Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

A typhoon brought in rain from the south today. The amount of rain and wind is unpredictable, so I layered on my raingear this morning, piece by piece. From plastic bags in my shoes, to trash bags covering my back pack and a rain jacket, I waterproofed myself as well as I could. When I finally went outside, I was surprised at well I had wrapped myself up and how dry I managed to stay on the way to the train station. The visor attached to my jacket shielded my eyes from the worst of it and kept the rain off my face and out of my eyes.

As I waited at the train station, the usual group of high school boys eyed me as they talked amongst themselves. When I got on the train, I placed my backpack on the overhead rack, as usual, after taking out Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. As I became immersed in the book my thoughts began to take on the particular quality of the words. The translation is very good, though I wish my Japanese was good enough that I could read it in the original Japanese.

The story is not sad, not exactly, but throughout the story the theme of suicide is touched on frequently. This ordinary boy living day to day is faced with so many stories of suicide, and is deeply impacted by one that touched his life during high school. The thing that strikes me the most is the thing that he doesn’t understand either. I have never understood the high rate of suicide in Japan; why you see it on the news all the time, why there are trends for different types of the suicide. The character Watanabe doesn’t seem to understand either. For a book that takes place in the free time of the 60s, it seems that while some things in Japanese culture have changed dramatically, others have remained the same.

This book doesn’t make me feel sad, as I might have expected. Instead, there is a certain quality of “the real” that imbues it. The characters seem so real, like the type of people you meet everyday. Woven throughout the story are references to great Western books, like Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, and other authors as well; Dickens and Faulkner. The theme of the book, the melody of Norwegian Wood, reoccurs throughout. The story is bittersweet at times, but also reminds me of college days.

Upon arriving at the train station, I watched as the other cyclists wrapped themselves and their belongings in plastic and waterproofs and I felt a strange sense of unity with them; we are all the ones biking in the rain because we must. As I cycled the last leg of my route, from the train station to my office, I thought about this book and half formed thoughts floated throughout my head, but I couldn’t remember the words to Norwegian Wood.

13 Responses to “Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami”
  1. Ben Reinhart says:

    I love Murakami’s work. I’ve only read a few of his books but I’ve been told from some Russian readers that Wild Sheep Chase is his best. I’ll have to check out Norwegian Wood after I’m done with Kafka by the Shore and Wild Sheep Chase. I just finished Wind-up Bird Chronicles and so far it’s my favorite of his writing.

    I don’t think we miss out much reading it in English, although one of the Russian readers insisted that his stories are best in Russian. Of course, I’ve heard he’s fluent in both Russian and English.

  2. Bahia says:

    I read that Norwegian Wood was one of his most conventional books, and some of his fans were upset that it was “just a story”. However, the in the translater’s note, he explains how it still maintains a lot of the key elements of Murakami’s other work.

    This is the first Murakami novel that I’ve read, but I am looking forward to reading another one.

    I would also that you will always miss a little bit by reading a translation, rather than the original work. But I did find the translation of this book to be excellent.

  3. susanna says:

    I think you are beginning to write like Murakami. You re-telling of the typhoon is lovely. I love all Murakami’s book but my favorite by far is ‘Wind-up Bird’.

  4. Sam says:

    It’s next on my list of Murakamis, I already have a dogeared copy but I dunno, I keep putting it off for other books. Murakami is a pretty major emotional commitment.

  5. Bahia says:

    susanna: When I was writing this post with the book fresh in my mind, I definitely felt that I was picking up some of his qualities.

    Sam: I think you’re right. It’s definitely an emotional commitment and the theme of suicide running through this book certainly takes an emotional toll. At the same time, I didn’t come away feeling depressed, but rather reflective.

  6. parallelsidewalk says:

    I love the English translations of Murakami I’ve read. I think “South of the Border, West of the Sun” is his underrated masterpiece, but Wind Up Bird and Hard Boiled Wonderland are both absolutely brilliant too.

    Interesting blog, I always like reading stuff by ex-pats in east Asian, I’m planning to return to China to teach later this year. I’ll be back, I’m sure.

  7. minervanmuse says:

    Interesting musings on Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, here. :)

    While I’m about halfway through the novel at present (it was recommended by a dear friend, who’s a big Murakami fan), I guess I feel a tad like what U’ve related here, too.

    That the novel doesn’t quite leave you upset, but just amused enough to reflect on Murakami’s (through Watanabe’s eyes) views on issues as death and love wrt younger adults.

    Thought your reference to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was esp. pertinent since one could also describe Murakami’s work here as a coming-of-age novel, albeit one where the adolescent Watanabe discovers his romantic leanings.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts with one & all.
    Do take care & Wishes, minerva*

  8. Bahia says:

    parallelsidewalk: I believe that there is only 1 translator outside Japan authorized to translate Murakami’s works for a non-Japanese audience, so perhaps that’s why there is a consistency in quality. A bad translator can really ruin a novel, but Jay Rubin (?) really did a great job with Norwegian Wood.

    minervanmuse: I especially liked how people keep telling him he talks funny and asking him if he’s “trying to be like that kid from Catcher in the Rye“. This novel is just rich with references to literary classics. I now feel that I need to re-read The Great Gatsby.

  9. minervanmuse says:

    Yes, I found that (ie. the Catcher in the Rye ref.) pretty amusing too. :)

    Ah, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a sheer classic – lovely satire of the American Jazz age, with loads of memorable quotes & musings to keep one company for a lifetime..
    U should make time for it again, yep. ;)
    Do take care & Wishes, minerva*

  10. ariel says:

    Norwegian Wood is by far my favorite Murakami. I loved Wind Up BIrd, and Kfka on the Shore, but Norwegian Wood was a book I was really able to relate to. I have the new one, as well as another book of his on my shelf, and I think I will be reading them this summer. When you get back you should join my book group.

  11. Jennifer Sweeney says:

    Have you read Underground, the transcription of Murakami’s interviews with the victims and perpetrators of the sarin subway attacks? It is the most amazing cultural autopsy, especially engrossing if you are a non-Japanese living or having lived in Japan.

  12. Bahia says:

    Ariel, I would love to join your book club!

    Jennifer, I have not read those interviews but they sound fascinating. I will try to check them out.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] read this book a few months ago after having it on my shelf for quite some time.  I had previously read Norwegian Wood, which I enjoyed, but people kept telling me it was different than all of Murakami’s other […]

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