Book Reviews

After the Quake
Sputnik Sweetheart
Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Norwegian Wood
Hear the Wind Sing
Pinball 1973

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Norwegian Wood
Author Eygló Dada Karlsdóttir  
Date May 2004  
Media Downloadable PDF-File  
Link Download PDF-File
When I first heard about the book Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami a few years ago I wondered what a Japanese writer had to say about woods in Norway and I was intrigued. The book has in fact very little to do with Norway or Norwegian woods but more to do with a song by the Beatles which lends it™s name to the novel, NORWEGIAN WOOD (THIS BIRD HAS FLOWN).  
Murakami is one of Japan™s biggest writers today. 1 His first novel Hear the Wind Sing was published in Japan 1979 and since then he has published at least eleven novels, many of which have been translated into English and other languages. Besides that Murakami has also devoted himself to translating.

When Norwegian Wood came out in Japan in the year 1987 he became so wildly popular that he chose to leave the country and live in Europe and America for a few years. On his return to Japan he has engaged himself more in the life in Japan and published two works as a response on the Kobe earthquake and the poison-gas attacks in Tokyo underground, After the Quake which is a collection of short stories and Underground. Murakami is a popular author, not only in his home country but world wide. His novels and short stories are captivating, different and full of little surprises. His writing has sometimes been called magical realism 2 with its often dreamlike transformation of reality into a world which is unique or strange The novel I have chosen to write about contains less of the magical realism than some of his other stories.
Norwegian Wood is a love story, but it is no ordinary love story. It™s a story about a young man growing up. It™s a story about a troubled young girl. It™s a story about life and death. Toru Watanabe is a young man studying in Tokyo. On a train he meets Naoko, a girlfriend of a friend of his, Kizuki, who committed suicide two years back. They start to spend time together as they had done when Kizuki was still alive. Their relationship is somewhat complicated Œ Naoko celebrates her twentieth birthday with Toru drinking wine, eating and talking and at the end of the evening they have sex. After that she goes off to a mental health sanatorium in the mountains called Ami Hostel. Meanwhile Toru meets another girl, Midori, back in Tokyo who is full of life and energy and they start to spend time together.
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Author Peter Morrison  
Date September 2002  

This version of Murakami's Norwegian Wood finishes off with a couple of pages from the translator. These fill in some of the details surrounding this work. Murakami had written several books and achieved a certain level of success with his quirky ideas and fluid narratives. However with Norwegian Wood he suddenly found that he had a real hit on his hands and from there he has become one of the most popular Japanese writers in the world - a result which seems to have taken him by surprise. But would certainly explain why of all his novels Norwegian Wood is in fact the most readily available, this copy having been picked up in the local branch of a chain newsagent/stationery/bookshop thingmabub which of all Murakami's novels only had this one (as did another branch which I checked after finishing the book).
Since reading Dance Dance Dance I had been intending to read more Murakami, I had even decided which of his novels I was going to go for next. Then I read an extract of Norwegian Wood online and enjoyed it a lot, and knowing that I could get a copy easily during my lunch break I did. While some slagged off this book by comparison to his other novels this still is not an entirely straight forward work, for all that it is a story of teen romance. Watanabe is 37 years old when he hears a version of the Beatle's track Norwegian Wood after a long flight. Which takes him back to the period when he was 17-20, which covers the end of the 60's and the start of the 70's. When he was at school he only really had one friend, he used to hang out with him and his girlfriend all the time. However when they were 17 his friend killed himself, affecting both Watanabe and the girl, Naoko.

Watanabe moves to Tokyo to go to university, keen to leave the memories behind. But one day he bumps into Naoko, his dead friend's girlfriend, who has had the same idea. They start to spend time together, essentially not having made any friends in Tokyo. But just as it seems that things are going well between them Naoko has a breakdown and ends up in a private sanatorium, where she hopes to come to terms with her problems. The two keep in touch but in the mean time Watanabe meets Midori, a girl who shares a couple of his classes. In turn the two of them start to spend time together and the spark of life and enthusiasm that burns within Midori is something that Watanabe can't help but be attracted to. With the rest of the book Murakami charts the relationships between Watanabe and these two girls, Midori and Naoko both having their strengths, while undoubtedly contrasting each other in a clear fashion.
As I've already said Norwegian Wood is readily available, as such I had picked it up in the past. The description of a book set in the 60's and inspired by a Beatle's song didn't really capture my interest. While finding Dance Dance Dance on a display I found the description there did capture my interest. So I did find my way to Norwegian Wood anyway, and in the end one of the things I like about Murakami's work is that the time it is set and to be honest the time it was written are irrelevant to the reader to a large degree. The story is about the characters and Murakami's characters are strong, his skill with dialogue really bringing them alive and providing a spark to their interactions.

So the fact that Norwegian Wood is set in the 60's is mostly irrelevant. Though there are details in the commentary which flesh the book out that are clearly references to the time, and those do add to the bigger picture rather than distracting.
Curiously the character Midori feels that Watanabe reminds her of the lead from Catcher In The Rye, which she says at least once - with that the ending, for me at least, strikes of having a distinct Catcher vibe going on. In fact the whole way the ending is dealt with is a little curious, given that we start with the character looking back 20 years. Though on the whole Murakami brings the narrative to a clear point, where an ending for this kind of scope makes sense - the start of something new rather than the end of a person's story.
Author ?  
Date 2001  
Media Library Journal  

Murakami's seventh book in translation is a love story wrapped in a mystery packaged in a light-side/dark-side philosophical wrapper. While in college, the narrator falls in love with untidy novelist manqu Sumire, who wants only to be best friends. They talk and talk. Sumire later falls hard for Miu, an older, married woman for whom she begins working. Then, on a business/pleasure trip to Greece with Miu, Sumire disappears. From a plot standpoint, this disappearance, which occurs a third of the way through the book, is the first time that anything interesting happens. The narrator's fixation on Sumire is not all that fascinating, nor is its object. As for Murakami's vaunted writing, one gets more dead-hit metaphors per ream from "commercial" writers like Loren Estleman. The philosophical black/white/doppelganger stuff is not without interest, but not normally the stuff of the (American) mass market.
Author Daniel Handler  
Date September 27, 2000  
Media The Village Voice  
  I Love Murakami

With all due respect to Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Beverly Cleary, Muriel Spark, Günter Grass, J.D. Salinger, Stephen Dixon, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Gore Vidal, Gabriel García Márquez, Rachel Ingalls, Tom Drury, Thomas Pynchon, Eudora Welty, J.P. Donleavy, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, Naguib Mahfouz, David Foster Wallace, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Don DeLillo, some people my editor cut, Alice Munro, Dale Peck, José Saramago, Edmund White, E.L. Konigsburg, John Updike, W.G. Sebald, Russell Banks, Stephen Millhauser, Kazuo Ishiguro, Amy Bloom, Robert Cormier, Kenzaburo Oe, Francesca Lia Block, Rick Moody, Donald Antrim, Amos Oz, Paul Auster, Cynthia Ozick, Harry Crews, Denis Johnson, Gary Indiana, Howard Norman, Anne Tyler, Jonathan Lethem, J.G. Ballard, Dorothy Allison, Mary Gaitskill, and-of course-me, Haruki Murakami is our greatest living practitioner of fiction. The ways he has found to inhabit narrative are without precedent, and perhaps more importantly, without gimmick. The stories he tells are new but not particularly newfangled. He tweaks tradition and gives equal air time to both the tradition and the tweak. Murakami's best work is as deep and decorative as those Easter Island heads, but he doesn't make a big deal out of it. The novels aren't afraid to pull tricks usually banned from serious fiction: They are suspenseful, corny, spooky, and hilarious; they're airplane reading, but when you're through you spend the rest of the flight, the rest of the month, rethinking life. I really like his writing a whole lot.
After the bemused critical respect for the off-center promise of novels like Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was widely regarded in this country as an unusual blending of Eastern and Western cultures and one of the best novels of 1997. They got it wrong again. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about one hundred and thirty-eight times better than that, a contribution to the culture up there with Madame Bovary and Guernica and White Light/White Heat. If you haven't read it, you should do so right now. Go on; it's usually in bookstores. Call in sick if you have to. The rest of us will wait here. . . .
So now you know, you've read this cohesive and boundless consideration of the weight of the world, the evil of battle, and what happens when your spouse suddenly leaves you, and you've seen how this book-and while you're at it, why don't you read the other ones you can find-is the evolved accumulation of Murakami's talent. So you join Murakami cognoscenti in their frustration over the sporadic publication of his work in English. The Holy Grail's always been Norwegian Wood. Published in 1987 to enormous acclaim, it's since been inexplicably impossible to find in the States, even though it's the book that first catapulted Murakami to international attention.

Well, I hereby decree that anyone even remotely connected to Vintage International gets free cocktails for life, because the Grail's in stores now, and guess what? Worth the wait. It's actually fitting, in a ramshackle way, to receive this early novel in the wake of the author's later coups. For American readers the book is as much a novel as it is a glimpse of his other novels, since the threads Murakami takes up in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle first unravel here.
Not that the book doesn't stand alone. Norwegian Wood is probably Murakami's most accessible work, although the plot is both something we've heard a million times before and, well, something we haven't. Boy meets girl; girl goes away; boy can't decide whether to pine or move on. Or, to put it less abstractly, Watanabe meets Naoko when she begins dating his best friend in high school. The friend commits suicide suddenly, and the two shattered survivors of the trio are left alone together. One night it happens. In the morning, Naoko has a breakdown and retreats to a strange, communal sanitarium, finding solace with an older woman. Watanabe goes to college, where he is cheered by a skirt-chasing friend with an alluring, long-suffering girlfriend, only to meet Midori, a girl who brings with her sexual freedom, an ailing father, and an overall less melodramatic opportunity for romance.
Like your first big love, Norwegian Wood feels bigger than it is. The novel's '60s setting-leftist student protests are gurgling in the background-tempts one to place a political credo over our hero's maturation, but the book is less about a revolution than our temptation to find one in a novel set in the '60s. The story eludes the grasp of traditional meaning, which is really what makes it ring true: You cannot find a grand interpretative arc here, any more than you can in your own stumblings. In Norwegian Wood, Murakami warns us that falling into the arms of a longtime friend is not something you can clearly define as the awakening of a long-dormant passion or the vicarious revisit of lost innocence. An older woman is not necessarily a mother figure, any more than a man dying in the hospital is a fading God, or a new romance a cosmic refutation of a previous one. Despite their antimetaphoric value, however-or, perhaps, because of it-the orbitals of the novel make up a surprising and organic world. "Before you knew it," Watanabe says, "story A had turned into story B contained in A, and then came C from something in B."
OK, so that part's a little heavy-handed. Murakami's style is still developing in Norwegian Wood, and some of the risks he takes don't pay off for a couple of books or so. Murakami's penchant for Western pop culture references, for example, is in full force here, and it's not quite clear why a writer would merely list names-Mancini, Capote, Bogart, and Jim Morrison are among the name-drops-for any other purpose besides looking hip. The Beatles song is a similar shrug: Watanabe hears the Beatles tune as airplane Muzak, making him remember his promise to Naoko that he'd never forget her.

"Even so," he admits, "my memory has already grown increasingly distant, and I have already forgotten any number of things." By Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he's remembered them. In the meantime, Norwegian Wood is a story in flux, from a novelist whose voice was then just emerging. Reading it now is a delirium of cross-fades, a sensational sensation that's tough to pin down and impossible to forget.
Author Alison Kim  
Date 2000  
Media bookreporter  

Toru and Naoko's college romance might have been perfectly simple and predictable. They might have been confronted with the ordinary issues of becoming young adults in a large foreign city. They might have helped each other deal with the rites of passage into adulthood despite the unusual circumstances of being a student in 1968. They even might have faced up to these pressures and weathered through together.
This might have been the case, were it not for the suicide of Kizuki, Toru's best friend and Naoko's lover, a few years before. The reality is much more bleak than what might have been. The repercussions of Kizuki's death continue to spiral out and multiply, affecting both of them deeply, marking their university days with difficult questions about mortality, youth, and love.

Once close high school friends in a small town, Toru and Naoko stumble into each other on a crowded Tokyo train and quickly revive their friendship. They share a certain intimacy that neither has managed to recreate with any one of their new classmates or dorm mates who know nothing about the tragedy of their past. The renewal of their friendship, however, does not help them to move forward. While together trying to overcome the sadness of their adolescence, Toru and Naoko find their grasp on the present-day spinning out of control. Toru, the narrator, recounts how, on Naoko's birthday he felt "There was something strange about Naoko's becoming twenty. I felt as if the only thing that made sense, whether for Naoko or for me, was to keep going back and forth between eighteen and nineteen. After eighteen would come nineteen, and after nineteen, eighteen. Of course. But she turned twenty. And in the fall, I would do the same. Only the dead stay seventeen forever."

Despite his belief that they should remain rooted in the past, Toru falls in love with his dead best friend's beautiful and unpredictable girlfriend, waiting patiently for her to accept him as a lover in his own right. Naoko, in turn, is unable to love him; she has only a tenuous grasp on the present and values Toru most as a connection to the past. Only years later does Toru realize what Naoko had understood so much earlier, that they had no future together. He recounts how, "The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko herself knew, of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is precisely why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed."
NORWEGIAN WOOD is a simple story, simply told, with an emotion and quiet retrospection characteristic of Murakami's trademark style, especially in works like SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN. First published in Japan in 1987, it is this novel that propelled him into the forefront of the literary scene and made him Japan's biggest-selling novelist. His characters are unpredictable and quirky as they share poignant insights into growing up in the late '60s, losing loved ones and accepting undeserved tragedies of youth.
Author Steven Poole  
Date May 27, 2000  
Media The Guardian  

The men who narrate Haruki Murakami's novels repeatedly claim to be utterly ordinary. They live blameless lives, keep their heads down, indulge moderately in jazz and beer, hope things will stay the same. And yet something happens: the ordinary man is catapulted into deranged circumstances. He might be forced to hunt down an evil sheep that wants to take over the world, or to investigate his wife's spectral disappearance.
Norwegian Wood, first published in Japan 13 years ago but only now translated for a western audience, might therefore puzzle the reader who has grown to love Murakami's haunting, melancholy surrealism: its action is resolutely realistic. And yet the narrator, Toru Watanabe, is just as baffled by life. At one point he writes: "I have never lied to anyone, and I have taken care over the years not to hurt other people. And yet I find myself tossed into this labyrinth." There is no moral justice in Murakami's world; there is only the duty - both epistemological and moral - to try to understand.

This duty also informs his first non-fiction volume, Underground. Murakami became obsessed with the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, in which Aum cult members released Sarin nerve gas on five separate trains. The book consists largely of edited transcripts of interviews conducted with survivors or relatives of victims. "How on earth did this happen to us?" one woman asks. "That 'How on earth...?' ", Murakami comments, "stuck in my head like a big question mark." No wonder: it is also the cry of pain that fires the depths of his fiction.

Norwegian Wood is a love story. The Beatles song of the title, heard by the 37-year-old Toru Watanabe, is an aural Proustian madeleine that transports him back to his student days. Watanabe has started at university in Tokyo the year after his best friend, Kizuki, killed himself. Kizuki's girlfriend Naoko and Watanabe have grown romantically close since their friend's death, but their love is complicated by Naoko's depression. Naoko enrols at a sanatorium, and the lonely Watanabe meets another woman, the flirtatiously vulnerable Midori. Thus is his "labyrinth" woven: a choice between idealised love and eternally sworn loyalty or flesh-and-blood happiness in the present.
The first chapter dreamily foreshadows the entire novel. Watanabe and Naoko, in the saturated colours and hyperreal detail of burned-in memory, are walking in a field, and Naoko playfully relates the local legend of the field well. No one knows where it is, and there is no encircling wall. You could fall down it at any time, and you would never get out.

Finding oneself down a well, or otherwise underground, is an oddly charged possibility in Murakami. The well can furnish a kind of metaphysical holiday - the narrator of Murakami's masterpiece to date, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, seeks out a well bottom in order to "think about reality". Alternatively, as Naoko fears in Norwegian Wood, being down a well might mean suffering in despair, being swallowed up by madness, inexorably dying. The horror of the Tokyo subway shares this motif with Murakami's fiction: as one survivor tells him: "The fear of going underground in a metal box and something bad happening is overpowering."

Norwegian Wood, simply told on the surface, slowly reveals its own subterranean currents. Chatting to Midori's dying father in hospital, for example, Watanabe mentions that he prefers Sophocles to Euripides. The implication is that conflicts will not be solved by an interfering deus ex machina, but can only unravel in tragic violence. Subtle allusions to Thomas Mann and The Great Gatsby contribute further eddies.

Such is the exquisite, gossamer construction of Murakami's writing that everything he chooses to describe trembles with symbolic possibility: a shirt on a washing-line, a string of paper cut-outs, a butterfly hairslide. Three times in the novel Watanabe reaches out to clutch light: first a sparkling mote of dust, next a firefly disappearing into the night. The third time he is strolling in the sanatorium gardens and becomes transfixed by Naoko's lit window in the distance, "like the final pulse of a soul's dying embers". You cannot retain the fleeting after-image of a firefly - similarly, perhaps, you cannot keep such embers alight by force of will. Maybe this bird, as John Lennon sang, has flown.

For all its metaphysical gloom, however, Norwegian Wood also flutters with sympathetic comedy. What on first glance appear to be bathetic lapses into jovial innuendo or irrelevant cookery chat between characters make the point that people in real life do not react to alarming or tragic situations in consistent or appropriate ways. Underground 's testimonies reflect the same truth - some survivors are angry, some scared, others calm or even lighthearted.