Wednesday, 2 December 2015

On "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami (1987)

This may not be a long review, since I can't pretend to have any knowledge about Japanese literature at all - Shusako Endo, Haruki Murakami, and Kazuo Ishiguro are all names I have neglected in my general focus on European, American and Russian literature. I am more familiar with the works of Chinua Achebe alone than I am with the entirety of Japanese and Chinese literature put together. Recently I set out to rectify this shocking oversight, and almost at random purchased a copy of Haruki Murakami's 1987 classic Norwegian Wood from an airport bookshop (appropriately I began reading it on the way back from Hamburg Airport; the novel's opening sees the narrator arriving there).

Norwegian Wood's primary interest, however, is not with the 1980s, but the "Summer of Love"-type atmosphere of 1967-9. It is during this period that Murakami's narrator, Toru Watanabe, goes through numerous relationships and experiences in the hip setting of a Tokyo university in the late sixties. On initial release, the book saw a rapturous reception among Japanese youth, selling some 2 million copies, and catapulted the 38-year-old Murakami into stardom, much to his discomfort. In his notes, translator Jay Rubin says that it "is still the one Murakami book that "everyone" in Japan has read". This is a comparable seismic shift - in terms of one book capturing a generation - to Goethe's much-praised Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), the revised edition of which first appeared exactly 200 years before Norwegian Wood and gripped love-struck young men all across Europe. Clearly, something about both rite-of-passage stories struck a chord with many.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Murakami struck a sequence of chords, or that he gently loosened up a troublesome, tightly wound instrument so that he might give forth scintillating expression. The musical analogy is highly apt; Murakami's oeuvre is noted for its particular emphasis on music, with Rossini, Schumann and Mozart all lending him the titles of various works. This focus continues, most obviously, with this novel, christened as a nod to the Beatles' introspective 1965 song - a song which is a favourite of one of Watanabe's closest friends and lovers, Naoko, and is played on several occasions throughout the novel. But it is not just the overt nods to music that are worthy of comment - but also the musicality of Murakami's style.

I can think of no other novel save F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby which has the same yearning, rhythmic lyrical quality - again, appropriately, since Gatsby is specifically referenced here as one of Watanabe's favourite books, and it is no secret that Murakami drew more of his influences from Western literature than from previous Japanese authors (making this, in a way, a strange introduction to Japanese literature; but no matter). But this lightness of touch - a kind of ephemeral prose, fleeting, brief, studious and unfussy, the sentences flowing very naturally even in Rubin's English translation - marks the book out as a fascinating reading experience. In part it is the storyline's focus on nostalgia, love and loss, but one develops an overwhelming sense of mournful mutability suffusing the style here; sentences slip through the reader's fingers, readable once but somehow - after that first time - gone or lost.

Such an obsession with what is past again makes the book an excellent fit with Gatsby. The song's title becomes a strange phrase of almost totemic power in Watanabe's memory and associations, giving the whole reading experience - realistic novel though this is - a kind of dream-like atmosphere. Watanabe wanders through Tokyo by night, alone, or sits up high in the Japanese mountains watching the moon, wondering what on earth he is doing. Like so many authors, Murakami has focused in on alienation and loneliness; Watanabe feels there is no place for him in the hip young Tokyo of the late sixties. Student politics and the '68 movement are found to be laughably lacking. Instead, Watanabe feels the horrifying tug of his mortality, especially in the wake of his friend Kizuki's death, as though he can somehow sense the strands of DNA, infinitesimally small and incomprehensibly slowly, unraveling within him towards that end point. Death is a part of life that surrounds us in every aspect, "that knot of air inside me", he realizes, "and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust", the dust of which we are made and to which we return. Stories about disaffected and brilliant young men are common, perhaps; but Watanabe is not especially brilliant. He is thoughtful, but ordinary, and even considers himself ordinary. Perhaps that is what we like about him, and indeed what enchants us about this novel. Watanabe is never especially dramatic, and Murakami is not an especially dramatic novelist. Incidents happen, of course, and the novel is hard to put down, but as the tricks of maestros go, it is gentle hypnotism rather than constant action which wins us over.

The process of writing the novel itself becomes an act of remembering, of desperately rushing to get the frustratingly watery words all down and in the right order before they slip through the sieve. ''What if I've forgotten the most important thing?'' Watanabe asks himself in the present day. ''What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?'' He also compares his recollections of 1969 to a swamp, like moving through something misty, out-of-focus, difficult to wade through. This recurs in possibly the novel's most exceptional passage - a simple yet hauntingly beautiful description of Watanabe and a firefly, as the former watches the glimmering light trail of the burning insect vanish into the dark, and recounts: "long after the firefly had disappeared, the trail of its light remained inside me, its pale, faint glow hovering on and on in the thick darkness behind my eyelids like a lost soul. More than once I tried stretching my hand out in the dark. My fingers touched nothing. The faint glow remained, just beyond my grasp." Macbeth and Gatsby all in one, this is an almost instantly iconic sequence: on this rooftop as in so many locales, as in so many years of his life, Watanabe - like all of us - hankers after something he cannot quite identify and fails to quite reach a place he does not know.

It is not hard to see why this book was so popular with Japanese youth. Flowering with sexuality and intense physical experiences, soaked with a vivid awareness of mortality and the need to conquer it, suffused with a warm compassion for the abyss that many of these sensitive souls feel within themselves - Murakami gently but poignantly recaptures many of those moments and offers them up to us as a devastating mirror of ourselves. Like another classic of German literature - Frühlings Erwachen (Spring Awakening) - there is a young man who kills himself because of his confusion at his place in the world, and in the end that is what Norwegian Wood most reminds us of. Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing? The book's ending offers no conclusion, but sees its characters poised on another abyss, with no closure as to where they go next. "Where was I now?", wonders Watanabe to himself when asked this question. "I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I called out...from the dead centre of this place that was no place." You could do a lot worse than let Murakami take you there.

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