Modern Classic Book Review: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

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A masterpiece of the transience of love and life.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (trans. Jay Rubin) (Vintage, RRP£7.99, 400pp)

It can be a fallacy to attempt to find a hidden, subconscious meaning in all works of art. Sometimes they are as they are: there is no hidden depth and the surface representation is all that is intended. Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is the sort of book which begs to be examined for subtle references, a subtext here and there. On the surface it is the 36 yr old Toru Watanabe remembering his student days and being in love with Naoko, the girlfriend of Kizuki, his best friend. When Kizuki dies both Watanabe and Naoko struggle to comprehend what they feel and how they relate to the world. Naoko suffers suicidal depression and Watanabe, despite loving her completely, diverts himself with various women while at a Tokyo university from 1968–71. There is plenty of drinking and lots of reasonably graphic sex, all revolving around the transition to adulthood. It is the sort of book which if you are a teenager when you read it, it will speak to you of your misunderstood selves; the pain and misery of unrequited love; and the looming darkness of the future. If you are in your late thirties, like the narrator, then it will remind you of the half-forgotten chances and ‘what-if’s of your own teenage years.

Even as a straight love story with no hidden subtext it has the attraction of being superbly written. The particular translation I have is by Jay Rubin and is the first authorially sanctioned translation into English. The linguistic differences between Japanese and English are, I would imagine, quite wide. But the construction of the story still shines through. Certain modes of description are recognisably Murakami’s, such as the introduction to the scene which Watanabe has promised to remember:

‘Eighteen years have gone by, and still I can bring back every detail of that day in the meadow. Washed clean of summer’s dust by days of gentle rain, the mountains wore a deep, brilliant green. The October breeze set white fronds of head-high grasses swaying. One long streak of cloud hung pasted across a dome of frozen blue. It almost hurt to look at that far-off sky. A puff of wind swept across the meadow and through her hair before it slipped into the woods to rustle branches and send back snatches of distant barking – a hazy sound that seemed to reach us from the doorway to another world. We heard no other sounds. We met no other people. We saw only two bright red birds leap startled from the centre of the meadow and dart into the woods. As we ambled along, Naoko spoke to me of wells.’ (p.2)

A beautifully evoked scene, placed in Murakami’s hands still retains an element of the unworldly. Murakami has made his name with strange and fantastical books where people can traverse the gap between the real and the imagined, between this world and the looking glass of Alice, easily and without panic. His novels owe more to dreams and hallucination than to any other form of experience. Norwegian Wood is the most autobiographical book he has written, despite his protestations that it is nothing of the sort. As such, many of the unworldly elements of the book owe much more to the descriptions than the events. The above passage places every described element as disconnected from the enactor within the scene. The audibly perceived world is shown as even more separate, coming out from a metaphorical door to ‘another world’. But the events of the novel are pretty straightforward, almost predictable. Like most bildungsromans, which this counts as, it is not the denouement which occupies us, but the manner by which we get there. This is the kind of engaging and brutally honest book which pulls you in from the start, and then keeps you reading for the entertainment of experiencing Watanabe’s life from the distance of just a page’s thickness.

However, there are many other elements to Norwegian Wood. There is the continual motif of letting things go, of release either by choice or through death. And that even death itself must eventually be gotten over: the dead released to death and the living released from the memory of the dead. It’s setting in Tokyo in 1968 is also significant. This is post-war Japan which has seemingly come to terms with defeat. But there is an undercurrent which suggests otherwise. The student protests of that year are beset by sporadic violence from ‘right-wing types’ as Watanabe puts it. Murakami himself makes his own political stance known through the narrative ordering; at the opening of Chapter 4 we have this:

‘During the summer holidays the university called in the riot police. They broke down the barricades and arrested the students inside.’ (p.61)

The effect is narrated before the cause, making the action by the authorities seem heavy handed, the reader temporarily unaware of any specific reason to call in heavily-armed police. The only indication of any wrong-doing by the students is the word ‘barricades’, a defensive structure. Murakami disagrees with the actions taken. Right-wing figures are mocked for their inflexible nature. Watanabe’s first room-mate is a stickler for participating in the national calisthenics, broadcast every morning at 6.30. He is incapable of changing his routine to accommodate Watanabe’s objections to being woken by his jumping up and down. This character is nick-named ‘Storm Trooper’, with obvious references, and is studying geography, again, with obvious references to both a boring, geological timeframe and also to military expansion. The dorm’s flag-raising ceremony is attended by only two figures, one a suspected ex-military man and the other a nationalist zealot known only as ‘Uniform’.

The emotional side of Norwegian Wood is the effort to let go of things. Kizuki’s death in the first chapter has repercussions which echo throughout the book, with both Watanabe and Naoko struggling to deal with it in their own ways. Murakami writes several scenes which directly show the moment of release and the difficulty of moving on. The most moving of these is the moment when Watanabe is given a firefly and he decides to let it go:

‘Still leaning against the handrail, I studied the firefly. Neither I nor it made a move for a very long time. The wind continued sweeping past the two of us while the numberless leaves of the zelkova tree rustled in the darkness.

I waited forever.


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.’ (p.59-60)

While many other writers would write a bildungsroman centred around responsibility, or making hard choices; Murakami takes the point at which death and loss are encountered and the inner, private moments of coming to terms with that passing as the point at which an adult is born. Learning to comprehend the loss of not just Kizuki but others along the way, Watanabe and those around him stumble into adulthood. There is no spectacular moment of spiritual attainment, there is just the steady and simple story of people trying to get on with their lives while carrying a huge emotional bundle within their chests. Their burden is not just that of loss but also that of guilt: Watanabe is the last to see Kizuki and knew nothing of the impending suicide. Likewise, Naoko knew nothing of why he would take his own life. Guilt, in this novel, lies just beneath the surface of emotions. Guilt of the nation for the war, guilt of surviving those who otherwise died. Guilt at continuing in life when the dead ‘stay 17 forever’. Guilt especially for Watanabe as he meets a girl called Midori and has to choose whether to have a future, or remain in the past.

Ultimately Watanabe continues to carry the memory of all that has happened, never able to let it rest completly. We meet him as he enters the memory of that day in the field and he maybe never exits. The opening sequence set in the contemporary world of 1986 is not directly referred to again. He does mention snippets of his life after university but these would total no more than a page or two. When the book ends the reader is not taken back to the 36 yr old Watanabe, arriving by plane into Hamburg: Watanabe remains lost, still dreaming of the girl in his memory, walking through the same field, talking about wells.

There is a film of Norwegian Wood, out now in Japan. I hope it retains some of the sense of loss and the chaos of love and grief that makes this book so brilliant.

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