . She reaches out at regular intervals and brings the coffee cup to her mouth, but she doesn’t appear to be enjoying the flavor. She drinks because she has a cup of coffee in front of her: that is her role as a customer. [Ch.1]

Against her expectation, Mari is disrupted by people who demand her help and company. To her table first comes an old acquaintance, Takahashi, a jazz trombonist who aspires to become a lawyer. Their conversation reveals that Eri, Mari’s older sister, is mired in a slumber that has been going on for over months. Mari grieves over that she has not been very close to Eri. At the same time, moments past midnight, the narrative, which adopts the quality of a camera vision, shifts to Eri, comatose in her bedroom, who is about to experience a different kind of reality. The story takes a turn to surrealism, yielding to metaphysics.

We let ourselves become a pure single point and pass through the TV screen separating the two worlds, moving from this side to the other. When we pass through the wall and leap the abyss, the world undergoes a great deformation . . . [Ch. 10]

The arrival of butch Kaoru, manager of a nearby love hotel, dissipates Mari’s wills and dislodges her from reading for good. Semi-fluent in Mandarin, she comes to help a Chinese prostitute who has been battered by a businessman-john. It’s obvious that Mari is not only the main character, she is the circle with which Murakami links together the people who would have never crossed path during the day. The novel hinges on this peculiar irony that Mari’s deciding to read at Denny’s has created a communal flow over wee hours. As these random events manifest, progress, and push to resolution, one cannot help feeling that when most activities shout down at night, lives that are separate by the day can lose uniqueness and become boundless. Interpersonal distance shortens. Loneliness amplifies when one is stripped of all responsibility, obligation, and agenda. The hypnotic novel captures this truth about loneliness and the unfanthomability at the heart of modern life.

244 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]