"To Translate and be Translated" by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is 64 years old today, born on January 12, 1949.
I can’t properly express how much his writing means to me. The fact that I am able to read it all, in English, is a huge gift. So perhaps the best thing to do, in honor of his incredible skill which has been translated to non-Japanese readers like me, is to leave an excerpt from A Wild Haruki Chase: Reading Murakami Around the World. This is a chapter he wrote himself, entitled “To Translate and be Translated.”
I never reread my own works unless there is some very special reason. It may sound impressive for me to say that I do not look back on my past, but the truth is that I find it a bit embarrassing to take my own novels in my hands, and I know I would not like them anyway if I were to read them. I would rather look forward and think about what I will be doing next.
So it is not unusual for me to completely forget what and how I wrote in my earlier books. Quite often, when a reader asks me what a particular passage means in a certain work, I wonder if there is such a passage at all. It also sometimes happens that I read something that catches my attention in a book or magazine and think, “This stuff isn’t bad at all,” only to discover that it is an excerpt of my own writing. As presumptuous as it sounds, that is what happens.
On the other hand, I am quick to recognize my writing when the passage being quoted is one that I do not like. For whatever reason, I can always tell. I tend to forget the good work but remember clearly those places that I am unhappy with. It is a strange thing…
Anyhow, typically by the time a novel of mine is published in another language a few years after I have finished writing it, I can no longer remember clearly what I wrote. Of course I never forget the entire plot, but much of the detail will have been wiped clean from my memory–not that I have a very good memory to begin with–just as the moisture from a summer shower on an asphalt road evaporates quickly and soundlessly.
I usually leaf through translations of my novels if they are in English. Once I start reading one, I often find it absorbing (because I have forgotten how it goes) and fly through to the end, thrilled and occasionally moved to laughter. So when a translator asks how the translation is, all I can say is, “Well, I was able to read through it smoothly. Seems good to me.” There are hardly any technical comments that I can make–“This part was so-and-so, that part was so-and-so.” Although I am asked what it is like to have my novels translated into other languages, I honestly have little such awareness.
If a translation can be read smoothly and effortlessly, and thus enjoyably, then it does its job as a translation perfectly well-that is my basic stance as the original author. For that is what the stories that I conjure and lay out are really about. What the story says over and beyond that is a question in the realm of the “front room” that waits after a translation has safely cleared the “front yard” portion of the work, or of the “central room” that lies further on.
For me, one of the joys of my works being transformed into another language is that I can reread them in a new form. By having a work converted into another language by someone else’s hand, I can look back and reconsider it from a respectable distance and enjoy it coolly as a quasi-outsider, as it were, whereas I never would have read it again if it had remained only in Japanese. In so doing, I can also reevaluate myself from a different standpoint. That is why I am very thankful for the translators who translate my novels. It is certainly a delight to have my works read by readers in other countries, but at the same time, it is a joy that my works can be read by me myself–though, unfortunately, for now this is limited to English.
Put differently, when a literary world that I have created is transposed into another linguistic system, I feel as if I have been able to dissociate me from myself, which gives me a good deal of peace. One may say, then, that I might as well write in a foreign language from the start. But this is not so easily done, for reasons of skill and capability. That may be why, in my own way, I have tried to write my novels using prose that I have constructed by first converting Japanese, my mother tongue, into a mock foreign language in my head-that is by clearing away the innate everydayness of language that lies in my self-consciousness. Looking back, it seems as if that is what I have always done.
Seen in that light, my process of creative writing may closely correspond to the process of translation–or rather, in some respects they may be two sides of the same coin. I have been translating (from English to Japanese) for many years myself, and I know how hard the job of translation is, as well as how much fun it is. I also understand to some extent how immensely the flavor of the text can vary from one translator to another.
What is most needed for a good translation is probably linguistic skills. But another quality that I think is equally important, especially in the case of fiction, is a love full of personal bias. Put most radically, I would say that is all you need. What I expect above all in translations of my works is just that. A love full of bias is, in the face of this uncertain world, one of the things I adore the most, with a deeply biased love.”
I don’t profess to completely understand his books. But Haruki Murakami has taught me to suspend my disbelief. He has shown me a world as unpredictable as I know it to be, with characters who are often as elusive as they are present. His writing, with a formidable humility and an honesty, makes me love him all the more.
A Wild Haruki Chase
Here are links so that you can visit his website,  facebook page, or Twitter. And, thanks to Stone Bridge Press who sent me this book.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

There’s nothing that can bring back the memories of one you have loved quite so much as music. I hear the theme of Taxi (Bob James’ Angela), or the Stones singing Sympathy for the Devil, and I’m immediately overwhelmed by sensations connected to my first husband. I can feel him more when I’m listening to those musical strains than I can by trying to picture his face.

Toru Watanabe finds the same thing happens to him when he hears the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood. He is immediately so overcome by the memories of Naoke that he sits on the plane with his head in his hands, and the stewardess asks him if he’s okay. He’s just dizzy, he explains, but I know how much it hurts to relive a love affair which ended so abruptly. For how does one cope with suicide?
No matter how much pain the person who died must have felt, there must be little comprehension of the pain which is left behind. There is no resolution to the relationship, no farewell, no understanding as to why such a thing happened. “Surely,” we think, “if given the opportunity and the time, we could have fixed that broken heart.”
But Toru is left with his own broken heart to fix, and while he has a relationship with Midori upon which he can now fully focus, it does not eradicate the place which Naoko once occupied. No one can replace another.
I found myself writing down the names of authors Murakami included in his narrative, names like:  Truman Capote, John Updike, Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Chandler whereas the rest of his peers “liked Kazumi Takahashi, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima or contemporary French novelists…” (p. 30) He listed novels such as Beneath The Wheel by Herman Hesse, The Centaur by John Updike, and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald which make me want to read all three. Even though I’ve already read the last one countless times.
I found myself writing down quotes, most especially from the beginning of the novel which I shared in an earlier post.
I found myself comparing Toru and I, and finding many similarities between us: we are both quiet, peaceful and lonely; we both like novels no one else seems to and are greatly affected by music. As well as lost love.
I found connections to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle within the pages of Norwegian Wood. Toru says, “I miss you something awful sometimes, but in general I go on living with all the energy I can muster. Just as you take care of the birds and the fields every morning, every morning I wind my own spring. I give it some thirty-six good twists by the time I’ve gotten up, brushed my teeth, shaved, eaten breakfast, changed my clothes, left the dorm, and arrived at the university. I tell myself, “O.K., let’s make this day another good one.” I hadn’t noticed before, but they tell me I talk to myself a lot these days, Probably mumbling to myself while I wind my spring.” (p. 197)
It’s wonderful to read several works by one favorite author because I feel like I’m getting to know him better with each novel I complete. Am I presuming to say that I know Haruki Murakami? Not at all. But, I love living in his world. One book at a time.
Find other reviews from my reading buddies as they are completed this last week of November. I will link to them here when they are published. ReBelle’s review is here, Claire’s here, Nadia’s here, and C. B.’s here.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (Favorite Quotes So Far)

“It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.”
“With my eyes closed I touch a familiar book and draw its fragrance deep inside me. This was enough to make me happy.”
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
“Nobody likes being alone that much. I don’t go out of my way to make friends, that’s all. It just leads to disappointment.”
“The dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living.”

Reading for the Japanese Literature Challenge 6.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

“…he had come to the recognition that most of what is generally considered the truth is entirely relative. Subject and object are not as distinct as most people think. If the boundary separating the two isn’t clear-cut to begin with, it is not such a difficult task to intentionally shift back and forth from one to the other.” (nook p. 811)
Truth and time. Love and loneliness. Not easy subjects to write about. When Murakami does, he takes us down a multi-layered path. One in which I need to poke and prod, looking between the stratum, until I can reveal at least part of what he’s telling me.
On the surface, things seem relatively clear. When the novel opens Aomame is sitting in a terrible traffic jam on Metropolitan Expressway No. 3 listening to Janáček’s Sinfonietta and talking with the taxi driver who tells her there is an emergency staircase through which she can escape. When she leaves the car, and descends the stairs, she also leaves 1984 and enters 1Q84. The two worlds are parallel, different from one another, but 1Q84 is not unrecognizable.

We segue between her life and Tengo’s, who has been hired by the editor of a literary magazine to rewrite Air Chrysalis, a promising work written by seventeen year old Erika Fukada. The book becomes an instant success despite Tengo’s concern that he is doing something illegal by presenting the book as Erika’s. Worse than that duplicity is how we eventually discover that Air Chrysalis is the method through which the Little People speak to the Leader of the Sakigake cult. Its publication precipitates a string of events which are slowly revealed to us as we journey through the world of  1Q84.

Aomame takes exquisite care of her body by eating only what is healthy, exercising muscles which are difficult to find. Because of her knowledge of the human body, she is able to find by touch a certain spot on the back of a man’s neck, a spot which when pierced with the sharpened end of an ice pick will cause instant death. It is a subtle method of killing, one which seems to bother Aomame not at all.
Nor does it bother the dowager of Willow House, a safe house for battered women, whom Aomame has befriended. Eventually, Aomame works for this seventy year old woman, hired to “move to another world” men who are found to be abusing women. In this way, Aomame takes into her own hands a sort of revenge; I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t abused in some way herself before she left the Society of Witnesses, a cult from which she was brought up. Certainly she was wounded by the way her parents forced her to proselytize door to door for their religion. As an adult, she is wounded by the deaths of two of her friends who have been murdered by the hands of their “lovers”.

Twenty years ago, at the age of ten, she reached out to her classmate, Tengo, grasping his hand in a moment he never forgets. For Tengo is lonely himself, having the vision of his mother involved with a man who is not his father etched permanently in his mind. He is isolated from his mother emotionally and physically; we never see her as anything more than a painful place in his memory. His father, however, continues to cause suffering as he takes Tengo with him on his routes as a NHK collector. If customers see him with a child, he reasons, they will be more willing to pay their fees. He is not willing to recognize Tengo’s shame and embarrassment, nor the way that his life differs so drastically from that of his classmates who are able to enjoy their Sundays with their parents.

Tengo and Aomame have separate lives, he is a cram school teacher for mathematics and an aspiring writer, she is an excercise instructor; they are both lonely. They both long for the feeling of being loved. They are searching for each other throughout the novel despite the distance of time and place which have kept them apart.

It seems they will never find one another. Near the end of the book I read with an increasing horror, afraid that the harm which had come to so many characters would also work against the two lovers. What right do they have to be united other than their love for one another? Other than the isolation they feel individually which can only be assuaged by their togetherness? Yet Murakami must believe in the redemptive power of a couple’s love, just as they must believe in one another.* Otherwise, this novel could bring us no hope for the world in which we now live.

Aomame pressed an ear against his chest. “I’ve been lonely for so long. And I’ve been hurt so deeply. If only I could have met you again a long time ago, then I wouldn’t have had to take all these detours to get here.”
Tengo shook his head. “I don’t think so. This way is just fine. This is exactly the right time. For both of us.” (nook, p. 1029)
Find more reviews from And The Plot Thickens, Magnificent Octopus, Sam Still Reading and Book Dilettante. If you’ve reviewed 1Q84, and would like to be linked to this post, just let me know in the comments.

*”It is only a paper moon
   hanging over a cardboard sea,
   But it wouldn’t be make believe
   If you believed in me.”

1Q84 Chapters 1-15: Quotes Which Qaught My Interest

As pertaining to reality:

“And also,” the driver said, facing the mirror, “please remember: things are not what they seem.” 

“But, don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.” (p. 16 in my nook)
As to writing in connection with existence:
Tengo said, “When I’m writing a story, I use words to transform the surrounding scene into something more natural for me. In other words, I reconstruct it. That way, I can confirm without a doubt that this person known as ‘me’ exists in the world. This is a totally different process from steeping myself in the world of math.”
“You confirm that you exist,” Fuka-Eri said.
“I can’t say I’ve been one hundred percent successful at it,” Tengo said. (p. 61)
As to the majority in society:
“Finally,” his girlfriend said, “everybody feels safe belonging not to the excluded minority but to the excluding majority. You think, Oh, I’m glad that’s not me. It’s basically the same in all periods in all societies. If you belong to the majority, you can avoid thinking about lots of troubling things.”  (p. 91)
As to our ever changing world:
Maybe I can look at it this way–the problem is not with me but with the world around me. It’s not that my consciousness or mind has given rise to some abnormality, but rather that some kind of incomprehensible power has caused the world around me to change. (p. 128)
As to the title and its meaning:
1Q84–that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aoname decided.
Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question.
Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.
Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them. (p. 133)
As to how we fit in the world. Or, don’t:
Either I’m funny or the word’s funny, I don’t know which. The bottle and the lid don’t fit. It could be the bottle’s fault or the lid’s fault. In either case, there’s no denying that the fit is bad. (Aomame p. 134)
As to belonging:

Tengo would tell himself that this was not the place where he belonged. He had been mistakenly locked in a cage. Someday his real parents, guided by sheer good fortune, would find him. They would rescue him from this cramped and ugly cage and bring him back where he belonged. Then he would have the most beautiful, peaceful, and free Sundays imaginable. (p. 206)

As to the role of story:
No matter how clear the relationships of things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution. That was how it differed from math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form. Depending on the nature and direction of the problem, a solution could be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell. That possibility would gently warm his heart from within. (p. 207-208)

Preparing for Tuesday. When IQ84 Is Finally Released!

Read what Knopf has on their site about Haruki Murakami’s new book, including:

Also, find the New York Times story on Haruki Murakami here.

I’m so excited I can hardly stand it. I’m not even going to join in any read-alongs for it; I have to take 1Q84 on my own time, at my own pace, unrestrained by anyone else’s schedule or opinion.
Love you, Haruki, favorite author of mine.

You can pre-order Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 now!

It’s true! Amazon.com has 1Q84 available for a mere 19 dollars and change! It won’t be released until October 25, 2011, but sign up now. So you can wait by the mailbox every day until all 928 pages are delivered to your door.

I can’t stand myself I’m so excited. And, I’m not even an Amazon associate so there’s no benefit to me in spreading the word.

Except that maybe more of you will fall in love with Haruki as I did.

Dance Dance Dance

She is definitely calling me. From somewhere in the Dolphin Hotel. And apparently, somewhere in my own mind, the Dolphin Hotel is what I seek as well. To be taken into that scene, to become part of that weirdly fateful venue. (p. 5-6)

When our nameless narrator from A Wild Sheep Chase continues his story in Dance Dance Dance we find him searching for the Dolphin Hotel of his past. Where the girl with the beautiful ears had taken him, and they had lived together for a short while as lovers before she vanished.

 It is no easy task to find the hotel, but when he does, he discovers an ultra modern, utterly changed, building from the tiny dump that he remembered. In this new international complex he discovers Yumiyoshi, the charming girl at the reception desk who tells him about her dreadful experience when the elevator took her to floor sixteen: a dark, lightless place of terror from which she could barely escape.  He, too, encounters floor sixteen, and The Sheep Man who tells him that he must keep his feet moving. To keep everything going he must dance.

“Tendencies. Yougottendencies. Soevenifyoudideverythingoveragain, yourwholelife, you gottendenciestodojustwhatyoudid, alloveragain.”

“Yes, but where does that leave me?”

“Like wesaid, we’lldowhatwecan. Trytoreconnectyou, towhatyouwant,” said the Sheep Man. “Butwecan’tdoitalone. Yougottaworktoo. Sitting’snotgonnadoit, thinking’snotgonnadoit.”

“So what do I have to do?”

“Dance,” said the Sheep Man. “Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays. Yougottadance. Don’teventhinkwhy. Starttothink, yourfeetstop. Yourfeetstop, wegetstuck. Wegetstuck, you’restuck. Sodon’tpayanymind, nomatterhowdumb. Yougottakeepthestep. Yougottalimberup. Yougottaloosenwhatyoubolteddown. Yougottauseallyougot. Weknowyou’retired, tiredandscared. Happenstoeveryone, okay? Justdon’tletyourfeetstop.” (p. 85-86)

The narrator’s journey continues when he accompanies Yuki, a thirteen old girl left behind by her photographer mother, Ame, to her home in Tokyo. Throughout the course of his search he runs into his old friend from school, Gotanda, now a professional actor; Yuki’s father who’s a writer named Hiraku Makimura (!); assorted call girls named Mei and June, Yuki’s mother’s lover named Dick North, and eventually he sees Kiki herself, who leads him to a room in which six skeletons are arranged as clearly as if the flesh had melted from their bones while they were simply sitting there.

What is he to make of these six dead bodies? The continually vanishing Kiki? Life itself? This is why I love Murakami so much: the puzzles, the questions, the way they seldom have clear answers, and the way that this character abandons all pretentions in living his life. He is content with his Suburu, instead of a Maserati, if nothing else.

Tanabata’s discussion questions:

How does Dance Dance Dance compare to A Wild Sheep Chase? Did you prefer one book over the other? If you haven’t yet read A Wild Sheep Chase, do you plan to?

Both novels were a mystery, and I might add, for me, an almost unsolved one. I have questions as to the full identity of the sheep, as well as the reason why one must dance. Also, who’s the Sheep Man? Is he some kind of God? But, the two novels tie together, and I’m so glad I read A Wild Sheep Chase first, to give me the foundation for Dance Dance Dance.

Our narrator remains nameless throughout, but unlike A Wild Sheep Chase, many of the other characters in Dance Dance Dance were named? Do you think this was done on purpose? Did this alter your reading experience?

I suspect he named many of these characters for a sense of irony, or at least a sense of humour. Mei and June for the call girls? Hiraku Makimura for the famous author? I thought those were wonerful names! I’m not sure about Dick North, though, where his name points us.

Did you have any favourite characters, or scenes in Dance Dance Dance?

I loved his relationship with Yuki, that he was really there for her when her parents weren’t. They understood each other, and comforted each other, and I loved reading about them driving around listening to all those genres of music: jazz, rock, punk. When was the last time I heard the name Boy George or Duran Duran? Not since I was in college!

Did your perception of the Sheep Man change? Do you think he plays a different role in Dance Dance Dance, compared to A Wild Sheep Chase?

I can’t help but think that the Sheep Man represents some kind of diety to Murakami, some being which is all powerful, all knowing, and able to guide the characters along some path. I think he was the same in both novels.

The importance of human connection is a major theme in Dance Dance Dance. What do you think Murakami is saying here about relationships, and fate?

That we’ll all be sitting around in a dusty hotel room as skeletons together? I don’t see that Murakami has much hope for the after life, and if anything bothered me about his writing, it’s what I see as his complete lack of faith. Hope. The characters are pretty hopeless in my mind.

Do you think the chapter numbers, with the black lines in various positions relative to the numbers, had any significance? How about the fact that chapter number 42 was upside down?

I was trying to figure out what the black slashes in varying positions by each chapter number meant, and I have no clue! Also, I don’t know why the dance steps would intermittently appear from time to time throughout each chapter. I searched for a reason, a consistent theme in their placement, but it’s beyond me.

Who do you think the sixth skeleton represents?

I think it’s our narrator himself. I think that’s why there’s someone crying for him in the hotel, and that’s why he’s led there, for a glimpse into his future.

Did anyone else chuckle at the name of Yuki’s famous but mediocre writer father?

Hysterical!

Any other thoughts or questions about book?

As usual, when I finish a Murakami work, I’m impressed and perplexed at the same time. I know I’ll read it again; each time I reread one of his books I find more clarity. Although I’m comforted when I read of what he’s said about Kafka on The Shore, for example; his books sometimes require your own interpretation. Thank you for hosting this read along Tanabata, and asking such wonderful questions. I only wish we were sharing a cup of tea in the same room together!

A Wild Sheep Chase

“I’m enclosing a photo. A picture of sheep. I’d like you to put it somewhere, I don’t care where, but someplace people can see it. I realize I’m making this request out of the blue, but I’ve got no one else I can ask. I’ll let you have every last ounce of my sex appeal if you do me this favor. I can’t tell you the reason why, though. This photo is important to me. Sometime, at some later date, I’ll explain everything to you.” (p. 97)

This is the request which Rat makes of his old friend, our nameless narrator, in a letter. How bizarre, then, that a hundred or so pages later we find this request made to him from an austere man dressed in black:

“You do not have to speak if you do not want to,” said the man. “Instead, I will send you out in search of the sheep. These are our final terms. If within two months from now you succeed in finding the sheep, we are prepared to reward you however you would care to request. But if you should fail to find it, it will be the end of you and your company. Agreed?”

“Do I have any choice?” I asked. “And what if no such sheep with a star on its back ever existed in the first place?”

“It is still the same. For you and for me, there is only whether you find the sheep or not. There are no in-betweens.” (p. 146)

What can it mean, finding a sheep with a star on its back which may, or may not, exist? With Murakami, one never knows for certain. Perhaps there is such a sheep, perhaps not; the importance, I believe, lies in part with the quest.

“The hotel owner accepted the luggage graciously. I settled the bill up through the following day and told him we’d be back in a week or two.

‘Was my father of any help?’ he asked worriedly.

I said that he’d helped enormously.

‘I sometimes wish I could go off in search of something he declared, “but before getting even that far, I myself wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to search for. Now my father, he’s someone who’s been searching for something all his life. He’s still searching today. Ever since I was a little boy, my father’s told me about the white sheep that came to him in his dreams. So I always thought that’s what life is like. An ongoing search.’ (p.229)

So, what does this sheep represent? A singular sheep with a star on its back…I’m still struggling with that. I feel it could be something like a quest, as I said before, but it must be more than that. It’s the title of the book, for goodness sake, and a key element for so many characters. I’m wondering if the sheep could stand for weakness in us, because it is only when the sheep is asleep inside the characters that they are able to be free. Could it be guilt? Fear? Hatred? Anything that is our own particular point of failure? I suspect so.

“The key point here is weakness,” said the Rat. “Everything begins from there. Can you understand what I’m getting at?”

“People are weak.”

“As a general rule,” said the Rat, snapping his fingers a couple of times. “But line up all the generalities you like and you still won’t get anywhere. What I’m talking about now is a very individual thing. Weakness is something that rots in the body. Like gangrene. I’ve felt that ever since I was a teenager. That’s why I was always on edge. There’s this something inside you that’s rotting away and you feel it all along. Can you understand what that’s like?”

I sat silent, wrapped up in the blanket.

“Probably not,” the Rat continued. “There isn’t that side to you. But, well, anyway, that’s weakness. It’s the same as a hereditary disease, weakness. No matter how much you understand it, there’s nothing you can do to cure yourself. It’s not going to go away with a clap of the hand. It just keeps getting worse and worse.” (p. 333)

The conclusion of A Wild Sheep Chase was shocking and distressing to me. Nevertheless, I love it because as usual, Murakami brings up the essential through the oblique. We puzzle through, as readers, wondering exactly what he’s getting at, all the while enjoying the Story.

This is my fifth Murakami novel, and I’m finding the following traits consistent in each:

  • cats
  • missing wives/women
  • sex
  • brutal honesty rather than pretension
  • seemingly apathetic heroes
  • a quest

It is my quest to read all of his works, and then probably at some point in my life read them all over again. (I’ve already read Kafka on the Shore twice, and found it immeasurable enriching the second time around.) He is one of the few authors who always has something new to say to me, each time I open one of his books. This one in particular was read for Tanabata’s read-along, as a precursor to Dance Dance Dance which will be discussed March 29th. I hope to see you there.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Title: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Author: Haruki Murakami
Published: 1997
Number of pages: 607
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.

In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.

Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon. (Murakami’s site)

When I close the pages of a Murakami novel, I feel that I have to sit quietly for a while. A long while. The pieces of the story that he’s told me float through my conscious, and my subconscious; some of them make sense. Some of them will need time to coalesce into one cohesive whole. Perhaps it’s too early to write a review…

On one hand, the story is very simple: Toru Okada has lost his job, his cat, and within the first 150 pages of the book, his wife, Kumiko. During the course of his search for the missing cat, he encounters an array of unusual people and experiences. First, there is May Kasahara, a teenage girl who exchanges many conversations with Toru as he searches for his cat in her yard; Malta Kano who was hired by Toru’s wife to help find their cat; her sister Creta Malta who is described as a “prostitute of the mind”; Kumiko’s uncle, Noboru Wataya, a politician who is abhorred by Toru. There is also Lt. Mamiya whose experiences in the war seem to mirror those of Toru. These two characters have endured much pain and suffering although not in identical circumstances. Finally, we meet Nutmeg Akasaka and her son, Cinnamon, who run a strange business behind closed doors which I never did completely figure out.

But, what about the bird? I haven’t mentioned the wind-up bird, and that, afterall, is from where the title originates. Surely the wind-up bird must be important. That is where I want to dwell while I’m waiting for the other pieces to fall into place.

The wind-up bird becomes Toru Okada’s nickname. When he’s talking one day with May, she asks him if he has a nickname.

I couldn’t recall ever having had a nickname. Never once in my life. Why was that? “No nickname,” I said…

“Gee,” she said, “Think of something.”

“Wind-up bird,” I said.

“Wind-up bird?” she asked, looking at me with her mouth open. “What is that?”

“The bird that winds the spring,” I said. “Every morning. In the tree tops. It winds the world’s spring. Creeeak.” (p. 62)

This is how we’re introduced to the idea that our hero is the Wind-Up Bird. And the whole book is his chronicle. The chronicle that tells, in part, the chaos of the world.

It was a narrow world, a world that was standing still. But the narrower it became, and the more it betook of stillness, the more this world that enveloped me seemed to overflow with things and people that could only be called strange. They had been there all the while, it seemed, waiting in the shadows for me to stop moving. And every time the wind-up bird came to my yard to wind its spring, the world descended more deeply into chaos. (p. 125)

Not only is Toru subject to chaos, he also suffers life as an empty shell.

I close my eyes and separate from this flesh of mine, with its filthy tennis shoes, its weird goggles, its clumsy erection. Separating from the flesh is not so difficult. It can put me far more at ease, allow me to cast off the discomfort I feel. I am a weed-choked garden, a flightless stone bird, a dry well.” (p. 368)

This sentiment is echoed by other characters in the novel, particularly Lt. Mamiya.

To tell you the truth, I have no idea what this long, strange story of mine will mean to you, Mr. Okada. Perhaps it is nothing more than an old man’s mutterings. But I wanted to-I had to-tell you my story. As you can see from having read my letter, I have lived my life in total defeat. I have lost I am lost. I am qualified for nothing. Through the power of the curse, I love no one and am loved by no one. A walking shell, I will simply disappear into darkness. Having managed at long last, however, to pass my story on to you, Mr. Okada, I will be able to disappear with some small degree of contentment.

May the life you lead be a good one, a life free of regrets. (p. 564)

I’m left to puzzle over the disappearance of Kumikyo, Toru’s wife, for whom he’ll wait. I’m left to ponder the correlation between Toru and Lieutenant Mamiya. I’m left to presume that all of us, to some degree, are wind-up birds: actually able to control very little in our lives.

While Kafka On the Shore is my favorite so far, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will share a special place in my heart. Because, of course, it is written by the brilliant Murakami.