Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin
Vintage Books (Random House), 2000 (orig. 1987)
tradepaper, 296 pages.
Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.
A poignant story of one college student’s romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.–publisher’s comments.
Norwegian Wood is considered to be the more accessible of Haruki Murakami’s work. People refer to it as his “straight” novel. Turns out, nothing Murakami does is “straight,” thus the quotation marks are not merely for quoting another.
The story begins with a first person narrator remembering when he was 37 years old, on an airplane to Germany and an orchestra-cover of “Norwegian Wood” comes on the overhead as they are taxiing. The Beatles’ song takes him back to a meadow in 1969, when he would soon be 20. He remembers the meadow in incredible detail but the young woman he was with at the time would take longer to visualize. This is a problem for him because he promised to never forget her. And he doesn’t, it’s just that he doesn’t quite remember her, and even in the pages that follow, there are moments where Naoko remains elusive in more than a few senses of the word.
That particular memory of the meadow has served as a “symbolic scene […] it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. “Wake up,” it says. “I’m still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I’m still here” (5). At first I thought “I” meant Toru Watanabe (our unnamed for pages narrator), but it may be the “I” is Naoko. The older Toru decides to respond to the particularly hard kick at the airport by writing “this book. To think. To understand.” And perhaps to fulfill that promise of remembrance.
That is the frame, one would assume. And with the older narrator surfacing at rare moments, with outcomes, brief notes on what had happened since. But what he doesn’t do is close the novel with any summarizing thought or understanding. Whatever comes to light or was necessary for the older Toru must rise out of the exploration in memory and story and be enough for himself and the Reader. And was it?
Whatever it is that is troubling Naoko is not stated in clear medical terms. Her mystery is ours as we are to continue in the first person with Toru who has become tied to her through the life and death of a mutual friend, and cemented on the night of Naoko’s 20th birthday; a night that brings the lyrics to “Norwegian Wood” to mind unstrangely enough*.
There is a lot of death in this novel, most of it suicide, many depictions of mental illnesses, and a lot of frank talk about sex and sexuality. (If you are uncomfortable with uninhibited sexual interaction or talk, Norwegian Wood is not Victorian about things.)
Toru appears drawn to and to attract unusual and complicated people of the tormented sort. Naoko would write in a letter about a person’s deformities that everyone has them and that their idiosyncrasies are way of accustoming themselves to said deformities (87). It is more painful for some than others. So, while the “unusual and complicated” should mean everyone, Murakami implements his gift for drawing strange and compelling characters and selects a handful to enter a quiet Toru’s little world. Toru who is unaffected, concerned only with living a genuine life and often struggles with loneliness, the most earnest yet nonchalant person.
The book reads most like an accounting of Toru’s life. He’ll walk us through his day, which may or may not intersect any one of a small number of people who have impacted his life back then. Yet, even when we depart to spend time with Nagasawa or Midori, the two do not exist separately from the effects of Naoko. Naoko, whom we know going into the recounting had never loved Toru. It has strongly marked Toru and Naoko’s and they are hardly alone. Time and again within Norwegian Wood we see relationships of varying fashion in which one does not return the other’s affections to the same degree (if any). And for all the effort for transparency and speaking openly on a number of taboo matters, there are still the unsaid: the lies for self protection, the confusion that memory and emotion brings. These mark their relationship and those without as well.
It is of interest to see a level of meanness and forcefulness to the friends Toru makes since coming to Tokyo. Naoko is too fragile to be implicated, Kizuki always too young and too beloved. No one else is exempt. Nagasawa can be a horribly insensitive human, and Midori flat-out annoying in her determination to be the most sexually and gender liberated of young women who still struggle with the desire for fidelity and a male’s appreciation of her cute haircut. She can also be long-winded. Importantly, neither Nagasawa or Midori or Reiko want to live a life drug down by the past or propriety. They want to live in their bodies, in the present, but with a future in mind somewhere, and this becomes especially necessary to a young man who feels like his life was taken when Kizuki took his own (25).
One can make the leap to social commentary from there. In cultures where so much is shushed, repressed, unaided, the contemplation that death resides with us as we live becomes all too relevant. It is not just the ghosts, but how they became ghosts that kicks the living into waking. And there is social commentary, by the way.
Did I like Norwegian Wood? I admit to counting pages upon occasion. I started to notice the chapters had a tendency to run the length of a sequence with a character. So when Midori would get going, I found myself skimming, would stop, and start again. She was fine for me at the beginning of her but became too much by the time she begged Toru to take her to an S&M flick because she likes p*rn. Her sulking for a space was the nail in the coffin. It was hard to share Toru’s patience with Naoko, which is very likely a personal flaw of mine. I adored Toru more and more and I appreciated the building and disintegration of his story with Naoko. I even like that ending—as much as I was cursing Murakami with Sean (whose read a few others of his work). Good writing can carry me through the dullest, most tedious work and I think Murakami would be fully capable of doing so. That said, it wasn’t always dull or tedious, just thick with portent housed in a character who has a lot of drama no matter how much he wished it opposite. There are so many tragic aspects to the read I feel nothing but a deepening sigh, sharing Reiko’s sentiment about never wanting to be younger again. I love Reiko. Many would go to melancholy as a descriptor. It is an excellent coming-of-age that I think not only males will identify with, as Murakami has a way with strong female characters, even his most delicate in Naoko. Murakami is an author of works everyone should attempt reading just once, and I think the accessibility of Norwegian Wood is in the likelihood that any reader should find something(s) within it that resonates within them.
recommendation and of note: young adult upward. familiarity with the 60’s not just here but abroad is good; familiarity with the understanding of cultural revolutions is of significant aid. A reader of Literature tend to geek on the references and their implications. Pair this reading with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for instance. and do read the “Translator’s Note”–after.