Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin|
First published in Japanese 1987
This translation published 2000

This is my first Murakami novel. I wanted to read him for some time as I was hearing lots of praise of him. I knew he’s a bestseller novelist in his native Japan and very famous among international community of readers who keep an eye on the best contemporary world literature in (English) translation. So I picked up Norwegian Wood.

The novel is based on the suicide problem in young people – which is apparently endemic in Japanese culture – and the attendant mental illness that leads them to utter despair.

The narrator (a guy) has only two best friends at school: a guy and a girl, who are also a romantic couple. When the guy commits suicide at 17, the narrator by sheer chance finds himself comforting and taking care of the girl who starts to behave oddly after the tragedy, apparently due to sadness, but things turn for the worse when the girl suffers mental breakdown and gets admitted to a sanatorium for treatment. The rest of the story is the narrator’s attempt to put things to right and to bring the girl back to normal life – so at its heart it’s a heartfelt love story.

It’s written in straightforward first person narrative and avoids the sort of surrealist storytelling flourishes Murakami is known for in his other major novels “Kafka on the Shore” and “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” – it’s more grounded in realist mode.

However, there are a few things that got me thinking.

Murakami makes tons of references to Western classical music and American pop. The books which feature in the story, too, are mostly Western. Shouldn’t a novel about Japanese people set in Japan and written in Japanese should be more grounded in the Japanese culture, music and literature? One character who is a good maverick musician only plays Mozart and Bach and Beatles. The name of the novel itself is derived from Beatles’ song. The mentally ill girl liked the song and that is the only justification for naming the book so.

Sex is a recurrent theme. At times it feels the author is taking great pains, figuratively speaking, in describing the repetitive sexual encounters of his characters even when situations don’t call for it. In this novel everyone is trying to do it with everyone else. But I guess our modern readers don’t think a work of fiction as well-rounded unless the story comes with a few erections and orgasms.

That aside, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s studded with beautiful sentences, startling interpretive utterances revealing complex situations with great ease – and for that one must appreciate the translator. It’s a well-written, sad, moving and, at times, gripping story worth your time and money.

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