“I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.” (John Lennon and Paul McCartney)
This week’s Five Star Friday recommendation, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, came to me by accident, but I couldn’t put it down. Naturally it was how the song, the classic Beatles tune “Norwegian Wood,” summoned waves of memory and emotion both joyful and heart-wrenching in the adult protagonist. The song also establishes the time period, the late 60’s, as the backdrop of this story. When Toru hears this song on a plane, the reader sees and feels the urgency to remember. He asks himself, ”What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?’
Publishers Weekly Summary: A successful, 37-year-old businessman, Toru Watanabe, hears a version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” and the music transports him back 18 years to his college days. His best friend, Kizuki, inexplicably commits suicide, after which Toru becomes first enamored, then involved with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko. But Naoko is a very troubled young woman; her brilliant older sister has also committed suicide, and though sweet and desperate for happiness, she often becomes untethered. She eventually enters a convalescent home for disturbed people, and when Toru visits her, he meets her roommate, an older musician named Reiko, who’s had a long history of mental instability. The three become fast friends. Toru makes a commitment to Naoko, but back at college he encounters Midori, a vibrant, outgoing young woman.
Many have experienced a crystallizing moment in high school or college when they are faced with the transitory nature of life. The awareness that death is nearby, or as Toru, learned after his friend’s suicide: “Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that.” This loss of confidence, the hard knowledge resulting from eating the forbidden fruit, begs salvation – or distraction – through love, or at least companionship.
Murakami’s efficient prose and the quick pacing prevents the reader from being mired in constant despair. The ordinariness of dorm life, and the quirky students, and the intrinsic and excruciating social awkwardness offset the pain.
As Janice Nimura wrote in her New York Times review: If this were just a love story, one of the love interests that distract him would “gracefully cede the field, and Toru would stride forward into maturity with the other by his side. But even when Haruki Murakami is writing fantasy, he doesn’t write fairy tales. Toru, trying doggedly to navigate according to his own moral compass, is left with neither resolution nor absolution — just memories, and a song that will always make him shudder.”
OTHER BOOKS by Murakami
1Q84 An ode to George Orwell’s “1984” told in alternating male and female voices relates the stories of Aomame, an assassin for a secret organization who discovers that she has been transported to an alternate reality, and Tengo, a mathematics lecturer and novice writer.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage The story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man haunted by a great loss; of dreams and nightmares that have unintended consequences for the world around us; and of a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present. It is a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak for the ages.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle electronic version. Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.
Kafka on the Shore electronic version. Kafka on the Shore is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom.
Rubber Soul The Beatles sound recording