Sunday, July 04, 2010

[Books]Book Look: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Book Look: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami: I've read the bulk of Murakami's work by now, and I've enjoyed and admired it, but I really don't know why. He commits many transgressions against my list of "what I like in novels" yet I still find myself engrossed by his writing. Norwegian Wood is no exception.

The story is quite simple. A young college student, Watanabe, already given to detachment and remoteness, is further isolated when his best friend commits suicide. (The contemporary world would probably refer to him as clinically depressed and hand him some Prozac.) Months later he has a chance meeting with his late friend's girlfriend, who is quite troubled, and they get cautiously involved. After consummating their relationship, the girl disappears into a sort of sanatorium. They maintain fleeting but heartfelt contact. Meanwhile, he finds himself thrust into a relationship with another girl; a free spirit --slightly wacky, this one. One relationship ends tragically, the other continues happily. That's the core story.

The personal depth comes through Watanbe's evolution from post-adolescent indifference and disaffection to engaging with love, loneliness, and life. But it goes even deeper than that. Death, especially in the form of suicide (very Japanese), looms throughout. Death makes all things impermanent, especially for those that live only in eternally fading memory. Death impels urgency and bestows a cost on allowing months and years to pass in detachment. Mortality is the ultimate driver of all actions.

And that's why I like Murakami. He occasionally lapses into exposition, gets a bit too concerned with minutiae here and there, loses momentum at the very end, and is needlessly frank about the details of sex (that too may be Japanese -- or it's just me being a fuddy-duddy?), but he's always got his eyes on the bigger emotional and even spiritual picture. He's never over-sentimental, even in the most gut-wrenching scenes. A story about a non-descript college kid is actually a story about ultimate questions of impermanence.

Norwegian Wood was a monster best seller in Japan. It is one of the cultural markers that certain generation of Japanese all have in common. (An early translation of it was used in schools to teach English.) It is renowned for its portrayal of college life around 1970 and especially its countless references to Western literature and music. Apparently Western arts were cool in Japan back then, but this no doubt feeds its popularity too. But again, Murakami does something admirable: the social background is incidental -- what counts is the personal.

Should you read Norwegian Wood? Yes, probably. I can't imagine anyone not finding something to like and despite the dire undertone, there's plenty of good humor (especially in the character of Midori). I do want to reiterate my warning about frank sexual activity. It's not gratuitous -- in fact, it's fairly meaningful in the scope of the story -- but it can be a bit of a shock.

If you are thinking of reading Norwegian Wood or any other Murakami, I should point out that most of his novels tend towards imaginative fantasy and magic realism. Not here. This one is firmly rooted in plain old life. Choose your Murakami accordingly.