Many of Haruki Murakami’s readers were disappointed by Norwegian Wood when it was first published in 1987, believing it to be a ‘betrayal’ of what his work stood for. In a departure from his usual form, Murakami seemed to be embracing Japanese mainstream autobiographical fiction and a conventional love theme, his narrative uncharacteristically simple and realistic. As a newcomer to Murakami, I can, of course, only judge Norwegian Wood on its own merits- and far from being just a simple love story, I would describe it as a lyrical and evocative example of modern Japanese literature.
When 37 year old Toru Watanabe hears the opening bars of an orchestral version of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ during a flight, he instantly feels pain. The favourite song of Naoko, his first love, transports him back to a time during his adolescence when love and grief were painful yet necessary rites of passage. Though Toru ‘often tried to write’ about his experiences, he ‘couldn’t produce a line’. It is only with the passing of time and the fading of memories that the novel’s main character is able to truly reflect upon and start to understand his experiences as a young man.
The rest of the novel takes the reader on an interesting linear journey into Toru’s past. Set against the backdrop of late 1960s Tokyo, Norwegian Wood tells the story of a young student who is seemingly torn between the emotional ties of the past and the possibilities of the future, as embodied by two women- fragile Naoko, the girlfriend of his dead best friend Kizuki, and vivacious Midori, who he meets at uni. While one woman is mentally unstable and sexually reticent, the other represents modern woman- sexually free and unconventional. Whether Murakami was intending to make a political point about the social and historical evolution of Japan through these two characters is unclear, but the Japan of his novel is certainly one that is undergoing a period of turbulence and transformation.
Haunted by the suicides of both Kizuki and, it later emerges, her older sister, Naoko is unable to survive in the world of student uprisings and casual sex that the Japan of the Sixties has become, entering a mental ‘retreat’ in an attempt to remedy her problems. Just as Kizuki died at 17, Naoko seems to undergo a metaphorical death which prevents her from maturing into adulthood- failing to progress, and actually becoming increasingly rooted in the past. Although Toru tries to support her through this with regular letters and visits to the retreat, Naoko eventually takes her own life, hanging herself in the surrounding woods- the place where she last walked with Toru. Finally, the bird has flown (those Beatles fans among you should understand that reference!), leaving Toru free to continue his journey into adulthood.
While Naoko’s death is the catalyst for a bleak period in Toru’s life, you can’t help but feel a sense of relief that he has finally been released from a romantic purgatory to pursue a future with the unconventional Midori, whose love for him is obvious from the very beginning. In contrast to the dark and dismal presence of beautiful but troubled Naoko, Midori, whose name means ‘green’, brings colour to the story with her lively exuberance and overt sexuality. From the moment she was introduced to the story, I couldn’t help but hope that Naoko would somehow ‘disappear’ to make way for a blossoming relationship between Toru and Midori!
In typical literary fashion, however, Murakami doesn’t provide a clear-cut ending; there is no certainty of a ‘happy ever after’ following the death of Naoko. Ringing Midori from a phone box in the final paragraph of the novel, Toru is left confused and bewildered when she asks ‘Where are you now?’ Unsure of where he is, the novel ends with Toru calling out for Midori ‘from the dead centre of this place that was no place’. Like Naoko, it seems that the grief he has suffered through the suicides of two of the people closest to him threatens to engulf him. While we know that Toru reaches adulthood, Murakami never clarifies whether he embraces the future through a relationship with Midori, or remains stuck in the past, metaphorically walking in the snowy woods where he spent his last moments with Naoko.
This is part of the book’s ultimate appeal, however. Philosophical in its exploration of grief and the way that the past affects us, Norwegian Wood raises ideas that adolescents and adults alike can relate to, provoking questions about the nature of love and life. Intensely readable and emotionally engaging, it never disappointed me. In fact, quite the opposite; I loved it! Though I am aware that most of his work is very different to this, reading Norwegian Wood has definitely instilled a desire within me to read more of Murakami’s books. I’m just not sure when I’m going to find the time…