Love, loss; the stuff of historyHaruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” traces the life of Toru, a college student in Tokyo in the late 1960s. He has just arrived from his small town, having endured the unexpected suicide of his closest high-school friend. It is this friend’s girlfriend who, in time, will become his first love.
Her name is Naoko. At first, their mutual activity of choice is walking. After finishing class each day, they pass through the streets of Tokyo together, stopping only when night begins to fall, the lights of the city reflecting off the damp streets. Soon the energy between them becomes charged; they are 20, they have shared a loss, their country is going through turbulent changes.
Almost as soon as they come together, however, they find themselves pulled apart. Their friend’s suicide is still too heartbreaking for Naoko, and she commits herself to a mental institution. Through letters and visits, they are able to stay close, even as Toru begins to deal with the pangs of slowly losing what he thought he never could. This difficult realization is helped by his relationship with a remarkable girl from class and by Naoko’s roommate, whose sage advice on life is interspersed with strains of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” strummed on her guitar.
This is the novel that, upon publication in 1987, catapulted its author to superstardom. But it was only officially made available in English two years ago. Why so? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Murakami is celebrated more for pop-culture-fueled narratives melding fantasy and reality, such as “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” The latter novel ― in which fragmented World War II passages are infused with with, and distanced by, a kind of magical realism ― is also praised as the writer’s fictional take on Japan’s difficult modern history.
I want to make a case. For many, to address history ― especially Japan’s ― is to address war. Entering this novel’s world is a totally different project, but no less real. It’s all here: apprehension about the future, about one’s country; that time when losses feel so acute and love feels truer than seems possible, all set against the backdrop of the Japanese student movement, with music being piped in from England and America. My case is this: This novel says more about modern Japanese history than “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” does. History is, after all, only human.
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin
18,540 won ($16) at
Kyobo Book Centre
by Jason Zahorchak