Norwegian Wood - part V (the book)

I finished Hakuri Murakami´s novel "Norwegian Wood" a few days ago and have been mulling over what to write about it. I liked it a lot better than I expected to do, and I find it hard to express why. Every time I try to phrase something, it ends up being a discussion on what happens in the story, and I certainly don´t want to spoil it for you, if you´d like to read it. So let me start with a warm and firm recommendation: do read this book, it´s great.

It all takes place in Japan, of course, mostly in Tokyo in 1969 and 1970. However, it could really be anywhere I ever lived; the characters listen to western music and read western books. Beatles´ songs (of course), Bach, Brahms, Fitzgerald´s "The Great Gatsby", Hesse´s "Beneath the Wheel", and Mann´s "The Magic Mountain". I does occur to me though, that while my culture has allowed me to get all these references more or less without effort, a Japanese kid in the late 60´s may have had to be pretty particular in his interests to pick this up. Or perhaps not. I really don´t know enough to say. The Wikipedia article on Murakami says that "...Western influences distinguish Murakami from other Japanese writers". Perhaps that is why he is so popular, a superstar in Japan, I understand. And of course, his name comes up every year in the weeks running up to the announcement of who has been awarded the year´s Nobel Prize in literature.

The protagonist´s name is Watanabe, a drama student who is more intelligent and hard-working than really enthusiastic about his subject. He is an outsider with very few friends. Those who choose him seem to do so because he is accepting of them. Many of them say that he is so funny, and says such strange things, but actually, he mostly agrees with everything they say, which I found amusing. He tends to end up in triangular relationships, as a kind of emotional balance to couples with problems. After a while he even notices this himself.
...I don’t know how long it’s been since I had such a total sense of relief. People are always trying to force stuff on me. The minute they see me they start telling me what to do. At least you don’t try to force stuff on me.” “I don’t know you well enough to force stuff on you.” “You mean, if you knew me better, you’d force stuff on me like everyone else?” “It’s possible,” I said. “That’s how people live in the real world: forcing stuff on each other.” 

Watanabe and those close to him: his best friend Kizuki; Naoko, who is first Kizuki´s girl and then Watanabes; Midori, a classmate at university; Nagasawa, who lives in the same dorm as Watanabe; Hatsumi, Nagasawa´s girl; they are  all in their late teens or early twenties, no longer children but not yet adults. The only older person we meet is Reiko, who comes into Watanabe´s life through Naoko, but even Reiko is someone who is having trouble adjusting to "normal" Japanese life. The only one with a plan and a strategy for success is Nagasawa, but he is also very selfish and cruel.
“The way I see it, people are working hard. They’re working their fingers to the bone. Or am I looking at things wrong?” “That’s not hard work. It’s just manual labour,” Nagasawa said with finality. “The ‘hard work’ I’m talking about is more self-directed and purposeful.” “You mean, like studying Spanish while everyone else is taking it easy?” “That’s it. I’m going to have Spanish mastered by next spring. I’ve got English and German and French down pat, and I’m almost there with Italian. You think things like that happen without hard work?”
Parents are only spoken of; they are financers of studies or not approving of this or that. Even Watanabe, who is an only child and seemingly has a good relationship with his parents, never takes us home to meet them. We actually meet one parent in 400 pages, but that is someone who is in no position to excercise any power.

The only time in the book that Watanabe says anything that isn´t a direct response to what is going on around him, he is talking about his studies of Euripides:
“What marks his plays is the way things get so mixed up the characters are trapped. Do you see what I mean? Lots of different people appear, and they all have their own situations and reasons and excuses, and each one is pursuing his or her own idea of justice or happiness. As a result, nobody can do anything. Obviously. I mean, it’s basically impossible for everybody’s justice to prevail or everybody’s happiness to triumph, so chaos takes over. And then what do you think happens? Simple – a god appears at the end and starts directing the traffic. ‘You go over there, and you come here, and you get together with her, and you just sit still for while.’ Like that. He’s a kind of fixer, and in the end everything works out perfectly. They call this ‘deus ex machina’. There’s almost always a deus ex machina in Euripides, and that’s where critical opinion divides over him. “But think about it – what if there were a deus ex machina in real life? Everything would be so easy! If you felt stuck or trapped, some god would swing down from up there and solve all your problems. What could be easier than that? Anyway, that’s History of Drama. This is more or less the kind of stuff we study at university.” 
Without knowing it, he speaks of the world he and his friends are living in. Except that the "deus ex machina" is Japanese society and the solutions it offers is not always acceptable. And what is the alternative to acceptance?

As I was reading the book, I was really just caught up in the mood of it. I did a few underlinings when I came across a part that felt more powerful, and now that I go back to those quotes, they all seem to sum up the novel, more or less. The scenes are all so tranquil, it´s mostly two or three people sitting around or walking in the countryside, talking about this and that. Nothing really dramatic ever happens - or no, actually: dramatic, horrible, life-changing stuff happens, but in a very quiet and ordinary and banal kind of way. From the perspective of having read the whole book, it´s like every line I go back to is charged with meaning. The novel is magical that way.

Oh yes, this is Nobel Prize worthy, no question about it. And I will certainly read more of him. This is a writer just perfect for me: great mood, great language, accessible but not shallow. The story is not over my head, but neither is Murakami "writing on my nose", which is to say that he isn´t trying to teach me anything in an obvious way. A real master.


  1. So the love for Murakami really is a thing that you can't explain. In spite of myself (having once had the author and his themes whoosh right over my head!) your review does make me want to read this book. I might just discover that magic I seemed to have missed!

    1. I don´t really know what makes one connect with some authors and not with others. I have a friend who keeps giving me book suggestions that I *should* like and sometimes I do, but sometimes not. It´s some kind of chemistry, perhaps. Sometimes I just get hung up on a turn of phrase. [shrug]

  2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the only one of his books i've read, but i have another in my tbr stack. i'll be on the look-out for this one. thx for your reflections