Friday, 8 April 2011

This Bird Has Flown - Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life."Toru Watanabe.
"This song makes me feel as if I was
lost in a deep forest"

Norwegian Wood is a tale of nostalgic love and loss told from the viewpoint of Toru Watanabe, reminiscing of his days as a drama student in Tokyo after he hears an instrumental version of the Beatles song, ‘Norwegian Wood’ on an airplane. Watanabe gets stuck in a love triangle between Naoko, a beautiful but delicate girl who dated his best friend Kizuki (who committed suicide when they were 17) and an outgoing and bubbly, yet slightly needy classmate named Midori.

Norwegian Wood is a book that is completely outside of my comfort zone of reading. I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it, as it’s not something I would ever have picked and read had it not been suggested by the book club. Why would I want to read about some suicidal kids in Tokyo, a maniacal nutcase of a girl and an apathetic narrator who doesn’t know what he wants? It turns out it’s exactly the sort of thing I want to read. The language used was quite, quite beautiful in places – Murakami’s prose is engaging, incredibly well written and somewhat dream-like in delivery. 

Whilst it isn’t the happiest of reads, I did struggle to feel sad when certain events kicked off. This isn’t saying the book was short of emotion – the pull of the characters such as the mysterious Kizuki; Naoko’s mental health, Watanabe’s lack of drive, Nagasawa’s complete bastardry and Midori’s wacky kookiness all gave the book strong emotional depth.

In some cases, it made me laugh more than anything, which might seem a bit wrong considering the subjects touched upon, but I got a lot more joy from the book than I did sadness, but that’s I suppose due perhaps to my focus drawing out the parts that gave the book and the narrator hope and hope is something I think the author, Haruki Murakami, wanted the reader to have once they’d finished. Hope that Watanabe would actually manage to get and grip and shift him from this malaise and take action with someone who in all intensive purposes might be crazy, but is for the most part, crazy for him.

I actually found the lead character not that interesting; sure, at times I felt for him, but he felt a bit blank at times and reminded me of the character Peter from Office Space, but with even less motivation. This isn't to say Watanabe was an empty husk – he was just a conflicted personality, divided between two women, who he both loved dearly. He says some quite wonderful, if off-the-wall comments about Midori’s beauty, one of my favourites being when she asks him how much does he love her and he replies with:

"enough to melt all the tigers in the world to butter." It's made even more hilarious in that she replies with "Far out."

 Despite it's wackiness, to me, it seems far more romantic, than just saying “yeah, you’ve got it going on.

Midori’s character on the other hand was like someone slopping day-glo paint over the book and shouting giant pink words into my ear. She is the epitome of manic pixie dream girl – completely crackers. One minute she’ll be shunning you for 2 weeks for not saying hello to her, the next she’ll be dragging you see some x-rated filth and practically trying to hump your leg off.

Nagasawa (Watanabe’s friend) was another standout; despite being a rampant, sex-crazed, immature hedonist (luckily for Watanabe he never meets Midori) and a complete git, I really enjoyed the character. He acts and is treated like a king in the dorm after eating 3 slugs (don’t ask, read the book) and spends most of his time picking up girls and having his end away every night, whilst slamming everyone else in the college, claiming them to be ‘idiots’. He was also deeply critical of new literature, stating:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking." He sums this up with the line:

I don't want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short." – The last 4 words being particularly poignant in some sections.

SPOILER ALERT: The ending is somewhat of a cliff hanger and to me, is a non-ending, one of those ‘make up your own mind’ finales that I often consider a cop-out, as I’d rather the writer knew how to end the book, rather than leaving me to wonder what could have been – seems quite sloppy; but there’s the argument that what you are left with and from my point of view, is a great deal of hope with the rather ambiguous finish.


Murakami's Norwegian Wood was, finally, a book club choice that I totally enjoyed.

For the longest time, my personal reading choices would either have a dragon or a spaceship on the cover. Preferably a spaceship. I knew that there was a wider range of books available in "general fiction", but the moment I stepped over the genre line, away from SF/Fantasy, and read one of the books I had heard raved about, I would be sorely disappointed and head back to my chosen genre ghetto.

The reason for this is that most literary fiction is a genre in itself; that's why magical realism stands out. It's not like the rest of the award winning "fiction" sections, instead being a sort of cut-down fantasy book where deux ex machina can affect the protagonists without the author looking like a fool, or the book having a whopping great big dragon on the front.

Murakami's work isn't magical realism, and nor is it literary fiction (Norwegian Wood seems to be one of his only novels where the supernatural doesn't make an appearance). But it is accepted by the literary establishment, presumably because the slick, well-written text powers you along through the story mercilessly. If Murakami chose to write airport thrillers we'd be at risk of deforestation within years.

The story of Norwegian Wood is about the love-life of a student in late '60s Tokyo, touching on themes of suicide and alienation. Therefore, it's kind of a puzzle to me that this book is now a film, on national release. Of course, thanks to the atemporality of the internet, by the time you read this the film might be available in the 99p section of the local supermarket. I don't see how the book's exploration of the main characters feelings can be translated at all into a visual language, but at least we can now buy Norwegian Wood t-shirts.



"I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me." (Lennon/ McCartney)

This lyric from the Beatles song, pretty much, sums up Toru's struggle in this book.
From the beginning I found his and Naoko's relationship an unsettling one; tied together through the death of Kizuki, ( Toru's best friend and Naoko's boyfriend) it feels as if they cling to one another because they are each other's only link to the past. Toru blindly seems to think, as the book goes on, that he can make Naoko better despite how damaged she is. Perhaps this is why her hold on him is so intense.

And then in walks Midori. Weird but delightful I fell in love with her strange one-liners and logic straight away. Though she has a ton of her own problems to deal with there is, at times, a  wonderful lightness to her. The song she writes for Toru titled 'I Have Nothing'  (which he states is a 'musical mess')  is a great example:

I'd love to cook a stew for you,
But I have no pot.
I'd love to knit a scarf for you,
But I have no wool.
I'd love to write a poem for you,
But I have no pen.

"How did you like my song?" she asked.
I answered cautiously, "It was unique and original and very expressive of your personality."
"Thanks," she said. "The theme is that I have nothing."
"Yeah, I kind of thought so."

I found her kooky and charming and though I liked Toru, I liked him much more when he was around her and had to learn how to respond to her strangeness. He actually brightens up a little.

Murakami's love of hardboiled American literature and its culture is present in the text, most notably F. Scott Fitzgerald ( and not just because of the references to Gatsby); Toru talks differently, according to Midori: "Like Humphrey Bogart. Cool. Tough."

Toru adores The Great Gatsby as Murakami writes: "There wasn't a boring page in the whole book. I wanted to tell people what a wonderful novel it was." This is an experience I shared when I first read Gatsby at seventeen and went on to devour everything by Fitzgerald; it was social commentary yet personal and utterly poetic, and this is also how I feel after reading Norwegian Wood.

Guest Blog

Dawn Blake

This book was a fortuitous choice. I picked it up just as randomly as I choose many of my reading material.  I flick half way through a book and can really get captured by a random paragraph, I'll buy the book. I think sometimes the first chapter can be the hardest to read, especially if it doesn't have exploding zombie heads or loved up, sexually frustrated vampires, the first chapter can be quite a bore.

If you're looking for a fast paced action fest book, then this is something you should miss. What Murakami can do is suck you in emotionally with his lyrical, but bittersweet style. There's a melancholy to the whole story; a nostalgic feel that some people can relate while others yearn for something they could connect to their past.

Norwegian Wood is a love story, but it is no ordinary love story. It's a tale about a young Japanese man growing up while dealing with deep grieving issues. It is hypnotic.

Murakami's style can be suspenseful, silly, spooky and hilarious. If this is what you would call a 'holiday read' you'll be surprised that when you're through, you spend the rest of the holiday, the rest of the month, rethinking life and thinking back to things you may have done differently.

This book could bore people to tears, but with me, through its sometimes simple but other times grieving issues, it struck a chord with me and its musical note (from Murakami's style) will be something I'll always remember and keep with me.

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