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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]