Novel: Norwegian Wood

Author: Haruki Murakami, 1987
Genre: Literary Fiction, Coming Out of Age
Format: Paperback, 293 pages

I am not sure where to begin. I guess I can start by saying that adore Murakami’s short fiction. I absolutely loved his After the Quake collection, and it is probably one of the most treasured books on my bookshelf. However, his longer works make me feel a bit torn. I love them, but sometimes I struggle to feel that love right away. The setting of Norwegian Wood is appealing to me: it is 1960’s, and most students join protests to end old traditions. Toru, the main protagonist, is also interesting in the way he detaches himself from others and sort of floats through time with the current. There is also a love triangle, involving two women that are so different in nature, but equally attractive to Toru. This is a story of fleeting youth, complicated love, and unbearable loneliness, so what is there not to love?

SOME SERIOUS SPOILERS AHEAD

There are several very strong recurring themes in the book; one of them being the theme of suicide. Instead of trying to get in the head of the character who is about to end their life, Murakami focuses on what is left after the deed is done. He is portraying the lives of people who have to cope with loosing somebody they love, and I find it so much more sad. Naoko and Toru are both affected by the sudden death of their high school friend and Naoko’s first boyfriend Kizuki. Unable to understand the reasons behind Kizuki’s actions, Naoko starts to relive her childhood memories of finding her sister dead, hanging from a rope. Tortured by these memories, and feeling incomplete without her long-time boyfriend, Naoko becomes emotionally fragile. The following passage, where Naoko and Toru are discussing a rumored hidden well, might be an interesting illustration of her attitude towards death in the context of the book’s events:

“No, it’s a terrible way to die,” said Naoko, brushing a cluster of grass seed from her jacket. “The best thing would be to break your neck, but you’d probably just break your leg and then you couldn’t do a thing. You’d yell at the top of your lungs, but nobody’d hear you, and you couldn’t expect anybody to find you, and you’d have centipedes and spiders crawling all over you, and the bones of the ones who died before are scattered all around you, and it’s dark and soggy, and way overhead there’s this tiny, tiny circle of light like a winter moon. You’d die there in this place, little by little, all by yourself.” (p.6)

It seems that Naoko is not afraid of death per se, but is rather troubled by the idea of death in solitude. The well may represent the depression  that Kizuki and Naoko’s sister might have felt during their lifetime. On the inside they might have screamed on top of their lungs for help, but others were unable to hear them, and they died within all alone, and the suicide was not triggered by any particular events. Naoko eventually succumbs to the same depression, unable to find help in the mental institutions and feeling guilty for not being able to give Toru the happiness of a normal relationship. The saddest part for me was probably when she actually encouraged Toru to see other women, because she knew she couldn’t be a normal girlfriend.

There are several other characters that contemplate ending their lives (Ryoko), or even slashing their wrists after years of emotional abuse from a man (Hatsumi), that lead up to Naoko’s suicide. I can actually talk forever about Hatsumi, nevermind that she is only a very minor character. You know, no matter how I dislike Hatsumi’s selfish and womanizing boyfriend Nagasawa, I must admit that there is something poetical to their relationship. Nagasawa obviously cares for her, but it seems that concepts of real commitment and the impact of his charismatic personality on others do not mean much to him. Hatsumi, on the other hand, is very much in love, but is being too weak to save herself from the suffering. After Nagasawa leaves for Germany, she still cannot find a way to live for herself, and ends up committing suicide. I know many women, who remind me of Hatsumi this way, so maybe that is why these characters really struck a chord inside me.

Another really important theme here is sexuality, which at first might be a little too prominent throughout the book. In the beginning I felt confused, trying to figure out why Murakami decided to include so much sex here. Eventually, however, I figured out his intent, at least I like to think that way. I think when we see Toru and Nagasawa picking up random women at bars for casual intercourse, we see a cry of desperation, a need for being close to somebody even if it’s just temporary. Interestingly though, the next morning Toru always feels empty, each girl looking exactly the same as the one before her, and he ends up breaking away from Nagasawa and his views on casual sex. On the other hand, we have Naoko, who has always had difficulties with sexuality, experiencing physical pain every time Kizuki attempted to touch her. Everything changes the first time she and Toru fall in love, but this change drives Naoko away. She views their sexual relationship as something meaningful, and she is unwilling to try it again until she can cure herself and have a healthy relationship with Toru. These two contrasting attitudes towards sexuality really define characters and their actions. Overall, I think Murakami have successfully dealt with the issue in a very delicate manner, instead of turning his work into pornography.

Of course I have to mention Murakami’s comment on the events going on at this particular period of time. We see his personal views through Toru’s eyes. Apathetic to the revolution other students are calling for, Toru becomes a distant observer, and we know right away that he finds the situation to be a phony spectacle.The lively and curious Midori shares his attitude:

These guys are a bunch of phonies. All they’ve got on their minds is impressing the new girls with the big words they’re so proud of and sticking their hands up their skirts. And when they are seniors, they cut their hair short and go trooping to work for Mitsubishi or IBM or Fuji Bank. They marry pretty wives who’ve never read Marx and have kids they give fancy new names to that are enough to make you puke. Smash what educational-industrial complex? Don’t make me laugh! And the new members were just as bad. They didn’t understand a thing either, but they made believe they did and they were laughing at me, ‘Don’t be silly! So what if you don’t understand? Just agree with everything they say.’ (p.178)

I can just imagine Midori’s fury as she says this. When the strike is over, the students who used to scream of a big change suddenly act as if nothing happened. They still go to school and quit reading Marx, and it makes Toru angry. I can truly relate to this feelings, because people like that make me angry too: celebrities who declare they’d rather go naked than wear fur, but show up wearing real leather jackets and shoes as if they grow on trees; fake charity organizations that cover their money hunger with starving children. Sometimes I think that people just like to follow the crowd no matter what, and that is what Murakami was trying to express through Norwegian Wood.

https://dl-web.dropbox.com/get/02%20-%20Norwegian%20Wood%20%28This%20Bird%20Has%20Flown%29.mp3?w=a41fd11c

Rating: 4/5 – I was actually going to give it a lower score, but writing this post and thinking about the complexity with which the main themes were executed made me like the book even more.
Source: available through Vintage [ISBN-13: 978-0375704024]

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