I started reading Norwegian Wood with two misconceptions: like most (at least the ones that I have read) books by Haruki Murakami the story would revolve around something bordering on paranormal or some parallel, inexplicable existence from which the characters of the story keep coming in and going out, and the backdrop of the book would be Norway. It is a totally normal story, with normal characters, living in Japan (mostly Tokyo), and they never go to Norway.
Norwegian Wood, as I discovered while reading the book, is a famous song by the Beatles. There is no particular reason why the title of the book is Norwegian Wood aside from the fact that one of the characters keeps on singing or playing the song with no particular impact on the story of the novel, and the name appears on the very first page of the novel, triggering the entire sequence of storytelling. The titles of famous Western compositions, by the way, are a recurring appearance in the Murakami books. This could be because a major part of his life was spent in Europe and America.
I started reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami by accident. Although I had purchased the book long time ago and stored it on my Kindle reader, I never got down to reading it because these days I’m mostly reading non-fiction. I had just finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi and I wanted to read something heavier so I picked up The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. It so happened that when I started reading The Myth of Sisyphus I was sitting in the playground of our building with lots of kids playing around and lots of ladies chattering, sitting in the sun. Although I wanted to read, I couldn’t focus. The essay kept referring to some abstract philosophical concepts I don’t understand. Besides, the first essay in The Myth of Sisyphus deals with why people commit suicide. Sitting in that playground, with my daughter taking rounds on her new bicycle and seeming to be on cloud nine, around 20 kids playing around me and the cheerful ladies enjoying the sun, I wasn’t exactly feeling like reading a dismal subject with so much philosophical analysis. I closed the book and then randomly tapped on Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
It is an autobiographical book although not exactly the story of Haruki Murakami as suspected by many readers. It doesn’t even tell the story of a complete life. It is the story of a boy, Toru Watanabe, and his romantically turbulent days even before he turned 20. It’s just about a couple of years. Is it a love story? It depends on how you take it. Haruki Murakami in one of the interviews about the book said that it is no way a love story. Toru Watanabe starts telling the story 18 years after the incidents unfolding in the story happened.
Toru, when in school, had a best friend named Kizuki and Kizuki had a girl friend named Naoko and life have woven around them psychological and behavioral circumstances in such a manner that outside of their small circle they don’t interact with anybody else. Despite being the third person in the group, Toru never feels that he is intruding or he is just being tolerated because he doesn’t have a girlfriend.
Kizuki suddenly kills himself at the age of 17 and the worlds of Toru and Naoko are totally changed. When together, they never talked to each other and completely lose contact with Kizuki out of the picture. After Kizuki kills himself Toru finds it impossible to keep living in the same town so for his college education he comes to Tokyo and starts living in a dormitory. Since his childhood the only friend he has had was Kizuki, and he is never able to forgive his friend for killing himself like that, just like that. Nobody knows why Kizuki killed himself.
Many months pass like that and one day, while travelling in the train, he bumps into Naoko who was also forced by Kizuki’s memories to leave home. She asks him if he would like to walk with her and having nothing pressing to do, he agrees. Long walks in the city and in the wilderness become a routine. They don’t talk much. She keeps walking randomly and he keeps walking behind her, whenever they decide to go on walks. Toru always considers Naoko Kizuki’s girlfriend and Naoko also treats him like he used to be, Kizuki’s best friend. The scar that Kizuki has given them acts like a strong bond, something only they share with each other.
In between the narrator describes the university agitations going on in the late 60s and the students’ obsession with socialist ideals without understanding them or assimilating them.
While living in the college dorm Toru comes across another friend named Nagasawa who reads the same books Toru reads. Nagasawa is flamboyant, is a habitual womaniser and is totally unapologetic of his lifestyle. This is the quality that draws Toru to him and during many of their excursions, Toru ends up sleeping with different girls.
Naoko is older than Toru so her 20th birthday falls way before Toru’s 20th birthday. They celebrate the birthday at Naoko’s place and end up making love. Toru doesn’t know what to make of their new-found intimacy, but this incident brings them closer and although it isn’t mentioned in words, they begin to love each other. But the next day Naoko leaves saying that she cannot cope with the pressure of Kizuki’s death. Her parents send her to a new age sanatorium or mental health retreat.
He writes multiple letters to her, to her parents’ place, hoping that they would forward them to wherever she is, but no reply comes for months.
While Naoko recuperates in the sanatorium Toru bumps into this mysterious girl called Midori who comes and goes according to her whims. Although she has a boyfriend, she’s drawn to Toru due to his straightforwardness and aloofness. While attending university she runs a small book shop left to her by her father who, she says, has left both the sisters and moved to Honduras after their mother’s death from brain cancer.
Just like Naoko, it’s Midori who takes constant initiatives and keeps inviting Toru for outings and eat outs. Once he visits her place above the book shop and while sitting on the roof they watch a neighbor’s house on fire, play guitar and kiss each other while Toru reminds her that he loves another girl.
While going through various twists and turns with Midori Toru receives a letter from Naoko and it is in this letter she reveals that she is recuperating in a mental health retreat in the mountains. She apologises for vanishing like that and reassures him that she has been trying her best to gather her energies and contact him and until that happens, he should do with the occasional letters.
In one of the letters he asks her if he can visit her and she says yes.
At the mental health care center he is greeted by a cheerful and aged Reiko who is Naoko’s roommate. As per the rules of the place he cannot meet Naoko alone and Reiko has to remain present during all the interactions.
Reiko has her own story and reasons for being at the sanatorium for the past 7 years and in between she tells him her story. It’s at the sanatorium that both Naoko and Toru confront the memory of Kizuki and how his death has affected both of them. Naoko tells him about her sister who had also committed suicide and how she had discovered her sister hanging from the roof. She tells him that she can hear Kizuki and her sister calling her and urging her to join her. During his stay, Reiko, Naoko and Toru go on a long trek and Reiko urges Toru and Naoko to go for a walk alone, against the rules of the sanatorium. During the walk Naoko tells him that despite having been boyfriend-girlfriend since an early age, she and Kizuki had never been able to have an intercourse and she would always release him with her hands. So when Naoko and Toru made love on her 20th birthday, he was the first man ever to enter her. While on the walk, the kiss each other, admit for the first time that the love each other.
He gets caught in the whirlwind of life when he comes back from the sanatorium in various incidents keep bringing him close to and pushing him away from Midori with various intervals. Midori now doesn’t disguise the fact the she is in love with her and he constantly tells her that he is in a complicated relationship that cannot be explained, without ever talking about Naoko.
Eventually, there comes a time when he cannot decide whether he should wait for Naoko who is constantly being drawn to another world by her dead sister and a dead Kizuki, or move on with a highly desirable Midori who is deeply in love with him but is quite hotheaded and can push him over to the embers if she is displeased.
This is not the end of the story but while reviewing the book I wouldn’t like to reveal exactly what happens. When you’re reading the story, it seems that Toru is the only person in the story who seems to have what you may call a “normal” upbringing or past. Otherwise everybody is broken one way or another.
What’s the message Haruki Murakami tries to convey through the novel? There is a compelling sentence in the story: Throughout our lives we are nurturing death.
Incidentally, the book I chose to read in place of The Myth of Sisyphus because I didn’t want to read an analytical essay on why people commit suicide, tells the story of a few characters who either commit suicide, or are deeply scarred by those who have committed suicide. Quite strange.