Monday, January 11, 2010

9. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is the first novel I have read by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. It is the breakout novel that launched him to Superstar Author (from merely famous author) when it was first published in Japan in 1987. An English translation was published in 2000.

The straightforward realism of Norwegian Wood is uncharacteristic of Murakami, who, as I understand it, usually favors complex and unconventional stories with supernatural elements. Here we have what is primarily a coming of age story, and also a love story, that is so vivid and emotional it could easily be a memoir. I was told it is a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with his work, and after reading it I would have to agree. It may not be necessary to ease into Murakami with so much caution, as if his other writing would be too difficult and complex for the uninitiated reader, but this elegant and beautiful novel is certainly as good a place to start as any.

In it the narrator, Toru Watanabe, recalls his days as a young student in Tokyo. The primary focus is on his relationship with an emotionally troubled girl named Naoko. Both of their lives are affected by the tragic suicide of Kizuki, who was Watanabe's best friend and Naoko's boyfriend when they were all in high school together. The "it's complicated" relationship that emerges between Naoko and Watanabe plays out as both go on to college in Tokyo and try to come to terms with Kizuki's death and growing into their own adult lives. The specter of suicide haunts the novel, looming in the past and the future of it's characters.

Despite the foreign country, Japan, and foreign time period, the late '60s, I found it very easy to relate to the characters and events in this novel. Murakami is dealing with universal themes and he renders them so clearly that identifying with Watanabe is effortless for the reader. He is honest and thoughtful, very observant of the world around him and always trying to make sense of his place in it. He is very accepting of other people, and an eclectic cast of supporting characters are intorduced as the novel progresses. His roommate, nicknamed stormtrooper, is an awkward neat-freak who inspires many humorous anecdotes. He also befriends the charismatic but amoral alpha-male of the dormitory, Nagasawa, who bonds with Watanabe over their shared interest in The Great Gatsby and takes him out to meet girls. Midori, a flirtatious classmate, becomes the other woman in Watanabe's life while his strained relationship with Naoko plays out.

Another aspect of the novel that makes it easy to relate to is the presence of Western culture, especially American pop music and literature, referenced throughout. The title is a reference to the Beatles song, Naoko's favorite, that always reminds Watanabe of her. Watanabe has an affinity for American music, literature, and films. Other than the fact that everyone has a Japanese name and the food is a little different the story could be transplanted right down the street and take place last year.

I loved the descriptiveness and insightfullness of this novel without it ever seeming wasteful or unnecessary. Everything is communicated simply, directly, and with a purpose. I will be making a point to pick up more Murakami in the near future, probably Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

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