I spent my summer reading one book: Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And so, I am writing about it here, not because I think it is brilliant, or because I think everyone should read it, but more because so much of my reading life has been spent on the book and I feel as though I need to acknowledge all that time and energy.
The same friend who gave me Murakami’s What I Talk About When I talk about Running: A Memoir, as a great fan of Murakami, has repeatedly encouraged me to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because she thinks Murakami is in line for the Nobel Prize for literature. As Japan continues to live in the shadow of its disasters, given the humanitarian agenda of the Nobel Prize for Literature, together with the vast scope of this particular novel, she may well be right. And as I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the question was always in the back of my mind: would this particular Nobel Prize be one to celebrate or commiserate?
The first thing I have to say is that the problem, or rather, my problem with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle reminded me of the same issues I have with Orhan Pamuk’s novels, My Name is Red excluded. Namely, that this novel is too self-indulgent, too focused on the middle-aged man facing a sexual and psychodramatic mid-life crisis. And if there is one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s another tale of self-indulgent, middle-class, male navel gazing. This particular strand of the narrative is delivered through the protagonist Toru Okada whose mundane life is turned upside down when the cat runs away, he loses his job, his wife leaves him and he enters into a surreal and magical dream world. This solipsism resonates through all the Murakami novels I have read, and it’s probably what will stop me from reading another one for a while.
However, fortunately, the world into which Toru Okada falls is vast and rich, making for a novel with an extraordinary reach. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book in which both the narrative and the protagonist’s life, but not the writing, unravels. It is a book whose story begins with the mundanities of Okada’s daily existence and 600 pages later we have been hauled through a journey made up of dramas, visions, fantasies, Okada’s desires and fears, his deepest rage being worked out in some “other world”, projected onto his politically successful, brother-in-law as nemesis. Murakami moves with a strident belief in the power of his words to transport the narrative from contemporary Tokyo, to Manchukuo in the immediate aftermath of World War II. To the point where the space and time between the Tokyo prefectures of Akasaka and Shinjuku are as distant as the geography and history that separate contemporary Japan and wartime Manchuria.
And as convincingly as worlds are alienated, they are also deftly connected through the writing and the narrative. Initially, there are two characters who connect the historical and the contemporary world: Mr Honda who is something like a psychic and Lieutenant Mamiya, an officer during the Japanese military efforts in Manchukuo. When the latter is taken prisoner by the Russian army, his story becomes the doorway to the compelling historical narrative of wartime Japan. He is an extraordinary man with an extraordinary story who really should not be alive, and in many ways, is already dead. It is as if he is saved primarily to weave together the narratives of past and present, there and then, historical and personal, for us as well as for Toru Okada in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Towards the end of the novel the crossing of worlds is achieved through the introduction of a character who, like a dream, is not the protagonist, but we recognize him as such: we know him by his build, by his dress, his face, but most of all, we know him by the stain on his cheek — not a birthmark — but a stain that marks him when he sits in an empty well in search of himself. The well sits in the yard of a vacated building next door to Okada’s own suburban home. The house is abandoned, abandoned because of the tragic and macabre stories that are said to have taken place there. In turn, these nightmares and the house in which they are played out very slowly become yet another world, but one that is always next door to the real world, in the Tokyo suburbs. The novel also moves in and out of fiction and history, of some kind of textual reality and the illusion of dreams. In the beginning these different worlds are threaded together by the somehow non-exitant sisters, Malta and Creta Cano. And then there is May Kasahara, Nutmeg and Cinammon, each with a story that sends chills through the reader. Nutmeg, for example, had a husband who was brutally slaughtered in a hotel room with, or perhaps it was by, his mistress. Violent and macabre death is everywhere throughout the novel: one man is skinned by Boris the Manskinner, a Russian soldier, Kumiko, the mild but unfathomable wife of the protagonist has a sister who suicides because their brother commits something like an emotional or sexual abuse. All of these characters and events populate Okada’s other world, a world that nevertheless weighs on this one.
Perhaps most impressive about Murakami’s book is that it is about the trauma of 20th century Japanese history. It is about the crisis of contemporary Japan as much as it is about the individual traumas of the handful of characters who live and breath and sometimes die in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. My friend Alastair — whose lifelong commitment to modernist literature convinces me to follow his recommendations — thinks that this is a book whose reach “had a touch of the grandeur of something like Les Miserables” the epic tale that successfully follows individuals as vessels of their culture’s ills as well as the human condition in their midst. It’s true Murakami does this in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: he uses the individual characters to open up a vast literaryscape, and to capture the culture and climate of disaster and trauma of contemporary Japan.
This reach is, of course, typical of Japanese art. I think of the films of Oshima and I am reminded of how every level of the greatest Japanese art works demand more knowledge of the culture, the religion, it’s complicated history than I have at my disposal. Thus, I am willing to admit, for all my reservations about the self-indulgence of the male author, the brilliance of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may in fact be deeper and more complicated than one reading allows.