So, I’ve popped my Haruki Murakami cherry, having heard from a number of different sources about this writer and his cult following and magical prose.
Norwegian Wood is a story, set in Japan, of a teenage boy, Toru Watanabe, in love with a girl, Naoko, who we learn is schizophrenic and with whom he shares a tragic bond.
I struggled with the flat descriptions initially, the prose was parsimonious throughout and it took some time before I ‘got it’. An example of the kind of description he uses:
“The living room had a sofa, a table, and a rocking chair. Another table stood in the kitchen. Both tables had ashtrays on them. The bedroom had two beds, two desks and closet. A small night table stood between the beds with a reading lamp on top and a paperback turned face down…”
I read this kind of description through the novel wondering why he wasn’t trying to find the distinctive and particular nuance of places like the above room, and thought, after twenty or so pages, that perhaps Murakami was overhyped, or something was being lost in translation. But the beauty of it comes from the near flawless demonstration of form and function being in tune, the words are the narrator’s, not the narrator’s words that have been subtly embellished by the writer. Toru’s telling of his own story is reflective not of the author’s literary prowess, but of his own, and thus the text, the word choices, feel very much Toru’s. The discipline to limit oneself as a writer, when telling a story in the first person where the narrator is not erudite, was a huge challenge for me in writing Snakewood. The finest example of this that I’ve read remains True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.
I get that it could be considered a fairly anal distinction to anyone not into the act of writing, but I hope that the passionate reader would also look at this as a quality to admire in a particular work.
Toru is painted with exquisite care as a teenager disconnected or disassociated, through depression I think, from wider society. He is ill at ease with the elegantly depicted ‘swinging sixties’ of his fellow teens as they made a great show of their countercultural/anti-establishment credentials to each other, borrowed from The Beatles, Miles Davis, Gatsby and Das Kapital. His self absorption, angst and insecurity are masterfully done. Murakami knows his characters inside out, including the firebrand Midori, who becomes infatuated with Toru and his ‘quirky’ aloofness and direct approach to conversation. She is the Yin to Naoko’s Yang, both personifying his internal struggle with impending adulthood, and representing the choices about what to keep and what to shed in order to make that leap in good conscience, cleanly, if you like. Toru isn’t aware of many of his flaws except through his interactions, particularly with Midori, so we have an effective ‘unreliable narrator’.
I can’t pretend a great deal happens in Norwegian Wood, but the triangle of these three main characters; the inescapability of Toru’s connection to the troubled Naoko and the hurtful impact this has on Midori, who is clearly a ‘keeper’, drew me in. Murakami lets them talk, for pages at a time, bringing out their nuances and foibles, which implicitly reflect back the broader current of the time they were living in. There is no question Murakami drew on his own experiences to create this so effortlessly.
What makes this book-about-very-little worth scribbling these thoughts down for is where Toru’s simple narration creates a magic that a more ostentatious stylist/self-conscious novelist couldn’t have as effectively conjured, particularly in two areas: the tenderness and awkwardness of teenage sex throughout the novel, and the one long sequence covering Toru’s visit to Naoko and her friend Reiko in a sanatorium in the mountains above Kyoto.
The parsimony of the writing in relaying this short trip, and Toru, Naoko and Reiko’s excursion to the strange little cafe and the wilderness high in the mountains, conveyed the purity of the experience perfectly. The stillness of nature, its ability to silence and cleanse the noise of Toru’s life, as well as it being the home of the girl he loves but can’t really have, leaves a hole, a longing, in him that he cannot resolve until the end of the novel.
And regarding that end, the final page was stunning, an ending I’ll never forget, most likely because growing up, choosing some paths and letting go of others, and being unable to know where life would have taken me, is something I find myself reflecting more on as I get older.