Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Some Thoughts on My First Murakami Novel


I’ve just finished reading Norwegian Wood by the acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Having heard Murakami celebrated for years - I worked in a bookstore for over a decade - and even mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner, I can report that Norwegian Wood is a novel that from what I can make out is far removed in theme and style from the author’s best-known works and was probably not a good choice with which to begin reading him. Set during the turbulent years of 1969 and 1970, Norwegian Wood is the story of the relationship between a student named Toru and a young woman named Naoko. The two had known each other for years before falling in love because Naoko was the high school girlfriend of Toru’s best friend Kizuki, who has committed suicide before the novel begins. Naoko and Toru take long Sunday walks through Tokyo, but soon Naoko withdraws and eventually becomes a patient at an odd sort of spa/hospital which Toru visits as his schedule permits. Toru becomes friends with Naoko’s older roommate Reiko during his visits, and she counsels him about Naoko and about his feelings for a free-spirited fellow student named Midori whom he has met back in Tokyo. To reveal more would be unfair, but the question of Naoko’s mental health becomes central to how all of the characters resolve themselves.

 It has been some time since I read a novel in translation, and the language barrier may account for some questions I have about Norwegian Wood and about Murakami’s work in general. I was planning to write a kind of insouciant “5 Questions about This Novel” post that I might have slapped up on Tumblr, but these are actually things I want to know before I pick up another Murakami novel.

 1. Characters in Norwegian Wood have a habit of saying exactly what’s on their minds. Is this trait a Murkami thing, a Japanese thing, and/or a translation thing?

 2. At one time or another the three central women in Norwegian Wood all want to sleep with Toru. Do Murakami’s other men do as well?

 3. Several characters in Norwegian Wood commit suicide. Again, there’s something here in Japanese culture that I don’t understand and I wonder if it comes up in other Murakami novels.

 4. Do Murakami characters refer to books and music as often as these characters do? Because I liked that. 

5. I was under the impression there was more “Magic Realism” in most Murakami novels. Is this true?

6. What does Haruki Murakami think of the “Shoshanna in Japan” storyline on Girls?

 If you’re a Murakami reader and can answer any of these question then you would be performing an invaluable public service.

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