Arguably the most popular Japanese author to make the crossover to American audiences, Haruki Murakami has carved out his place in the realm of literary fiction with his own special brand of magical realism. I had read many rave reviews for his novels in the past but for whatever reason, I never had the chance to sit down and read one. I decided I should start at the base: Norwegian Wood. Knowing in advance that this novel would be the least “magical” and most realistic of his novels, I decided to go ahead and give it a shot anyway because I read that it is considered by many to be the The Catcher in the Rye of Japan.
Norwegian Wood is the somewhat autobiographical account of a boy named Toru and his transition into young adulthood, primarily focusing on his college relationships set against the backdrop of 1960’s Tokyo. Toru’s love interest, Naoko, suffers a tragedy that sets her life spinning out of control and as the novel progresses, she draws more and more inward. Her anxiety lands her in a relaxation center of sorts (not a mental hospital but a detox center) for those battling depression and similar mental afflictions. Due to her new living situation, things are made ever more difficult for Toru. Somewhat stubbornly, Toru pursues her despite her impending mental collapse, keeping in touch with her mostly through correspondence (with occasional visits to the facility). As if the complications and strife associated with this situation were not trying enough, another girl, Midori, makes her way into Toru’s life and completely turns it upside-down with her spontaneity and raw sexuality.
Reading this story raised many questions in my mind, one of them being, “Are people in Japan really this promiscuous?” Almost every character in this story had the sexual prowess of Don Juan, regardless of their appearance or personality. At times, it made me question how much of the story was embellished, it being only loosely based on Murakami’s formative years; if he was really an introverted, quiet, nerdy guy, how was he hooking up with random girls throughout the story? This leads into my second question, “Were relationships really that open in the ’60’s?” Everybody sleeps with everyone in this book (insert topical joke about Newt Gingrich’s marital affairs). Toru’s closest friend, Nagasawa, would regularly go out to bars looking to pick up women (and succeeding 99% of the time) despite the fact that he was in a long-term relationship. From the beginning, we are told that his girlfriend is not OK with this but that she is well aware, choosing to look the other way. Can we blame this on the “free love” of the decade or are girls still objectified to the same degree today? Last question, “Does any female character in this story have a backbone?” The male characters walk all over them, sleeping with whoever they desire, and yet the girls wait patiently (this aspect of the book is a feminist’s worst nightmare). This, to me, was problematic to the storyline. Sex was considered meaningless in some situations, yet transcendental in others; the only thing that seemed to matter was with whom the sex was being had. Make no mistake about it, this book features a lot of sex.
The translation of this book is well done and the dialogue, while a little bizarre at times, is far less clunky than that of many novels that are later translated into English. Some of the phrases that came up made me laugh unintentionally, just because they were not something I was used to hearing in America. Though with our cultures being so different, it amazes me how much of this story still rings true globally. Most people will find an aspect of the main character relatable, if not the whole package.
Norwegian Wood was a good introduction into the world of Murakami, and it is likely one of his shortest books (just under 300 pages long). If you are new to the author, it seems that this would be a good starting point, because from here, things get magical.