Having finally got all of my posts on 2021 out of the way, I’m now free to start a new year of reviewing, and as most of you will be aware, round these parts that means only one thing – #JanuaryInJapan! Yes, as has been the case for many years now, I’ll be focusing on Japanese literature for a month or so, and I’m looking forward to this annual opportunity to indulge my love of J-Lit immensely. I’ve got a lot of books lined up (too many, if I’m honest), and I think you’ll all be interested in my selections, even if they’re probably slanted more towards older, even classic, works.
To kick the month off, though, I’m looking at a book I’ve read several times before, albeit in pre-blogging times, so it’s a perfect opportunity to rectify what looks like a surprising oversight in my catalogue of reviews. It’s a book you will almost certainly have heard of, by a writer you can’t possible be unaware of, and as well as being a work that launched a thousand memes, it’s actually a very, very good read 🙂
Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (translated by Jay Rubin) begins with the epitome of the everyman, Toru Okada, making pasta and listening to Rossini in his suburban Tokyo home. While waiting for his spaghetti to get to just the right texture, he’s interrupted by a telephone call, in which a seductive female voice urges him to give her ten minutes of his time. He soon hangs up, but this odd intrusion into a very ordinary day is merely the start of a string of unusual occurrences.
You see, Toru’s wife, Kumiko, is upset about the disappearance of their cat, and this seemingly simple concern soon spirals into something rather strange. Kumiko arranges for a psychic, Malta Kano, and her beautiful sister, Creta, to get involved, and from the start the unusually-named Malta has a clear message for Toru:
“Mr. Okada,” she said, “I believe that you are entering a new phase of your life in which many different things will occur. The disappearance of your cat is only the beginning.”
“Different things,” I said. “Good things or bad things?”
She tilted her head in thought. “Good things and bad things. Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.”
p.44 (Vintage, 2003)
However, the sisters are far from the only new acquaintances he makes on his search for the cat. There’s his precocious sixteen-year-old neighbour, May Kasahara, and Lieutenant Mamiya, an elderly man with stories of Japanese atrocities during the continental war in the 1930s and 1940s. A more familiar, if unwelcome face, is his nasty brother-in-law, prospective politician Noboru Wataya, but Toru is forced to meet him several times when Kumiko also goes missing. Steeling himself to the task of tracking down his wife, Toru decides that he’ll do anything to get her back – little does he realise what kind of adventures he’ll have along the way…
When people speak of Murakami as a potential Nobel Prize in Literature recipient, this is the book they have in mind, a mesmerising epic that enthralled readers and won over critics. In many ways, this is peak Murakami, an expansive work containing all his ideas and tropes and managing to put them together in a way later books can only echo, usually unsuccessfully. The novel uses its surreal plot to cleverly examine both the soul-crushing nature of modern life and a dark side of Japan’s recent history, showing how individuals and society alike have dark secrets that need to be brought into the light to be properly addressed.
Of course, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is peak Murakami in another way, too, as this is undoubtedly the book that spawned the ubiquitous Murakami Bingo meme. Yes, there are cats and wells, a precocious girl/woman and shapely ears, dream sex and attention paid to breasts, Cutty Sark scotch and classical music. However, none of it seems forced here, every element playing its role if you’re patient enough, and even if the book, with multiple stories, diary entries and newspaper reports, can seem unwieldy at times, the writer slowly brings everything together to finish with a bang.
Completing our Murakami bingo square is the book’s traditional antihero. Toru is the star of the show, married, yet strangely alone, and often seen by himself at home, with his wife only making fleeting appearances before disappearing. The writer emphasises his ordinary, everyman nature from the start:
I might say I have a real talent for the execution of practical duties. I’m a quick learner, efficient. I never complain, and I’m realistic. (p.9)
The book is all about what happens when Mr. Practical is faced with the impossible, the unreal. During the lengthy search for his wife (and the cat…), Toru is forced to re-examine himself and the life he’s been living while confronting enemies who could annihilate him with a single phone call, or a click of a finger. Does he have the strength to go through the trials he faces?
Many of these trials, though, aren’t quite as you might understand them, often involving patience, waiting and then facing his inner demons. Most of the pivotal events of the book take place in a kind of dream world, with Toru slipping into another dimension, accessing his psyche, in an attempt to uncover what’s hidden deep within. It’s this inner self, both his own and his wife’s, that he needs to access if he’s to save his marriage.
Many reviews of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle praise the historical side of the novel. Several stories from the war in China before and during World War Two underpin the plot, and Toru’s discovery of these tales can be seen as a veiled critique of his country’s refusal to reflect on its behaviour during the thirties and forties. Despite his laidback style, Murakami manages to hit a nerve in his inimitable fashion. There are a number of powerful scenes included in his look at the war, including a particularly memorable one that I wouldn’t want to be trying around dinner time…
The main connection between Toru’s experiences and these historical events is Lieutenant Mamiya, the elderly man who appears to deliver a legacy to Toru and then reveals his own story. It involves (naturally…) a well, but it proves to be the key to unlocking the mystery of Kumiko’s disappearance:
But something begins to appear there. In the midst of my momentary blindness, something is trying to take shape. Some thing. Some thing that possesses life. Like the shadow in a solar eclipse, it begins to emerge, black in the light. But I can can never quite make out its form. It is trying to come to me, trying to confer upon me something very much like heavenly grace. I wait for it trembling. But then, either because it has changed its mind or because there is not enough time, it never comes to me. The moment before it takes full shape, it dissolves and melts once again into the light. (p.208)
Several characters experience this sense of there being something inside, a presence they’re usually unaware of, and when it reveals itself, it can destroy the life they’d been living up to that point. Toru eventually manages to find his own well, his own door to this other place, and it proves to be a dangerous experience, even if it’s all (literally) in his head.
Another integral part of Murakami’s worlds is sex, with plenty on offer in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (which may dismay some readers), yet there’s always a sense that the physical act only scratches the surface of true intimacy. Kumiko admits that there’s always been a part of her that is inaccessible to Toru, and in a similar manner, in Creta Kano’s stories of her time as a prostitute, she outlines her ability to separate her ‘true’ self from her physical form in the real world. Then there’s the concept of sex of the mind, in dreams, and in Murakami’s world, this psycho-sex can be every bit as real (and often more so) than the ‘normal’ kind.
However, where in later books (1Q84, for example) the sex can be laughable and gratuitous, here it’s never awkward or off-putting, but an integral part of the story. In fact, it evolves cleanly into the concept of prostituting oneself, both physically and mentally. There’s Creta Kano’s tale, of course, but the theme goes far beyond this, exploring how any situation where you sacrifice something, even the 9-to-5 grind, involves a similar betrayal of oneself. Toru himself has tried to avoid this, but over the course of his adventures, he unwittingly finds himself having to compromise his lifestyle, eventually ending up in a very similar situation to Creta.
Of course, this theme of the tedium of the modern working life is one of the more common Murakami tropes, and Toru isn’t the first of the writer’s protagonists (or alter-egos) to take time out to find themself. Here, though, it’s done in a more nuanced manner than in earlier works (such as A Wild Sheep Chase, for example) as he discovers how anonymous you can be simply by taking a step back and allowing society to flow by. There are also doubts. As much as he might hate him, Toru can’t help but acknowledge that Noburo Wataya isn’t completely off the mark with his dismissive criticisms of Toru’s wasted life, and there’s always the sense that our hero’s period of mental wanderings will end with a return to ‘real’ life.
Overall, there’s a nice steady flow to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, with the story meandering at times, but never enough to distract the reader from the main thread. Murakami sets up Toru’s predicament and then sets him off on his journey, one he has to go through in order to be able to continue with his life. Although the book is divided into three parts, it’s really a book of two halves: in the first, May Kasahara and the Kano sisters help him set out on his journey, while the second sees the memorable mother-son combination of Cinnamon and Nutmeg enable Toru to work towards his goal. These are the many guides along the dark path Toru is forced to take, one he’d rather avoid if possible. Sadly, it’s not…
Running to over six-hundred pages in English, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may be an epic work, but it’s actually shorter than the Japanese version (there are rumours that a translator’s cut will see the light of day at some point). While it’s not my absolute favourite Murakami book, from a literary perspective it’s hands down his finest moment. It’s an absorbing tale of how we sleepwalk through our lives, and how much effort it takes to wake up from that sleep and make a change – but also of how there’s something ever so wrong with the society we live in, something we rarely consider (today, I suspect we’re all that little bit more aware of the dark side of capitalist living…). I’m not convinced that Murakami will ever get the call from Sweden, but if he does, this is the book that will make it happen, so I’d strongly recommend that you give it a try, just in case 🙂