• Friday, April 30th, 2021

Haruki Murakami, one of Japan’s most famous and acclaimed contemporary writers, was born in Kyoto in 1949 but grew up in the Osaka – Kobe area, an only child whose father was a Buddhist priest’s son and his mother, an Osaka’s merchant daughter. Both his parents taught Japanese literature.

Murakami spent his young years reading an array of European and American literary works, which later influenced his writing. He majored in theatre arts at Tokyo’s Waseda University in 1975.

He loved classical and jazz music to the extent that, while still at university, he worked at a record shop before opening his own coffee/jazz bar, “Peter Cat”, with his university girlfriend, Yoko, who later became his wife. He ran the bar from 1974 to 1981 and sold it when he started earning a living from writing.

Haruki Murakami translates books from English to Japanese. He is also a novelist, writing non-fiction, short stories and essays. Several of his novels have been made into films. Norwegian Wood, Murakami’s fifth novel, was published in Japanese in 1987 and English twice: by Birnbaum in 1989 and Rubin in 2000. Moreover, it was released as a film at the end of 2010.

While his fame was increasing, Murakami left Japan, discontented by Japanese social mentality in the late 1980s. He first moved to Europe, where he lived for a few years before going on to the USA in 1991. He taught at Princeton University from 1991 to 1993, followed by Tufts University from 1993 to 1995.

Because of the Kobe earthquake and the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo underground by a Japanese religious sect, Murakami felt the need to return to his native country in 1995. He now lives in Oiso, in the Kanagawa prefecture, and has an office in Tokyo.

Murakami’s books have been translated into several languages and are bestsellers worldwide. He has received many awards for his work in addition to The World Fantasy Award, The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, The Franz Kafka Prize, Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award, Yomiuri Prize and The Jerusalem Prize.

The story of Norwegian Wood is narrated in the first person by the thirty-seven-year-old Toru Watanabe. Watanabe’s plane had just landed at Hamburg airport, Germany, when “Soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood”, Naoko, Toru’s first love, liked this song, which is often mentioned in the story. The melody triggered old buried memories of eighteen years earlier when Toru was a nineteen-year-old student in Tokyo and loved Naoko.

Toru, now an adult, is reminiscing on his college years in the sixties and his relationship with his high school friend, Kizuki, and his attractive and emotionally unstable girlfriend, Naoko. However, the seventeen-year-old Kizuki unexpectedly commits suicide and Naoko, who feels helpless, lost and depressed after her premature boyfriend’s death, turns to Toru for help.

Naoko likes Toru, who, in return, loves her. Nevertheless, due to the enduring impact of Kizuki’s suicide, things do not go the right way between them. Naoko shows signs of schizophrenia, abandons her studies and is admitted to a sanatorium. Her stay there becomes long and her leaving unforeseeable.

While Naoko is in the sanatorium, Toru meets his extroverted, lively classmate, Midori Kobayashi. She is the complete opposite character from the introverted, dispirited Naoko. Furthermore, Toru falls in love with Midori but suppresses it because of his commitment to Naoko. Naoko ends up taking her own life to end her sufferings, like her boyfriend, Kizuki and her older sister, who both committed suicide at seventeen. Toru is devastated after hearing the news.

Murakami’s Norwegian Wood was inspired by the eponymous Beatles song released in 1965:
“I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me?
She showed me her room.
Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay.
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn’t a chair
And when I awoke, I was alone
This bird had flown…”
(The Beatles, 1965)

Another song, also released in 1965 by the Who, could have influenced Murakami, who was a teenager at the time:
“People try to put us d-down (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old”.
(The Who, 1965)

These songs convey the pain of living, the feeling of loss, angst, and painful existential feeling, struggle for recognition and yearning for independence from established adults’ rules and regulations perceived by adolescents coming of age.

The author also writes about the Japanese students’ street demonstrations in revolt against long-established traditions in Japan in the late sixties. The demonstrations were likely inspired by the enormous French student protests of May 1968, which reverberated among students worldwide.

The subject of the novel is a worthy issue on its own. Combining it with the need to experiment with sexual desires when coming of age is not uncommon to broaden the subject perspective. However, adding multiple recurrent sexual scenes lessens the main subject’s importance and weakens it.

Norwegian Wood is an absorbing, dark story. Fortunately, the end brings a glimpse of hope, a ray of sunshine as an incitement for a promising new start leaving the past behind. The characters are touching in their sufferings. Their “mal de vivre” convey an overwhelmingly depressing atmosphere of isolation leading to oppressive loneliness. They are undoubtedly intended by the author, whose books are often fatalistic, melancholy or even surreal and nightmarish, as illustrated in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, which we discussed in our Book Club in 2011.

In one of his interviews, Murakami says that he likes to write weird stories despite being a very realistic person. Maybe it is a sort of escapism from reality, being a “loner” as he typifies himself. Referring to his young readers, he says he hopes that his books “can offer them a sense of freedom – freedom from the real world.”

Murakami mentions that even though Norwegian Wood’s story takes place in the late sixties when he was a university student, it is not an autobiography. He says: “I borrowed the details of the protagonist’s university environment and daily life from those of my own student days. As a result, many people think it is an autobiographical novel, but in fact it is not autobiographical at all”.

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Category: Book Reviews
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