Murakami is one of most famous Japanese writers; just type Best Japanese Novels in Google, and you’ll get a long list of Murakami’s books stuffed around few other writers. He wrote in Japanese and translated so many English written books to Japanese since he has been affected by many foreign writers and that made him almost always accused of being too international and not Japanese enough. A thing that I used to struggle with when I first started reading his works; I wanted to know some Japanese manners, street names and culture, things other than the characters hard to pronounce names; I wanted geographical, historical, cultural themes of Japan other than the subways and the isolated life patterns, something more than foreign writers’ quotes, but I couldn’t find any of that. You see Murakami isn’t your type of tourist guide; he is not going to make you cry over the Hiroshima bomb or make you want to visit Japan, he won’t care to teach you few Japanese vocabularies or even clarify his culture to you; what he will do instead is; testing you, testing your morals and your understanding of life or anything at all. The characters in his novels, I found, are always looking for some life’s meaning, for love, a belief, they are lonely individuals who seem to be experiencing life differently.
My first time reading Murakami was with this novel. One of the very few realistic novels Murakami wrote. Norwegian Wood doesn’t offer the usual surrealism and fantasy themes that Murakami is known for. This is a simple 300 pages novel told from the first-person perspective of Toru Watanabe; who looks back to his old days, at times where he found himself torn between loving two women at the same time. The first one, Naoko, his dead friend Kazuki’s girlfriend, the friend who died out of suicide. Naoko’s a fragile girl whose emotional stability keeps on changing since she’s lost her boyfriend and found herself -immediately- attracted to Watanable. Things were fast; she couldn’t take it, she asks him for more time while she’s being looked after in a sanatorium. The other one is Midori, whom he meets during Naoko’s absence. She’s outgoing, fun, crazy, and probably the only character who’s not as miserable as the rest.
The characters of the novel are strong in differences and are endearing. The losses of the narrator, Watanble, are shown in his hesitant decisions; he would find himself for once attacked to Naoko and trying his best to take care of her, other times, he would be all over Midori’s happy world. The whole chapters differ in themes, like when Watanable is with Naoko, you could sense the empty space their mutual friend has left. Depressing themes of how death can be felt while you’re alive. The space that keeps on reminding you someone somewhere was\could have been\is here.
“No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.”
The complicated story of this two love affairs slowly develops; Murakami writes in such a depressing and dark way in here. Jokes only come from Midori and rarely they do. And as the story is told through looking into the past, we get to sense some sort of bittersweet nostalgia; the smell of the places, the details of the two women, the constant dark shadows of death the characters feel, and the endless walks they take around Tokyo, are all written in such a vague nostalgic way. While reading the novel I kept feeling that, sometimes, I am close to Watanble and that I understand him. Other times, I felt that I am just far away looking at things I could never realise; and what I am reading is a mere transient image of some person I knew.
Although, Norwegian Wood may be a rare style of Murakami -I mean, it’s realistic and not crazy or absurd or surreal-, he chooses not to leave it as it is without adding his personal touches; he decides to end it in the most absurd way, leaving the end open and somehow even crazy.
Watanble receives a letter from Reiko -Naoka best freind in the sanatorium-saying that Naoko has killed herself and chosen death over life; Watanble takes the news rather sadly and for some time he isolates himself from everyone and starts wandering around Tokyo, past images of Naoko would appear to him ones that are usually interrupted by the colorful living memories of Midori. After a while, Watanble chooses to give Reiko a visit and talk about their lives and through that, they find themselves falling into intimacy and then having sex together, which apparently made Watanable realise how important Midori is -like seriously-, so he calls her and weird things happen;
“I telephoned Midori “I have to talk with you,” I said. “I have a million things to talk to you about. All I want in this world is you. I want to see you and talk. I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning”.
Midori responded with a long, long silence. The silence of all the misty rain in the world falling on the new-mown lawns of the world. Forehead pressed against the glass, I shut my eyes and waited. At last Midori’s quiet voice broke the silence “where are you now?”
Gripping the receiver, I raised my heads and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place”
So yep. even though Murakami tried to write a realistic novel, he still chose to end it openly and kinda weirdly. I couldn’t get the ending. There’s just so many unclear things going on. Why the hell did Watanble have sex with Reiko? Why the hell did he call Midori after that? And where the hell is he? Was he actually dead this whole time? What is the place that was no place?
Nothing made sense.
I closed the book and felt sort of abandoned; like the book had cast some sort of gloom over me. One of my friends says that Murakami meant to say that through the intercourse of Watanble and Reiko, Watanble was able to see things clearly, and that through their intimacy they celebrated life; Reiko was able to see things and so is he. Naoka memory had lived through them. And, perhaps, the last question Watanble asks himself is a mere pondering over life and now he’s happy living with Midori. Now, that, for me, is a complete rubbish. The themes of the novel are depression, suicide, and memories, and thus, I cannot believe that Murakami would send such a cliche message. My version of Murakami, at least, wouldn’t do that.
I am not sure what exactly Murakami meant and I haven’t read half of Murakami’s books, but I have noticed a frequent theme that appears in lots of his books -so far- and that is soul travelling or reincarnation. What I think is; that the story is about how depression passes on people. When Naoko first gets the sickness, she tries hard to cope with life through Watanble, Watanble who tries to save her, but also finds himself lost between actually wanting to save her and enjoying his life -Midori-, so he fails, and she dies, and the sickness is passed to him afterward, and guess what? He, again, tries to deal with it through another person and again the depression repeats itself over and over. This is how I see it, a history repeating itself, a struggle between life and death. Watanble may have overcome his struggle and was able to survive it, and yet he may not. I never cared whether he does, to be honest.
The writing of the story is great, and as I have mentioned it’s different than anything Murakami did before. I am not really sure though if it’s the book that defines him; because it doesn’t. I once read that Murakami was a little upset that this novel is his most popular one and he said that he doesn’t like to be known as a realist writer, and although the story is well-written and engaging, but I must agree; it’s not his best work. The story tends to be lengthy, and Watanble character was kinda colourless. Lots, of people, complained about the novel being pornographic, but that’s just Murakami and it’s part of life, so relax or go pick a book that doesn’t challenge your morals and give you a complete look into the characters.
Norwegian Wood is great, it is not The Best Novel That Will Change Your Life Forever, but it’s worth the reading since it’s one of the most popular novels in Japan, and it will certainly show you a whole new side of Murakami; that’s because there are two kinds of Murakami; Murakami the realist, and Murakami the surrealist. the first one you’d fall for, the second, you’d wish you could kill, and there’s no better way to fully know Murakami than to see the both sides of him.