‘Norwegian Wood’ by Haruki Murakami (Review)

It’s time for the second January in Japan readalong, and our choice is a novel I’ve read several times, but not since I started blogging.  It’s a great book and one which is very close to my heart – as you’ll find out…

*****
Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (translated by Jay Rubin) begins with thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe flying into Hamburg on business.  As the song Norwegian Wood comes on over the plane’s music system, he feels a pang of nostalgia and is transported back to his youth…

We follow him to 1969, where young Toru is a university student, sitting out the student protests and walking the streets of Tokyo every Sunday with Naoko, an old friend from his high school days.  After their relationship intensifies, she suffers a breakdown, running away to a sanatorium outside Kyoto.  Meanwhile, Toru’s friendship with the outgoing Midori threatens to become something more, leaving the confused student wondering which path he should take.  It’s a crossroads in his life, one where a false step will have serious consequences for the future.

*****
Let me be clear – it’s very hard for me to be totally objective about Norwegian Wood, one of my very first J-Lit encounters.  I initially read it a couple of years after coming back from Japan, and this coloured my interpretation of the book, with my first few reads focused on the nostalgia.  Toru’s adventures forced me to think back, both to my time in Japan (the names, the places, the food, the trains…) and to my own student days, which were fast receding into memory.

What surprised me this time was how differently I saw the book.  I’m different now, older, a little better read perhaps, and a lot more analytical (a good example is the mention of Toru’s copy of The Magic Mountain, a detail which has added significance since I read Mann’s work last year).  This time, Murakami’s book wasn’t the comforting, meandering story I remembered, and initially I wasn’t sure if it was still one for me…

As I got further into the book, what became apparent was a much more serious approach than I remembered.  This time, I was far more aware of the dark side of the novel and the examination of the issue of mental illness.  Right at the start, we come across a familiar topic:

“As we ambled along, Naoko spoke to me of wells.”
p.2 (Vintage, 2000)

Anyone who has read a few of Murakami’s works will have come across a well or two, and while this is a real one, it’s also Murakami’s favourite metaphor for the psyche.  Just as the people in Naoko’s village warn of the danger of falling into the abandoned well, so too do the characters in Norwegian Wood risk tumbling into the hole of depression.  Toru’s childhood friend Kizuki has already succumbed, and Naoko is tottering on the edge of the abyss.

However, I never really noticed before how close Toru himself is to plunging into depression – if he hasn’t already.  More than just the monotony of student life and Naoko’s absence, it’s a deeper, more troubling worry which is affecting his moods and behaviour:

“At 5.30 I closed my book, went outside and ate a light supper.  How many Sundays – how many hundreds of Sundays like this – lay ahead of me?  “Quiet peaceful and lonely,” I said aloud to myself.  On Sundays, I didn’t wind my spring.” (p.262)

Again, looking back on my student days, this is painfully close to home.

We see several examples of what one character describes as ‘the snap’, where a life can spiral out of control in an instant, even if the real causes have been present for some time.  Toru’s difficult relationships drag him towards this point, and he is forced to make a choice between Naoko and Midori, one which Jay Rubin, in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, describes as one between life and death.  However (as Rubin rightly points out) Toru’s final actions are more than a little confused, and the decision he eventually makes is not quite as clear cut as you might think…

*****
Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s big breakout book in Japan, a novel which disappointed many of his fans because of its apparent conformity, while also selling millions to people who had never wanted to try his work before.  It’s a slightly autobiographical work, Murakami’s attempt at the popular Japanese obsession of the I-Novel; Rubin (again) comments on obvious similarities with Murakami’s time at Waseda University and his first encounters with his eventual wife, Yoko.

It’s still recognisably a Murakami work though.  In addition to the obvious surface features (cats, wells, ears, jazz – you know the drill…), there are plenty of other links to Murakami’s fictional world.  The parallel lives of Naoko’s ‘hostel’ outside Kyoto and the events in Tokyo are reminiscent of the two worlds making up Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, while the themes of suicide and depression are very familiar to anyone who has read books (e.g. A Wild Sheep Chase) in The Trilogy (or Tetralogy) of the Rat.  Toru’s disappointment with the (hypocritical) student protesters is a further criticism of capitalism, with Toru as just another of Murakami’s silent protesters against the soulless progress of modern society.

Amidst the darkness though, there are plenty of lighter moments, and the writer’s dry humour manages to penetrate the tension:

“Hey, are we counter-revolutionaries?” Midori asked me when we were outside.  “Are we going to be strung upon telegraph poles if the revolution succeeds?”
“Let’s have lunch first, just in case.” (p.75)

While I focused more on the serious issues in this review, in the end, it’s a book which can’t help but win you over with its abundant charm and its echoes of youth.

The adult Toru’s decision to write down his memories came from the realisation that his memories of Naoko had faded and changed, and I’d have to say that I felt the same way.  I’m a different me, and this was a very different reading.  Today’s post is my attempt to nail down my impressions of the novel at this point in time, to analyse what it is that I get from Murakami and his book.  I’m sure next time will be different too – and there’ll definitely be a next time 🙂

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15 thoughts on “‘Norwegian Wood’ by Haruki Murakami (Review)

  1. Interesting contrast between the old Tony and the current Tony, as it were, reading this book. I haven't dared reread it very recently (certainly not in the past 8 years or so), so perhaps I will feel differently about it than I did during my student days. I like the way you still find it charming and full of youthful vigour, but also notice more the darker moments and recurring themes.

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  2. What struck me in this book, as I recall from reading it a year ago, is the terrible pain he suffers from the death of the girl. And I was surprsied to find the same sorrow, the same death of a young girl, the same lamentation with nothing-that-can-be-done in both Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. To me, Murkami must have suffered a similar loss to write of it in three different novels.

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  3. Marina Sofia – Yes, I thought a more personal review of this would be more interesting 😉 I've heard a lot that the new one is more similar to 'Norwegian Wood' than his usual style, so I'm very keen to see that one now…

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  4. This was my first Murakami, and I love it. It made me want to read more of him. I think it's a good introduction because, as you say, it's more conventional and yet it has his tone and preoccupations with the individual and his/her relationship to self, to others, to society. It's the tone, really, that gets me most. Anyhow, you've made me think it's well worth another read, though when I have no idea.

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  5. Great perspective, My first HM was Kafka on the shore, and I keep meaning to reread it having now immersed myself in Japanese literature. But also worried whether now I've read a lot more J-Lit, would it still charm

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  6. I agree, how this book, with its “echoes of youth,” can't help clutching onto the reader's sentimentality. I read it recently as an adult and even then couldn't break away from how personal it was to me.

    What impressed on me, most of all, was the music, which made the nostalgia even more pronounced.

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  7. Stu – To be honest, the biggest downside to my blogging is not being able to reread as much as I'd like. I'm hoping to rectify that this year – some of those ARCs are just going to have to wait a while…

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