Haruki Murakami was someone I first heard of in my Japanese class, back in my first year at University; our Professor was surprised to find that Literature students like us had NOT heard of a contemporary modern writer like Murakami.
Norwegian Wood is the first of his works that I have read, but even when I picked it off the shelf I was expecting something beautiful, and it has not disappointed me. Much like the Beatles song that this novel borrows it’s name from, Norwegian Wood is fast, lyrical, and employs vivid imagery; and by that I mean stunningly vivid, even if it’s tragic in it’s context sometimes.
Norwegian Wood is set up as a love story, but unlike so many love stories – or perhaps exactly like so many of them – it feels like one that is so real and true it can break your heart several times in it’s poetic language and repeated references to other legendary love stories.
Toru Watanabe is in his first year at University when the book begins; an accident re-unites him with the former girlfriend of his former friend, Kizuki; another happy coincidence makes him cross paths with the vivacious, wild and carefree Midori. Over a period of two years, the book takes us through several heartbreaks, and portrays the life of a Japanese student towards the end of the 60’s – one painted with sadness, observant of hypocrisy and hollowness in the middle-class standards of behaviour, even the empty promises of student protests that were prevalent at the time. However, while I point out these events, I must also mention that they do not play any integral role in the plot.
Norwegian Wood is, by and large, mostly a novel about small, cheerful things tinged with sadness and memories of the past. While it may feature some social themes relating to the social perception of mental illness and revolutionary movements, it is inherently a deeply personal tale.
The titular song appears several times, as the favourite song of Naoko, Toru’s love interest. It’s part of what makes the experience so beautiful, and people who have listened to The Beatles will appreciate it all the more.
This is a novel that pays homage to loneliness and to joy and to sweet sadness and to nothingness and loss and the taste of fine wine and memories.
This is a novel that evokes the love all of us have had at some point; the love that plagued the heart deep within and aches still whenever we think about the person it was meant for.
This is a novel that intertwines love and sex and intimacy into one wondrous coil that means everything, and, at the same time, nothing at all.
Norwegian Wood pulls you in through it’s words and it’s letters, quite literally. It’s the imagery and the references and comparisons to other classic novels like The Great Gatsby that draw out the power of everyday moments that we take for granted. A light in a window may be ordinary in sight, but to a person starving for another’s love and happiness, it means everything in the world that is worth waiting for.
Every event means something in the long chain of events that unfold – the love our “ordinary” protagonist harbours for those he is drawn to; his loss and pain and loneliness that finds a similar chord in all our hearts; the suddenness and shock of loss that happens everyday, perhaps to us, perhaps to others.
Norwegian Wood knows there is no cure for loss or heartbreak, whether of a person or a cause we believed in. All we can do is carry it in our heart until it fades in intensity, and then remember what we went through and face the next one in the same way. As The Beatles said,
“And, when I awoke,
I was alone,
This bird had flown…”
Like The Great Gatsby, This book leaves you dissatisfied, because there isn’t a solution as there is in fairy tales. Our happy ending lies in the ambiguity of the ending.
The note at the end of this book says that Murakami was surprised when he found out that it brought him international acclaim; in my own opinion, I am happy it did. Norwegian Wood is a terribly beautiful homage to life, love, loss, The Beatles, food, sex, and random laughter and inappropriate jokes. Above all it’s a monument of WRITING. Purely lyrical, even in it’s translated form, Norwegian Wood is something I think I will read again.