Norwegian Wood

Perhaps I expected too much from my first Murakami; perhaps my heart wasn’t completely in it – I’m not sure what it was but I found Norwegian Wood cold and emotionally unconvincing. It wasn’t so much that his characters were badly drawn, because they were all very kooky and interesting people (my favourites were Midori and Storm Trooper; Naoko, not so much). It wasn’t that the story was ‘boring’ either; it was every bit as whimsical and dark as I had expected. Haunting.

Was it Murakami’s intent to leave me feeling cold, or was this my first proper experience of what a lot of readers refer to as the so-called ‘emotional reserve’ of the Japanese? I  would hesitate to attribute this, or any other of my thoughts concerning Norwegian Wood to anything cultural. Especially because this book was anything but reserved. It was frank, rather brutal in its treatment of love, and overflowing with emotion. But it was unconvincing. I can certainly understand why people might think it an ‘Asian’ or Japanese thing, though. Often, I felt the same coldness while reading Ishiguro – When We Were Orphans, particularly (Remains of the Day, I didn’t like, but thought it quite poignant and moving; the coldness I felt while reading Never Let Me Go, I attributed to the fact that dystopian fiction normally creeps me out). I really hate to bring Ishiguro into this, since culturally, he is very much British but he’s the only other prominent ethnically Japanese writer I’ve read (shameful, I know).

It got terribly erotic, particularly towards the second half of the novel. Nymphomaniacs, lesbians, porn films. That, I must admit, was very much a Japanese thing. I’m always surprised at the deep divide between cultural conservatism v. oversexualisation in Japan. But it definitely exists; weird sex, that is.

The perpetual, never-ending references to Fitzgerald annoyed rather than pleased me, despite being a lover of The Great Gatsby. It was a rather contrived and pretentious thing to do, unless there was an allusion to the futility of Tohu Watanabe’s life that I missed. Unless Toru and Naoko’s life relationship was meant to be juxtaposed with that of Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Oh, wait, here we go:

All I had to do was find the one window towards the back where a faint light trembled. I focused on that point of light for a long, long time. It made me think of something like the final pulse of a soul’s dying embers. I wanted to cup my hands over what was left and keep it alive. I went on watching it the way Jay Gatsby watched that tiny light on the opposite shore night after night.

I don’t know. As I say, it was unconvincing. Despite the stupidities in the logic of ‘Gatsby & Daisy’, there’s something tragic and beautiful about their relationship. ‘Toru & Naoko’ though was more creepy and warped. The ending, I’ll admit, was quite beautiful in a chilling way -

Midori responded with a long, long silence – the silence of all the misty rain in the world falling on all the new mown lawns of the world. Forehead pressed against the glass, I shut my eyes and waited. At last, Midori’s quiet voice broke the silence: “Where are you now?”

Where was I now?

Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.

Well rendered. But the same sort of thing was used very unconvincingly throughout. For instance, the time Toru first sleeps with Naoko, Murakami writes something along the lines of “she never stopped crying. Forever”. He likes that a lot: the forevers. But then in the next paragraph, life goes on as usual. It’ll be something like “I met so-and-so at the bar the next evening for a drink or two”, and it messes with the momentum.

Overall, I don’t think this is a very positive review. But I’m optimistic about my budding relationship with Haruki Murakami, because Norwegian Wood is apparently the anomaly. ‘Accustomed to his cool, fragmented, American-flaoured narratives on mysterious sheep and disappearing elephants,’ writes his translator Jay Rubin, ‘some of Murakami’s early readers were dismayed to find that Norwegian Wood seemed to be ‘just’ a love story – and one that bore a suspicious resemblance to the kind of Japanese mainstream autobiographical fiction hhat Murakami had rejected since his exciting debut in 1979″. I disagree that it’s ‘just’ a love story; clearly, there’s more to it. Yet I’m immensely glad to hear that this is of a different flavour to Murakami’s “normal” novels.

4 thoughts on “Norwegian Wood

  1. Interesting! I haven’t read any Murakami, but he’s on my list of authors I really want to try… but based on your review, I’m not sure this is the best place for me to start, ESPECIALLY if it’s not really representative of the rest of his work. Maybe I’ll try The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles? Or Kafka on the Shore?

    I thought your discussion on the “reservedness” of Japanese/Asian literature to be really interesting because I recently read my first (?) Japanese author not too long ago (if you recall, I read “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” by Mishima). That book I felt was very expressive and emotionally complicated, but I still felt there was something about it that “felt” Japanese in tone. It’s so hard to express because the writing felt strangely Western and the images were largely accessible to me, and yet there was still a vibe… It was a really rich and rewarding reading experience, and I realize I am woefully ignorant of a lot of Asian literature, so I definitely want to try more of it!

  2. Tuesday, I recommend Kenzaburo Oe for Japanese lit. Am also reading the book Steph is talking about (Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion), it’s really good.

    1. What a late reply! Heheh. I’m really unfamiliar with Oe’s work, but I’ve heard so much about him, Nobel Prize and all. Mishima, I also know nothing about, but I’ve been wanting to read Golden Pavilion ever since Steph mentioned it :)

  3. I remember liking The Hard-Broiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Read some other novels by Murakami but found the quality to be inconsistent. I recommend for Mishima, Tanizaki, Abe Kobo, or Kawabata over Murakami. :)

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