The title of this post refers to the novel by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. This is the first Japanese novel I have read. I came across a website which is devoted to Japanese Literature, and was quite intrigued by this, unknown to me, cultural world. As the site is in the form of a challenge it helpfully offers a list of possible books to choose from. So I decided to venture forth and read at least one of the novels on the list. As I try to avoid buying books whenever possible, I limited my choice to what was available in the local library. As you can imagine this reduced the options considerably. This is how I ended up with Norwegian Wood.
Haruki Murakami is, as it turns out, a very famous Japanese author who has been acclaimed by many as among the world’s greatest living novelists. Quite some praise. Norwegian Wood was first published in1987 and was the novel which brought him fame and literary stardom. It is easy to see why, as the novel is both relatively straightforward and easy to read while dealing with some very intense and troubling events and emotions.
The book is written as an attempt by the narrator, Toru Watanabe, now aged 37, to come to terms with and understand events that happened 18 - 20 years earlier. The key trigger was the suicide of Watanabe’s best friend, Kizuki, when he was just 17 years old. The novel recounts how Watanabe tries to deal with this traumatic event. Initially he tries to forget all about it and leaves his home town to study at a university in Tokyo. While there he lives in a student hostel and much of the background to the novel is about the banalities of student life in Japan in the late 1960s. Though this was a tine of turmoil for some, Watanabe and his circle remain outside the great political struggles. You get a real sense of the regimentation and hierarchical nature of Japanese society during that period.
However the novel is mainly about Watanabe’s personal development. He meets up with the enigmatic and fragile Naoko who was Kizuki’s girlfriend, and who had also fled to Tokyo. The pair develop a rather strange relationship and Watanabe falls in love with Naoko. Unfortunately, Naoko suffers a breakdown and suddenly leaves both Watanabe and Tokyo. Into his life, pops the more lively Midori, another student. Most of the novel is about the relationships revolving around this triangle.
Though fairly straightforward to read, the novel does weigh in with interesting reflections on life and literature - Watanabe is a student of western literature. One of the these reflections, about the tragedies of Euripedes, in many ways is an excellent summary of the novel itself. “Lots of different people appear, and they all have their own situations and reasons and excuses, and each one is pursuing his or her own idea of justice or happiness. As a result, nobody can do anything.”
While this is a rough guide to the novel, a lot does happen, as each of the main characters tries to work their own painful way through the minefield of becoming an adult. Watanabe himself in one of his reflections on Kizuki best describes what the novel is really about. “ Hey, there, Kizuki, I thought. Unlike you, I’ve chosen to live - and to live the best I know how. Sure, it was hard for you. What the hell, it’s hard for me. Really hard. And all because you killed yourself and left Naoko behind. But that’s something I will never do. I will never, ever, turn my back on her. First of all, because I love her, and because I’m stronger than she is. And I’m just going to keep on getting stronger. I’m going to mature. I’m going to be an adult. Because that’s what I have to do. I always used to think I’d like to stay 17 or 18 if I could. But not any more. I’m not a teenager any more. I’ve got a sense of responsibility now. I’m not the same person I was when we used to hang out together. I’m 20 now. And I have to pay the price to go on living.”
The title of the novel comes from the Beatles’ song Norwegian Wood, which was the favourite song of Naoko, Watanabe’s first love. The novel has now been made into a film, directed by Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran. It is due to be released in Japan in December. Interesting to see if gets general release over here.