Wednesday, January 6, 2010
I Was Alone, This Bird Had Flown...
Book11: "Norwegian Wood" by Haruki Murakami
“Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami is a first-person narrative centering on the life and experiences of Toru Watanabe. Watanabe is an eighteen year old freshman from Kobe who lives in a boy’s dormitory while attending college in Tokyo in 1969. He lives a normal, ordinary life with few friends, but the few that he has lead him through a number of growing pains. These include Naoko, the former girlfriend of Watanabe’s best friend who committed suicide right before they graduated high school, Midori, a spunky, outgoing girl from Watanabe’s drama class, and Nagasawa, an intelligent, self-centered ladies man who shares Watanabe’s fondness for American novels.
I had never heard of Haruki Murakami before this book, which was sent to me by a friend who was a fan. Despite my ignorance of Murakami’s works, “optimistic curiosity” was my initial reaction before I even turned one page, due to the fact that the author is Japanese and the main characters are Japanese students. Having lived a number of my formative years in Japan, I have a deep fondness for the country, the people, and the culture, a fondness that reaches deep enough for me to consider Japan (Yokosuka) my hometown. Reading “Norwegian Wood” re-woke all those nostalgic feelings I have for Japan. Between the detailed descriptions of the landscape and cities (some areas I’ve been to; i.e. Shinjuku), the food (GOD, I miss the food), and little tidbits of the culture/way of life (the morning calisthenics on the radio/television, the street soda machines that sell liquor, the various rail systems), I felt as though I was living that life once again. Even the dialogue and manners of speech of the characters were dead on (duh, no surprise), which ranged from quiet politeness to exaggerated, almost cartoon-like exclamations, but all of which were always spoken in proper (non-slang) English.
Murakami’s writing style overall was very surprising to me. Granted, I’ve never read a “modern” novel by a Japanese writer, and it has been years since I’ve read any Japanese literary works (mangas not included), but I was surprised by Murakami’s writing voice. I’m not sure I can label it “Western” or “American”, but I thought it had some similarities to other writers like Vonnegut or Salinger. Every scene was described in great detail. The story telling was aggressive, but it maintained a quiet, nearly unaffected outlook that defines the protagonist/narrator, Watanabe.
Watanabe’s personality was what I enjoyed most about the novel. Lately, I had been thinking that there are so few stories (at least in my limited reading experience) that centered on ordinary, mediocre people. I find that stories are on interesting characters, those with personality flaws or who have lived through some extraordinary experience, which makes perfect sense. Who wants to read stories about typical people? But that’s exactly who Watanabe is. Throughout the book, he constantly described himself as “normal” and “ordinary”, and the way he moved through his life and reacted to others around him maintained those self-prescribed descriptions.* It was the other supporting characters who added those interesting quirks to the story. The personalities of the other characters range from quiet and depressed to outgoing and vibrant to determined and self-confident. Despite their differences, they all feel a personal connection to the ordinary and normal Watanabe, a connection that they say they do not share with others. And it’s these relationships and interactions between Watanabe and his small group of friends that provide the movement and interest in the story.
This being my first outing with Murakami, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story. Of course I attribute some of that enjoyment to the nostalgia I felt from reading stories of Japanese life, but most of my enjoyment came from Murakami’s writing. His ability to move the story along through the normalcy and plainness of life was inspiring and captivating to the point that I could hardly put the book down and seemed to fly through pages at a time. “Norwegian Wood” just gained Murakami another devoted fan to add to the throngs he already has.
* After a few chapters in, I began thinking that Watanabe reminded me somewhat of a less abrassive Holden Caufield, which was pretty funny because a few chapters after that, Midori, when first meeting Watanabe, commented that he had an interesting way to speaking and asked if he was trying to be like that guy from “Catcher in the Rye”.