Norwegian Wood. Haruki Murakami.

Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Vintage, New York, 2000. English translation by Jay Ruben. Kindle electronic. F; 5/16.

This Murakami romance  set in Tokyo has a dark side full of death, evil, and nostalgic regret, and I read it while I was in Japan on a holiday that to be honest was not completely satisfying. The main characters in the story are mostly in university, but considered in retrospect.  I always find this author charming even though somehow he’s a bit simplistic and formulaic, and remember my favourite of his, the book of short stories Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I’d be very interested to examine this one in Japanese, but have to settle with no quarrel for its accessible colloquial English translation.

The male protagonists in the fiction I’ve read by this author so far are quite similar. Here Taru Watanabe is our off-the-rack Murakami young man who is happy to present himself to a girlfriend as:

… Just an ordinary guy – ordinary family, ordinary education, ordinary face, ordinary grades, ordinary thoughts in my head.

Dull? No, “ordinary” looks to me who spends quite a bit of time looking up to and admiring ordinary people as someone potentially to be admired. Like the rest of Murakami’s heroes he reminds me of the narrator in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and of Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby. These fellows are neutral, unassuming nonjudgmental but also relatively non-self-critical observers. But looked at in another light Taru feels like me at his age, a certain type of university student anywhere in the world: lonely, preoccupied with love, sexually active, a good listener as well as observer, nonconformist and generally disgusted with the pathetic grasping and posturing of his contemporaries, but most of all lost and looking for something. We understand that he has most of his life in front of him to go out and find it.

But this story’s nostalgic opening has Taru, now well into his 30s, on a commercial flight that lands in Germany.  He hears a sappy version of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood piped into the cabin. His mood changes. He considers in retrospect the romance we would later understand to have had the potential to be what he was looking for, but obviously to be no more. And we can supply if we like the conclusion that Taru holding his head in his hands on the taxiing airplane suspects he may have lost forever his only chance to find it.

I’ll talk about the characters and the plot here so don’t read on till END PLOT ALERT if you haven’t read this one and plan to. There are four suicides populating the dark side of this bittersweet story, and the girl he falls in love with, Naoko, is of course one of them. In keeping with Taru’s coming of age and worrying about what’s going to happen in his life, his other and surviving romantic interest Midori is nothing like Naoko. Brash and sexually forward, she pursues our hero for sex and commitment and is happy to leave her unsatisfactory existing boyfriend for him, even though he’s at first not prepared to take her seriously.

Minor characters, one only described by the other, enlarge the human drama. Naoko’s wonderful semi-psychotherapeutic friend Reiko describes a catastrophic relationship with another iconic Murakami character: a gorgeous early teenage girl, this one at thirteen a vicious pathological liar who ensnares and destroys Reiko with false homosexual accusations that have a kernel of truth in a seduction by the young girl. Wonderful drinking and sex-conquest buddy Nagasawa is obviously headed for success in the world, but lets us see width and ambiguity in Taru who tolerates him, uses him without the slightest contempt, and while agreeing that they are different, likes and respects him for what he is. END PLOT ALERT.

One of my own early moving literary experiences happened when I was in Grade 12. I was sitting after school outside an apartment waiting for someone who never showed up, and read a short story, The Apple-Tree by John Galsworthy, from an anthology that was part of our course. The title is based on a poem by Euripides containing the quote “the apple tree, the singing, and the gold.” I’m sure one of the reasons I was impressed with this story of Murakami’s is its similarity to that one (is Murakami’s even derivative?…).

An Englishman stops with his wife by the side of the road for a picnic in the countryside and she remarks “Oh look, a grave”. After the picnic, she goes off to paint a nature scene. The man, as the main story, recalls an early romance that possibly happened very near where they had stopped. A simple country girl, after the two of them fall in love and he can’t bring himself to leave everything behind and commit to her, probably kills herself. I can still remember the story’s last couple of sentences. Wife presents her painting and asks her husband what he thinks of it, particularly the foreground, saying, “But there is something wanting isn’t there?” The narrator says to himself, “Wanting? The apple tree, the singing, and the gold.” He says the foreground is just fine and solemnly kisses his wife on the forehead. It’s their silver wedding anniversary.

So I make a confession. I understand the sentimentality of Galsworthy’s story and of this novel by Murakami are from a certain literary point of view contemptible: shlock.

They may be, but as much as they are, so am I. 9.5/9.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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