Sunday 14 March 2010

The human side of Haruki Murakami

If you've been reading Bookphilia for awhile, you probably know that I have a complicated relationship with Japan's most popular literary export. I loved after the quake and Underground; further, I count Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and South of the Border, West of the Sun amongst my favourite books of the last 5 years, if not of all time. On the other hand, I thought Kafka on the Shore was promising but ultimately disappointing, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was alternately irritating and forgettable, and I haven't been able to get past page 20 of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle at all.

This author's inconsistencies have inspired me to identify a literary affliction I've dubbed the Haruki Murakami Syndrome - what happens when gifted authors are both abandoned by their editors (who stop doing work because such authors' works sell no matter what), AND said authors begin to believe the hype about themselves and stop trying as hard. With this unfortunate and unfortunately pretty widespread affliction in mind, I was terrified to read Norwegian Wood, which is considered to be one of Murakami's best, and is his most beloved novel in Japan.

Luckily, Norwegian Wood reflects good Murakami + good editor which = excellent book. (Also, it must be said, great translating. As there's no way for me to know what may have been altered slightly or left out, I judge good translation by one thing: how unnoticeable it is. Nothing is worse than being constantly aware of reading a translation instead of just reading and enjoying a book.)

I still think of Murakami's "normal" books, South of the Border, West of the Sun is my favourite - but that may simply be that it was in that novel that I first saw the author's hitherto unknown to me human side. His fantastic novels are too fantastic to be anything but (a sometimes amazing, sometimes unsatisfying) intellectual experience; works such as South of the Border, West of the Sun and Norwegian Wood are to me much richer works, for they don't remove the emotional from the intellectual so coldly and blithely as books like Hard-Boiled do.

So, yes, Norwegian Wood is a wonderful book. Having read no reviews of it before reading it for fear of running up against unflagged plot spoilers, I'm not sure why others liked it; I suspect it may be that for all of Murakami's apparent rejection of more traditional forms of his nation's literature, he's very good at the art of nostalgia, at invoking an atmosphere of quiet pain and gentle elegy - the things that sit at the heart of the great haiku of Basho and the works of writers like Yasunari Kawabata. Given my personal tastes in Japanese literature, this makes up a great deal of why I prefer Murakami's less fantastical works.

But what I really love about Norwegian Wood (and South of the Border, West of the Sun) is Murakami's talent for creating characters who are experienced and knowing and shat upon by life, and yet at the same time somehow tremendously innocent and artless and vulnerable. Many others attempt this, but I don't feel many manage it as successfully as Murakami does. In his hands, such characters seem real rather than created. Following are two snippets of conversation between two of the main characters, Toru (the narrator) and Midori (a girl he meets in one of his university courses) that I found particular endearing.

In the first snippet, Midori is trying to get Toru to reveal something, anything, about his mysterious love Naoko; because Toru refuses to reveal anything, Midori's imagination has been running wild, and she invents a sex-starved older woman for him:
"She's dying for it all the time, so she does everything she can think of. And she thinks about it every day. She's got nothing but free time, so she's always planning: Hmm, next time Watanabe comes, we'll do this, or we'll do that. You get in bed and she goes crazy, trying all these positions and coming three times in every one. And she says to you. 'Don't I have a sensational body? You can't be satisfied with young girls anymore. Young girls won't do this for you, will they? Or this. Feel good? But don't come yet!'"

"You've been seeing too many porno flicks," I said with a laugh.

"You think so? I was kinda worried about that. But I love porno flicks. Take me to one next time, O.K.?"

"Fine," I said. "Next time you're free."

"Really? I can hardly wait. Let's go to a real S and M one, with whips and, like, they make the girl pee in front of everybody. That's my favorite."

"We'll do it."

"You know what I like best about porno theaters?"

"I couldn't begin to guess."

"Whenever a sex scene starts, you can hear this 'Gulp!' sound when everybody swallows all at once," said Midori. "I love that 'Gulp!' It's so sweet!" (pp. 183-84)
This scene is in no way subtle, and yet it works in spite of that - or maybe because of it. Another scene as striking to me occurs later in the novel as Midori and Toru become much closer:
"Tell me about yourself," Midori said.

"What about me?"

"Hmm, I don't know, what do you hate?"

"Chicken and VD and barbers who talk too much."

"What else?"

"Lonely April nights and lacy telephone covers."

"What else?"

I shook my head. "I can't think of anything else."

"My boyfriend—which is to say, my ex-boyfriend—had all kinds of things he hated. Like when I wore too-short skirts, or when I smoked, or how I got drunk right away, or said disgusting things, or criticized his friends. So if there's anything about me you don't like, just tell me, and I'll fix it if I can."

"I can't think of anything," I said after giving it some thought. "There's nothing."


"I like everything you wear, and I like what you do and say and how you walk and how you get drunk. Everything."

"You mean I'm really O.K. just the way I am?"

"I don't know how you could change, so you must be fine the way you are."

...We got into her bed and held each other, kissing as the sound of the rain filled our ears. Then we talked about everything from the formation of the universe to our preferences in the hardness of boiled eggs.

"I wonder what ants do on rainy days?" Midori asked.

"No idea," I said. "They're hard workers, so they probably spend the day cleaning house or taking inventory."

"If they work so hard, how come they don't evolve? They've been the same forever."

"I don't know," I said. "Maybe their body structure isn't suited to evolving—compared with monkeys, say."

"Hey, Watanabe, there's a lot of stuff you don't know. I thought you knew everything."

"It's a big world out there," I said. (pp. 264-65)
Ah, the rambling conversations that alternate so naturally between nothing and serious things, the kind of conversations that only come with real intimacy! I don't know of any other author who can do this so well as Murakami can.

So, yes, I loved this book. If you're looking for a review by someone who hasn't gotten aboard the Norwegian Wood love express (and someone who tells you anything about what the book is actually about, which I don't feel like doing, for I am having a sleepy Sunday), check out Verbivore's recent review here. Her points are all valid I think, but they didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel.


Heidenkind said...

Isn't sad when author you think is sooooo great starts to write not-so-great books? This started to happen to one of my favorite authors a few years ago. To me it feel like her heart just isn't in it anymore. Sadness. :(

Unknown said...

I am a huge Murakami fan (you may have noticed...), and 'Norwegian Wood' is one of my favourites. Funnily enough, 'South of the Border...' is probably my least favourite! I just couldn't get past the flimsy, excuse for the betrayal and adultery. Having said that, it's one of the few which I've only read once, so I'll probably give it another go soon!

You probably already know this, but I believe the film version of 'Norwegian Wood' is coming out this year. I'm not a big cinema goer, but I may make an exception for this if it reaches Oz :)

Speaking of Murakami, my next post (when I get around to writing it) will feature him and another of your favourite authors... That's all I'm saying ;)

Yuri... said...

Hey Colleen - you really captured a lot of what I love about Murakami in this post. That haunting sense of isolation that exists alongside serious connections being made in discussions over the consistency of boiled eggs...

I find his work comforting, to be honest. "Norwegian Wood" has always been my favorite, a sentiment confirmed on a recent reread...

I have no idea of the reasons for the decline in the quality of his work, but "After Dark" was perhaps one of the most disappointing books I have ever read :( and I have not worked up the nerve to try the widely maligned "Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow"

Anthony said...

Though I haven't read Murakami's fiction for a few years Norwegian Wood is definitely my favourite. The film is being released in Japan in December, with a score written by Jonny Greenwood.

I suspect a lot of Murakami gets lost in translation, at least that is my charitable explanation for his weaker fiction.

Stefanie said...

I was wondering if you had seen Verbivore's recent review of the book. Interesting that you have such divergent opinions on it!

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: I've had this happen with a couple of my favourite authors. It makes me want to write them sternly worded letters or something.

Tony: Yes, I've heard about the film. I am both excited and nervous; film adaptations are so often disappointing.

Looking forward to your next post...!

Yuri: Life is short and there are many books. Don't read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.

Anthony: Translation could certainly be an issue.

I once heard that English translations of Murakami's work are sometimes up to twice as long as his originals - because he uses such obscure and complex kanji that it takes paragraphs to convey the meaning of just one character!

This is likely an an exaggeration but it may point to a real, general issue with translating his stuff...That said, I think Jay Rubin did an amazing job with Norwegian Wood.

Stefanie: I think Verbivore and I often differ when we read the same books! Thank goodness for variety in reading tastes or the book world would be much smaller.

Sasha said...

I've tried to read Murakami--a lot of my friends love him to distraction. One of them lent me Norwegian Wood, because he thought it was the "easiest" entry to Murakami.

The book has been on my shelf for three years now.

Anonymous said...

As you probably know, I'm working my way through Murakami (and did finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, loving it :), so I'm extra excited to start Norwegian Wood after your review. I just finished A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance will be discussed on Tanabata's blog the 29th of March as a follow up, but then I'll pick up Norwegian Wood. I've not heard anything bad about it. I liked the scenes you wrote about here, as a depiction of their innocence and vulnerability.