“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
I’d never read any Murakami before until a friend recommended this book to me over the summer. Murakami is a Japenese writer but his work is truly international. His work is heavily influenced by his work translating other writers including J D Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut. You can also see the influence of two of my favourite authors: Kafka and Kundera. You can see Kafka’s influence in Murakami’s focus, exploring the self and looking at isolation. In terms of style, Murakami has clearly been influenced by Kundera (a Czech author who was massively influenced by Kafka himself) in his explorations of sex and sexuality as well as themes such as (mis)remembrance and nostalgia.
Norwegian Wood is a story particularly steeped in nostalgia as a middle-aged Toru Watanabe recalls his time as a student in Tokyo in the 1960s. The background is one of revolution, change and consistency. The name of the novel comes from the song by The Beatles, a song that triggers Watanabe’s memory of his student days. The story revolves around love and death. At 17 Watanabe suffers a tragic loss as his best friend Kizuki commits suicide and his death has a profound effect on the protagonist and on Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko. The grief they share forces them closer together, spending more time together until eventually they make love in a moment of profound grief and confusion. For Naoko, the confusion is so great that she is forced to retreat to a sanatorium.
Afterwards, Watanabe befriends the aloof and temperamental Midori — a foil to Naoko. Midori is as outgoing, confident and assured as Naoko is reserved, insecure and confused. A relationship sparks between the two whilst Naoko is away and Watanabe is constantly torn between a relationship with someone emotionally and physically distant but with whom he shares a deep history and connection (Naoko) and one that is immediate, safe and rewarding but new with little foundation (Midori). I shan’t, however, spoil the rest of the story.
Murakami is dealing with difficult subjects, including suicide which he writes about in a very real manner and without judgement. He discusses death and the impact that any death has on the experience of life, on memory and how we think about the dead: “People leave strange little memories of themselves behind when they die.” As someone who is perennially afraid of dying I was surprised to find myself reassured by some of Murakami’s philosophising. He reflects on the inevitability (and almost the necessity) of death: “Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of it. By living our lives, we nurture death.”
Murakami’s style is very rich, his use of the first person really pulls you in and even when Watanabe is in ridiculous situations, you feel like you are there quite naturally. If you are a fan of Kafka and Kundera I’d strongly recommend trying Murakami.