Haruki Murakami is a much loved Japanese writer who was shocked and depressed when his novel Norwegian Wood gained international success and resulted in millions of copies of his books being sold. For many other writers this would be a celebratory beginning of life as an international famous author, but Murakami is different and mysterious. Perhaps his own mysterious nature is what draws me to his books.
Norwegian Wood is the story about a young man Toru Watanabe who is torn between two loves and can’t decide which woman is the right one for him. Naoko is a girl from his past and Midori presents herself into his life as a college student. I have read many other books by Murakami and this book, by far, was the one I found boring and mediocre. I am glad I read other works of Murakami before this one otherwise I would have had a very poor first impression.
The story takes place in two locations – the busy city of Tokyo, and the slow paced life at the mountains. The writing style is poetic and thought provoking. You’ll know all the mundane and private details of the characters’ lives, you’ll know what they eat every day, when they sleep, their routines and your reading will assist them in getting these things done – which is probably one of the reasons reading NW felt like taking an unsatisfying nap.
The theme which I found abundantly in NW is how young people cope with death, and how such violent events – especially when the deceased is a best-friend – permeate the life of the person for the years to come. Death, suicide and mental illness are at the heart of the story. All the major characters have faced some form of these three. I’d like to read the book again just so I can understand these aspects better. The other theme is probably sex and sexual relations. Most Murakami books have a sexual slant and a lot of sex scenes – something that doesn’t really add to the story, but does add to the character’s psychological inclination. In Norwegian Wood the male characters had a bit of an ego when it came to the act that leads to procreation and it annoyed me. It almost felt like a awkward teenager was portraying a colorful picture of his own private life just to appear appealing. The problem is that to a certain extent I felt that female characters were sidelined and were not ‘solid’ characters because all three major female characters’ central story line was associated with sex in some way or the other. I honestly got put off because of this. I am not saying sexual elements are not part of character development. I just felt like it was emphasized too much and didn’t make sense. In general I feel like Watanabe is a prick because of the choices he makes. I also believe that sexual content is not necessary in books and if it adds to the plot then it should be minimal. I agree with what Toni Morrison said regarding this – “Sex is difficult to write about because it’s just not sexy enough. The only way to write about it is not to write much. Let the reader bring his own sexuality into the text.” [The Interview was done by Paris Review – http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1888/the-art-of-fiction-no-134-toni-morrison]
So yes, the protagonist Watanabe infuriated me by the time the book finished. We don’t really know much of what he thinks and his thoughts are neatly disguised, his moods and his actions are most of what reveal him to the reader. Through most of the book I was on red alert for him to truly, properly express himself. If I’d met him in real life I wouldn’t have talked to him for long. Midori, you’re crazy and he doesn’t have a funny way of talking.
Two of the major female characters Midori and Reiko, on the other hand, talked a lot. They had a lot of different views about a lot of things in the world and sometimes it felt like the ‘story’ had been abandoned and their opinions took the floor. I know Murakami’s stories are supposed to be a bit fantastical and unrealistic, but I just don’t think it’s a good idea to make almost all characters talk in a philosophical manner. That’s just my opinion, even though I enjoy reading these conversations.
Something else that annoyed me was how Watanabe did what he pleased, sometimes for no good reason, and [at the end of the story] left the woman who loves him waiting for his call while he’s off with another woman who is trying to persuade him that he needs to move on and be with the girl who is waiting for him. This whole thing really didn’t make sense because they end up sleeping together. The other insensitive thing that bugged me was all the bad decisions he keeps making. I don’t know if it’s the death and depression the character is coping with or the fact that some people just don’t know how to deal with other people. I think the book is sad, depressing and interesting all at once.
There’s not much that can be said without spoiling the story. I was not completely happy with the book. I think it’s great to read but pretty much like Murakami himself I’m confused about its fame.
What I do love about Murakami’s book is the side of Japan that they have exposed – the informal, relaxed and ‘liberal’ side. I think for the longest time in my life I pictured the Japanese as being uptight and very formal. I accepted the stereotypes without questioning them, and even now when I find the stories a bit ‘Westernized’ I’m wondering if I’m stereotyping again?
Murakami’s works show you that even if we have a different culture, we all deal with life the same way.
Have you read the book? What did you think of it?