EPS Review #4 - Norwegian Wood
EPS Review #4 - Norwegian Wood
★★★★
24Jun2000

Norwegian Wood

The first Murakami I read was A Wild Sheep Chase, which was enjoyable and very strange. The Elephant Vanishes is short stories, in the bit-too-clever New Yorker strain. Dance Dance Dance was the weakest I read. Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World might be my favorite -- it has kappas in it. I recently finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is long, and good. I decided that Murakami uses a motive force better than suspense: mystification. I am always wondering what the hell is going on. Meanwhile there are quite evocative descriptions of Japan, and food (what else can I ask for?). And there are the usual obsessions of things underground, and half-scifi elements. The hero is usually "ordinary", but in a very positive way. The women are real and yet very odd, which seems about right to me. "Wind-Up Bird" makes me want to go out and buy books about the battle of Nomonhan, evidently a precursor to Japan's war with Russia, except that Japan lost badly. There is a flaying scene that is hard to read. And the loose ends are tied up maybe too neatly, but let's move on to Norwegian Wood, which I just read.

First, I must bore you with some book-hunting. NW was M's first big hit, a best-seller in Japan. It was translated into English by Birnbaum for the Kodansha English Library (講談社英語文庫 ), but not released abroad. I managed to find "Hear The Wind Sing" in a Kodansha edition (a so-so Bildungsroman), and hoped to grab NW in Japan when I went, because it was commanding big bucks on Ebay (up to $100 - Murakami has some ardent admirers). But, it turns out to be out-of-print in Japan as well. I nearly got a copy off my secret Japanese used-book site (I love you all so much that I will reveal it. Here I got for $8 a 1925 pamphlet about Ainu listed on ABE for $350! I have more stories about this site, but later.), but it vanished. Then I found it had been reprinted in Jay Rubin's translation (he did "Wind-Up Bird", which seems more zestily-written that the Birnbaum books). So I bought it off Amazon.co.uk, boxed in two volumes, red and green. Let me just say they blew their budget on the box: pages from the cheap glue binding fell out as I read.

So why did Murakami delay English publication of Norwegian Wood? My first guess was that the book is bad. And in fact, I did not like the first volume much. There are no crazy supernatural elements -- it is just a story about unhappy teenagers, some so unhappy that they end up dead or in an asylum. I couldn't sympathise. I started feeling hard ("What did Swann see in that bitch Odette, anyway?"), although I am really sentimental by nature. In book two, Midori appears, and (even though she actually says at one point that life is like a box of chocolates) she is so amazingly wonderful (Rubin claims she represents Murakami's wife Yoko -- no wonder they are still married) that my opinion of the book changed completely. I liked the scene with Midori's dying dad. Nagasawa reminds me of the evil businessmen in his later fiction. And here we see the Murakami hero at his self-deprecating best:

"Well, first of all, I want to lie down in a big, wide, fluffy bed. I want to get all comfy and drunk and not have any donkey shit anywhere nearby, and I want to have you lying down next to me. And then, little by little, you take off my clothes. Sooo tenderly. The way a mother undresses a little child. Sooo softly." [says Midori]
"Hmm" [says Toru]
"And I'm just spacing out and feeling really nice until, all of a sudden I realise what's happening and I yell at you 'Stop it, Watanabe!' And then I say 'I really like you, Watanabe, but I'm seeing someone else. I can't do this. I'm very proper about these things, believe it or not, so please stop.' But you don't stop."
"But I would stop, " I said.
"I know that. Never mind, this is just my fantasy," said Midori. "So then you show it to me. Your thing. Sticking right up. I immediately cover my eyes, of course, but I can't help seeing it for a split second. And I say 'Stop it! Don't do that! I don't want anything so big and hard!"
"It's not so big. Just ordinary."
"Never mind, this is a fantasy. So then you put on this really sad face, and I feel sorry for you and try to comfort you. There there, poor thing."
"And you're telling me that's what you want to do now?"
"That's it."
"Oh, boy."

And I got weepy at the end. So I guess I have to say it is quite a good book, after all.


Atta wrote: NW is more like South of the Border, West of the Sun. No supernatural. Quite sentimental, emotional stuff. In fact "South of the Border" is even more ordinary in story line, perhaps M is getting older and mature. I like these books more than "A Wild Sheep Chase", etc coz sometimes I feel those supernatural stuff is too fancy. My friend made a movie out of "100%" in "The Elephant Vanishes". My films often have elements of M's stories in it. I think I will make "The Second Bakery Attack" one day - had been wanting to do this for more than 5 years now.