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Review: Norwegian Wood

Reading Haruki Murakami for the first time, I was surprised by the transparency of his writing. With my ungrounded foundation of beliefs surrounding Japanese literary culture, I had imagined the novel to whisk me away on a journey of ambiguous poetic language, alien proverbs and incredible metaphorical depths. Instead, I quickly realised that Murakami’s first bestseller was no such thing, but a text that embodies something far less intricate, yet far more resonating. What the novel is concerned with are concepts that are beautiful in their simplicity; love and death, and the consequences for the human heart when, ultimately, the two mingle.

Over the 400+ pages of the novel, the reader follows Toru as he relates his shattered years of romance and uncertainty between adolescence and adulthood. His unaffected love for Naoko (his dead childhood friend’s girl) doesn’t once in the novel cease to pain the narrator’s mind or heart. Naoko suffers from mental illness and is for the majority of the narrative taken out of sight and hidden from the world and the reader in a utopian rehabilitation centre. It may be said that Murakami invokes the idea that ‘distance makes the heart grow fonder’ because Toru continues to dote on the girl throughout her absence and despite receiving attention from others. Then again, as in so many romance novels, the indistinguishable love partially stems from psychological factors that characterise the protagonist himself. Toru’s devotion can be read as a phenomenon that extends beyond Naoko. He clings to her for fear of losing the last piece of his late best friend and his youth—what he perceives as fundamental to his identity. When she is gone, so is a piece of his heart and soul which he must learn to build on by accepting that one’s ability to love, just like one’s ability to remember, doesn’t have to end when the life of a loved one does.

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The novel then is a battle between desperate emotion attached to an inevitably decaying but deep-rooted love, and the human desire for intimacy and the pleasure of physical presence. The struggle manifests itself in the act of carrying out distant constancy—founded on the idea of an unrealistic future—while there is real bustling life and potential all around. One can’t wait forever unless one is looking for self-annihilation, but our narrator attempts to anyhow. Nonetheless, his years in emotional purgatory are relieved in the end. Our narrator’s grasp finally has to slacken and his thoughts are compelled to return to the real, possible joys he may still experience during the remainder of his life; and to Midori who, unlike Naoko, actually returns his romantic affection.

A surprising aspect of the text also appears in Murakami’s endorsement of sexual explicitness. The portrayal of desire in Japanese culture is unexpected to the Western reader, for their perception of it as a conservative one, perpetually striving to hide the ‘baseness’ of lust and sexuality and unreceptive to ideas of love that go beyond the beautiful poetics of it. In Norwegian Wood, Murakami gives his readers a vivid display of sexual encounters and relationships, but rarely does this read as something off-putting and vulgar. Through the voice of a young man who speaks of his sexual experiences with a touch of casualness but an overpowering sense of deeper emotional desires, the author reveals sentimental truth—that we’re all simply humans, seeking a touch, yearning to be loved.

Reading the novel, the only affliction I found was the frustration that was at times evoked by the protagonist. Though profoundly enamoured, Toru uncompromisingly sexualises almost every woman he encounters. Observations on the female body pervade the text, and though poetic descriptions are attributed to these (especially when it comes to Naoko), the observations seem to stem from less romantic origins. A truthful representation of the young male mind perhaps, but slightly overdone. In addition to this, Murakami’s protagonist is rather static. Toru appears so fully fixated with his romantic affair that little else seems of real importance—slightly inconceivable given that the character is a nineteen-year-old university student living in bustling Tokyo. Besides, the idea of an all-consuming love can be powerful, but on the other hand, it can also come across as cliché, if not altogether dull. Missing was a certain depth in the characterisation of Toru—who is as unremarkable to other characters in the novel as he is to the reader. Then again, according to Murakami, the novel is at least partially autobiographical—so when it comes down to it, who am I to judge the representation?

Without the benefit of having experienced the author’s other works, I feel that Norwegian Wood is an appropriate starting point for reading Murakami. It is pleasantly accessible—besides the familiar themes of love and death, the language itself demands little analytical effort. With so many works looking to surpass each other in the complexity of language use, it is refreshing, or at least relieving in a sense, to find a beautiful novel that succeeds without desperately trying to. A genuinely enjoyable read, Norwegian Wood aptly introduces an author who has gone on to create far ‘stranger’ and more intimidating literary works.

Image courtesy of wakarimasita via Wikimedia Commons