Having quit his job, Toru Okada is enjoying a pleasant stint as a "house husband", listening to music and arranging the dry cleaning and doing the cooking - until his cat goes missing, his wife becomes distant and begins acting strangely, and he starts meeting enigmatic people with fantastic life stories. They involve him in a world of psychics, shared dreams, out-of-body experiences, and shaman-like powers, and tell him stories from Japan's war in Manchuria, about espionage on the border with Mongolia, the battle of Nomonhan, the killing of the animals in Hsin-ching's zoo, and the fate of Japanese prisoners-of-war in the Soviet camps in Siberia.
Fate looms over this book as a vast, unseen, but ever-present character, neither good nor evil, but simply there; implacable and all-powerful. Fate and destiny are part of what this book is about, but there's far more to it than that. I'm quite sure I've hardly begun to grasp the depth and breadth of ideas and interconnections Murakami has put into this incredible novel.
It's also a book about brutality, war, and different kinds of pain. If I had read that before picking up the book, it may have made me decide not to read it, but believe me, that would have been a big mistake. Yes, there are horrible scenes in this book, and one in particular that I took a while to recover from. But somehow,these scenes seem important, and anything but gratuitous. These things are wrapped up with genuine history - a mixture of things that really did happen, and things that could have happened - which latter are just as important, and after reading Murakami, one somehow feels they are just as real. It's frightening, like an insight into the actual reality of humankind and the evil things people, real people, are capable of doing - even today, now, in this real world.
It's also a book that seems to question reality, until the reader starts to feel that reality is malleable, intangible, and maybe even not all that important. And it's about the nature of life and death, and about how the line between the two might be more blurred than they seem.
Now I'm not saying any of these things the book explores are true, or real, or anything in particular, but reading this book makes things look different, and makes the world itself feel like a different place, at least while reading it. This book is nothing if not an interesting experience.
I would like to add that it is also about characters - people who are vulnerable, human, likeable and complex. And with all the themes and ideas that make this book so amazing, there's no lack of story in it. It's a detective story, a love story, a war story, and a metaphysical journey.
If I wrote a million words on this book, it would still leave too many things unsaid, and I have too many gaps in my own understanding to do it justice. In brief, I recommend it!
What is it about these diffident, slightly hapless, determinedly directionless narrators? Someone like Strethers from James' The Ambassadors, or Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby) really sucks me in. Toru Okada, a thirty-year old unemployed legal assistant, is the opposite of the stereotypical salaryman; his only dilemma is how to fill in the hours stretching endlessly before him each day: should he cook spaghetti bolognaise? read a book? go shopping? Instead, it's his wife, Kumiko, who is the breadwinner, and the obligatory pants-wearer, ringing him up to delegate tasks to him which only rival each other in mundanity: pick up the laundry, buy the toilet paper, find the cat.
Then the mystery begins - and once it begins, it multiplies and folds in upon itself. An anonymous woman rings the house, who insists not only that Toru knows her well - "Ten minutes, please. That's all we need to understand each other" - but that Toru know her very well: "Try picturing me. From my voice. Imagine what I'm like. Where I am. How I'm dressed."
Toru has scarcely any time to work this one out before Kumiko sends him in pursuit of their missing cat, Notoru Wataya, a feline saddled with the appallingly weighty name of Kumiko's brother-in-law, a Machiavellian politician rising through the ranks. To find the cat, Toru leaps into the blocked-off alley behind their house, where he meets the mercurial May Kasahara, an enigmatic sixteen-year old with a pronounced limp and a two-inch scar on her cheek. May cheerfully assumes command over the somewhat apathetic Toru, dubbing him "Mr Wind-up Bird", after the particular bird-call he hears echo in the neighbourhood, a call which sounds like the springs of the world are being wound up: "Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighbourhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world."
Springs in a mechanical sense - for much of the novel concerns the idea of life and fate; life as a great machine, which some hidden higher power is preparing - but for what? But springs also work in the geographical sense, for the flow of water is integral to the plot of the book, drawing together the dry well Toru finds in an abandoned house backing on to the blocked-off alleyway; the warnings of their mystical family friend, Mr Honda; the religious austerities of clairvoyant Malta Kano whom Kumiko employs to find their cat. And then Kumiko herself goes missing.
Toru's search for Kumiko will take him deep into the historical depths of Manchukuo, the ill-fated Japanese settlement at the heart of Mainland China; into a dreamlike world where the women in his life endlessly segue into another; into utter darkness at the bottom of a dried-up well; and ultimately, most irrevocably, into the mysterious, pitch-black Room 208. Through all of this reverberates the call of the wind-up bird.
Murakami traverses a dazzling array of landscapes in his sprawling novel. His world is rich and resonant with the stories of many characters - and I haven't even managed to yet find a place for Cinnamon and Nutmeg Asakasa, whose spiritual powers will be of huge influence on Toru. Here the reader will find, labyrinthine and Pynchon-like, a troubling range of echoes and references gathering momentum into an increasingly claustrophobic world. In the end, the mysteries can only be solved by coming to grips with the obscure figure of Noboru Wataya (the man, not the cat) and the ineluctable pull towards Room 208 where Toru keeps returning in trance: here he will confront an unknown assailant in a confrontation that will enmesh them all.
Transformation is at the heart of what I admire most about Murakami - from the quiet, almost innocuous way he is able to take his protagonist from cooking spaghetti and ironing shirts to the brutalities of the Sino-Russian border in WWII and the metaphysical depths of the dried-up well. He is entirely equal both to the expression of the mundane to the expression of the ineffable. Here is Toru trying to rationalise his antagonism towards his brother-in-law Noboru Wataya:
It was like a persistent low-grade fever. I never had a television in the house, but by some uncanny coincidence, whenever I glanced at a TV somewhere, he would be on it, making some pronouncement. If I flipped through the pages of a magazine in a doctor's waiting room, there would be a picture of Noboru Wataya, with an article he had written. I felt as if Noboru Wataya were lying in wait for me just around every corner in the known world.
OK, let's face it. I hated the guy.
Now here's Toru, sitting in self-imposed exile at the bottom of the well:
It felt extremely strange not to be able to see my own body with my own eyes, though I knew it must be there. Staying very still in the darkness, I became less and less convinced of the fact that I actually existed. To cope with that, I woould clear my throat now and then, or run my hand over my face. That way, my ears could check on the existnece of my voice, my hand could check on the existence of my face, and my face could check on the existence of my hand.
Despite these efforts, my body began to lose its density and weight, the sand gradually being washed away by flowing water. I felt as if a fierce and wordless tug-of-war were going on inside me, a contest in which my mind was slowly dragging my body into its own territory. The darkness was disrupting the proper balance between the two. The thought struck me that my own body was a mere provisional husk that had been prepared for my mind by a rearrangement of the signs known as chromosomes. If the signs were rearraned yet again, I would find myself inside a wholly different body than before. "Prostitute of the mind"...
And, for powerful writing, don't even get me started on Boris and his Mongolian. I think I'll remember that scene for life.
One word of warning, though. If you're looking for a story that makes sense, this isn't it. A lot of riddles are solved along the way but, if the postmodernists will allow my borrowing of the phrase, all we end up with is a chain of signifiers attached to nothing but themselves. But dissatisfied? Hardly. Dive into this book, be pulled into the mystery of all these missing things and finally resurface with a rich meditation on the enigma of identity and the notion of the true self, of historical inevitability and the possibililty of personal transformation.
And listen to the winding of the springs.
This book was amazing. What begins as a silly mystery to find a pet cat evolves into a tale of love, devotion, betrayal, hurt, comfort, life, death, desperation, hope, good and evil. It took me a good five months to work my way completely through this book because at so many points, I would have to stop and reread a section again. Normally, this would piss me off but for Murakimi, I didn't mind. I loved going back and making new connections or witnessing new themes. With the introduction of each new character, a new layer of mystery shrouds the story but at the same time, a veil is lifted and answers are discovered.
Murakami's prose is brilliant as well. He somehow manages to stay oddly distant from his characters yet also incredibly intimate. For example, the reader only knows May Kasahara through Toru. They interact a lot in the beginning of the book and then we are privy to her letters near the end. Even though we don't know much about her, a sense of loneliness and a strong desire for friendship just radiates off of her and I felt like I connected with more than any other character in the book. I don't know much about her, but I finished the book considering her a friend.
I don't know what really happened in the book. Murakami twists reality and makes everything a dream. Through Toru we experience fantastic and horrifying things that may or may not have happened. Some things made sense, like Kumiko's adultery. Other things, like psychic prostitution, did not. I can't tell if the book is magical realism or if we're also experiencing Toru's imagination along with the actual events of the story. All I know is I loved this book and I have every intention of making this one a regular reread and devouring as much Murakami as I can get my hands on.
I would later learn that all of his work involves a strange events happening to an ordinary man. There is usually a mysterious woman and other symbols that hint at what is happening to the psyche of the main character. But the real story is about an inner journey that we need to take but usually avoid until something strange forces us to deal with it.
This saggy novel carries a number of imaginations of episodes from the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 30’s and 40’s. These are terrific reading mostly. Two such chapters appeared as excerpts in the New Yorker magazine. Find the back copies rather than read the tome is this reader’s advice –and [Nomohan: Japan Against Russia, 1939], by [Alvin D. Coox], cited by Murakami as a source, might well be of real interest.
The trouble is, the answer to that question is "nowhere really!". There are just too many loose ends.. Kumiko eventually explains why she left, but later partially denies it, and she never physically reappears. We never get to discover why Noburu Wataya has mysterious powers. We just about accept Malta Kano, but is her sister Creta real? Or is she a sort of fantasy conflation of Kumiko and Malta Kano?
The visit of Lieutenant Mamiya, with the empty box, and his subsequent letters seem to have nothing to do with the rest of the story (though in themselves they provide some of the most readable sections of the book). I was expecting some further revelations regarding Mr Honda, but was disappointed.
Toru is one of those ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen-like Voltaire's Candide, or Waugh's Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall. He's quite likeable in a way, though some of his behaviour is puzzling. His cultural interests seem to be entirely western - music especially, but food as well. In fact, that is a feature of the book as a whole. If you read a British or American novel in which the main characters were interested only in oriental culture, you'd think it a bit strange, wouldn't you? Perhaps even rather pretentious.
Dreams. Almost every novel I read nowadays has dreams in it. Enough already.
The incident relating to the killing of the zoo animals is well-written and engaging, but (like Lt Mamiya's reminiscences) seems to belong to another novel. We westerners know little of the war in the Far East (except for the bits involving the UK and the USA), so the unspeakable brutality and mercilessness of the Russians and Japanese is harrowing. Perhaps Murakami should use his undoubted talents to tell a story set entirely in this context.
As for May, she's like the sort of precocious teenage girl who featured in certain French films of the 1960s. The word which was used to describe such females was "kookie". May is charming and likeable, but why do we see all her letters when Toru (apparently) doesn't? After all, we know that he receives Lt Mamiya's letters, because he comments on the old-fashioned handwriting.
The book is a sort of confidence trick - the reader is drawn in by a series of mysterious events, and we keep reading in order to find out the hows and the whys...... and that's it. It's all about the creation of wonder and suspense, but the author can't come up with a satisfactory way of resolving the conundrums he has presented us with.
I think that the book would have benefited from rigorous editing.
Such a nonsensical and non-cohesive plot; as if the author had a bunch of ideas and no clue how to put them together. Oh wait, I’ll try forced allegory and wrangle every last literary theme on earth into one book. Yeah. That’ll work. I’m a Certified Genius. Ugh. At least he realized that the violent and degrading war story couldn't be presented as a whole without making the reader suicidal. Still, the rest of the story is inane.
Here are my notes as I dragged myself through this story. Yes, I had a martyr complex and actually got through the whole unbelievably idiotic thing.
Why refer to the cat as IT all the time...clearly it's a male. Weird.
The radio or boombox type thing the girl has, translated as a music machine. Later she has a radio. Odd.
Why are all the female characters intensely annoying?
All these visceral gyrations from Creta are unbearably awful. Who writes this crap? It's supposed to be shocking, exposing and hedonistic, but it's just stupid. I skipped over most of it.
The Japanese habit of calling people by first and last names is at first charming, then, after a while, grates on my nerves something awful.
I know it's supposed to be all mystical and allegorical, but it just smacks of adolescent obsessions over wet dreams.
Mai writes a letter to T complaining that no one likes her and is mystified as to why. Because you're annoying, that's why.
The narrator does some distinctive voices for this, but the one for the brother in-law's minion is the love child of Gilbert Godfrey and Peter Lorre. Ugh.
I’d have given it ½ a star, but it wasn’t badly written, just a horribly juvenile and incoherent story strung together to be as “shocking” as possible. Like a little boy scribbling swear words on the living room wall so as to get his parents to pay attention to him. Pathetic.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle isn't an easy or straightforward book -At times you have almost no idea what's going on, or where things are going. Even so, it's an extremely compelling read, like a puzzle that needs solving it drives you on, trying to make the pieces match. When you're done (or when I was, at least) You're left with the feeling that everything you've read actually do match up - you're jut not sure as to how. Almost everything seems laden with symbolism: baseball bats, cats, the act of smoking or eating, every piece of music... it's a trip into the personal mythological world of the author, but with no map provided.
Ultimately though, it was COMPELLING. Despite whatever crazy, seemingly random tangent he took me on, I was riveted. I found each of the characters fascinating and wanted (and still want) to know more about them and their stories.
I have my theories about what was really happening, but I am not sure that there is a true answer here. In any case, I enjoyed it and it will stay with me.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all was that there are lots of different threads to the story. I was afraid all the way through that they would never be tied together at the end, and my fears were well-founded: many threads are left hanging or unsatisfactorily tied together. What makes this even more aggravating is that there are long scenes where the main character sits around thinking about the many threads of the story and the connections between them (again in his shallow way) - so on one hand, Murakami is beating his reader over the head with some of the connections, but then at the end, lots of things are left unconnected.
That's not to say that I didn't enjoy parts of the book. It's certainly intriguing, and some of the scenes were really wonderful, but for the most part I found the main character to be aggravating and the story to be unevenly paced and disconnected.
What we have is a series of elements: a wayward cat, a dull-as-dishwater--and inert--unemployed protagonist, an absconded wife, a brutal politician-economist-power-mad-brother-in-law, and a curious central fulcrum of 1930s Manchuria (or Manchukuo, as the Japanese puppet state was called).
Murakami leaves the connections as yours to plug in to each, though he does offer some occasional exposition. Meaning blinks in and out of characters' lives, leaving them vacillating between banal nothingness (so effetely expressed as to make the reader want to slit their own wrists) and profound--if inscrutable--psychological journeys in which they make supernatural visits to hotels and witness the mass execution of zoo animals. All as Murakami tightens the laces connecting events seemingly discrete in content, time and geography.
There is something haunting and meaningless in the web of meaning spun in "Wind up Bird". One is hard-pressed to forget that Toru Okada, the protagonist, is wholly unremarkable. His apathy runs deep and his days are mostly naps. The disappearance of his wife seems to be the central concern of the novel, but Okada never makes you believe in his loss more than as something to motivate the increasingly bizarre underworld he slips into.
The problem with this book is that, in the way that some of its characters lose their meaning, it left me feeling hollow. A kind of quiet madness. A creeping futility. There is such mundanity in Okada's real world that without the awful, often viscerally violent things that happen to him and his orbiting co-characters, there would be no point in his existence. That is, Okada is saved by the terrible, magical things that happen to him--they're better than the other, reality-based possibilities.
The story speaks to a divergence in realities between a real-world normality and an other-world dream state. It is an experience that this novel expresses well in the manner of its own telling, in its effect on the reader. Another theme is the unpredictability of events, a challenge to the cause-and-effect relationship between what occurs in our daily lives, as well as in the broader world around us. Many of the characters feel lost and helpless upon sensing this as a truth. I wonder whether these are frequently recurring themes in Japanese literature? I'll be reading more Murakami and perhaps others to find out.
Earlier this year, I had a chance to read Haruki Murakami's latest thousand-page barnbuster of a novel, 1Q84, which turned out to be a huge disappointment; so huge, in fact, that it made me question whether I was overly romanticizing all my memories of how good I used to think Murakami was, after reading a ton of his work in the 1990s but then getting out of the habit again until just recently. After all, this newest title seemed to vaguely contain the same kinds of stuff I vaguely remember that I liked so much about Murakami's work when I was younger -- there are Tokyo slackers acting odd, references to a strange alternative reality that in urban-fantasy style exists all around us, tough girls, bizarrely comedic villains, tons of rape, an obsession with unusually shaped body parts as nerdy fetishes, and more shout-outs to obscure European classical composers than even in most English novels. Yet none of these things really came together in a coherent way in 1Q84 -- or perhaps it's better to say that things came together in unsatisfying and unrelated ways -- and it left me wondering whether it's just that I'm now in my forties, have been a full-time analyzer of novels for half a decade now, and simply don't have the tolerance anymore for the type of work that often used to impress me in my twenties when I didn't know nearly as much about literature.
And that's why I decided to re-read perhaps Murakami's most famous book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from 1994 in Japan, 1997 in America; after all, it's another big, giant, deeply unsettling magical-realism tale, the one that tends to make people passionate fans after futzing around with a few minor, shorter titles first, certainly the one that made the biggest impression on me when I was a regular reader back in the 20th century. And after finally finishing it recently, I can now definitively state that it's not my mind playing tricks on me; that book really is as magical and brilliant as I remember it being, and 1Q84 really is a mere pale shade of it, so bad as to almost be a deliberate parody by some smart-ass indie press, even though the two books share a wealth of common tropes, quirks, themes and obsessions. And indeed, that's probably the most interesting lesson to be learned out of reading these two books so close together, is that literature is not and never will be simply a matter of putting all your ingredients into a shake-and-bake bag, tossing thoroughly, and seeing what plops out on the platter afterwards; because although you can technically write dust-jacket synopses of these two novels that would sound almost identical, in one case these elements coil around themselves like a fatally clever puzzlebox, while in the other they just sit there inert, like the flashy little gimmicks they are.
As far as Wind-Up's storyline, perhaps it'd be best to start with the haiku-like minimalism of what can be found at its Wikipedia entry:
"The novel is about a low-key unemployed man, Toru Okada, whose cat runs away. A chain of events follow that prove that his seemingly mundane life is much more complicated than it appears."
King of the understatements, Wikipedia! Because what happens here to make Toru's life more "complicated" is no less than Lynchian in its surrealism and grandiosity: he learns that his brother-in-law may perhaps be the Antichrist, that deep meditation while sitting at the bottom of a dry well from Medieval times that can still be found in a back alley of his neighborhood will actually transport him to a dreamlike alternative universe, and that his wife has been secretly seeing a kind of psychic therapist who doubles as a famous matron of the Japanese fashion industry, who is convinced that the couple's missing cat holds the key to the eventual fate of the entire universe. And yes, I'm deliberately throwing a bunch of random details at you, because I don't want to spoil any of the fascinating plot, so will just toss out some tidbits that won't ruin things by you knowing; because as this long story continues, like a Christopher Nolan movie it starts magically coming together more and more, until reaching a climax that will make you smack your forehead and go, "Oh, so that's what all this chaos was leading up to!"
And in fact it's no coincidence that I compared Murakami to David Lynch in the previous paragraph; because what both are masters at are creating these complicated but real-feeling total mythologies just completely out of whole cloth, a sort of dark fairyland that the artists only hint at in their stories and reveal only the tiniest details of, but while adding a heft and weight to these glimpses that make you feel like there's a thousand years of history and ten thousand alt-universe rules behind them. And it's here where Murakami made perhaps his greatest failing with 1Q84 two decades later, because there's no mystical delight to the alt-universe of his newest book; it's very easy to understand, very small in scope, a Mother Goose tale about little evil spirits and the way they interfere gremlin-like in human affairs. And to be frank, it seems that a lot of this can be blamed directly on an unfortunate new obsession that Murakami has picked up since writing Wind-Up; namely, like many of his fellow countrymen, he's developed a preoccupation with the now constant undercurrent of intensely pious religious cults in Japan, and their increasing habit of committing terrorist acts as a way to bring about the Apocalypse. It seems that anytime Murakami has something to say about violent religious cults, the results always come out more disappointingly straightforward than they needed to be; perhaps it's that the surreal nightmares of Murakami's imagination can no longer compete with the real-life surreal horrors that Tokyo now deals with every day, so that an attempt at recounting these real-life horrors is always going to feel flat by the end.
Of course, there are other factors at play here: Murakami's simply twenty years older, for example, with a lot more titles now under his belt and his recurring themes explored in great depth already. And there's the fact that people like Murakami and Lynch were so successful when younger, the world has literally become a little more like them in general; there was no Lost when Wind-Up was first published, no Adult Swim, no Wonder Showzen, no Lady Gaga, all of whom at least a little get their clues from the explosive popularity that Murakami has experienced over the last several decades. And it's hard sometimes to be able to see if the pieces really are coming together, when you're someone like the author who by necessity is right in the middle of things, and might not have the opportunity to take a step back from the project and get a good general picture of things; because like I said, 1Q84 certainly contains the usual list of Murakamiesque elements, and I imagine that while in the middle of it, it'd be easy to mistakenly think that one was on the right track. But nonetheless, like we learn all over again every so often, sometimes when a venerated author shoots for one last grand novel near the end of their career, they simply fail, and instead turn in a reminder of what once made them so great that they no longer have, and how difficult it really is to put that lightning in a jar even the first time. I have mixed feelings about my memory being right, although certainly it was a treat to read Wind-Up again for the first time in fifteen years; and so instead of picking up the newest book by Murakami, might I humbly suggest reading this modern classic instead.
Overall, an interesting, unusual, imaginative and contemplative novel that managed to twig my interest enough to look forward to reading more of Murakami’s novels.
At the core, this is a simple story. It's about two people; Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko; who have been damaged by different kinds of oppressions in their early lives; and seek to build a new life together. Building something from nothing is hard; and Toru has a strange kind of emptiness as a result. Kumiko finds herself moving back into her old world, and Toru struggles to understand and to act.
At the beginning of the book I must admit that I found the colour-by-numbers exposition gratingly simplistic, but as the deeper strcuture of the novel becomes apparent, this irritation turned into appreciation at the subtlety of Murakami's art. More than many of his contemporaries, Murakami knows how to turn the dross of the everyday into something strange and beautiful. In this book, he not only manages to dazzle with his postmodern pop culture bags of tricks; rather, he delivers a work that reaches through the wall of silence to examine the dark and seedy side of modern Japan.
One of Murakami's earlier works, it strays from his Short story tradition of having nameless narrators, and embarks on the characterisation of this one: Toru Okada. Not giving too much away, but he is the perfect symbol for pacifism. The story, in the simplest, bleakest, perhaps most ignorant way, is his right of passage through life in an attempt to uncover the reasons for his wife’s sudden decision to up and go. Of course, there is MUCH more too it than that.
Along the way we meet the lady on the telephone, demanding just '10 minutes' of Toru's time, in order for them to understand each other. May Kasahara, the young teen left home alone, developing a rather bleak outlook on life, and Noboru Wataya, the brother in law our gentle and passive protagonist hates intensely, yet cannot remove him from his life.
Simply summaries aside, this book is everything a good novel should be. It should leave a lasting impression, and forever change your view and outlook on things. Some characters' plight becomes yours, and there are aspects and images that cannot be removed, and forever leave you thinking. This book deserves to be read, and then re-read. Simply put, this book is literary perfection.
But there are problems with this novel. The main one is that it seems to me that Murakami wrote it to a Japanese audience. In this book and also in "Kafka on the Shore" the author is speaking clearly about a Japanese failure to grapple with its own history of the second world war. And because this is a Japanese writer talking to a Japanese audience, one feels a little like an interloper when listening in!
The tales from the war are the best narrative in the book - and the only narrative that reaches a satisfactory conclusion. This is my second Murakami novel, and the second one where the author has created more threads than are found in Toru's spaghetti - and then unceremoniously dumps them all, leaving them unresolved.
It reminds me of conceptual art, where the concept comes not from the artist but the viewer. It is like the author is saying "over to you now. Bring what concepts you like into this book". Although it also comes over as "arghh, I am bored now. Time to stop writing"
This author is very popular right now amongst a 20-something literate readership. The wisdom of crowds suggests there is something here and you should read this work. But I never like the wisdom of crowds, and if there is something special in Murakami's work, I still haven't found it, so my recommendation is to leave this book alone (unless you want to be a trendy 20-something, in which case take it to a coffee shop where people can see you reading it).