Just finished Norwegian Wood (1987) by Haruki Murakami. As usual I’m a little late with hypes, but I blame this lack of Nobel-Prize-style literary adventures on the recent exploration project of YA fantasy/SF in the name of research. At any rate, I picked up this novel two days ago – and found myself glued to its pages. I’m replacing it in my bookshelf with a dreamy, slightly dazed mind, not quite able to let go.
It echoes plenty of Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger), the world famous classic that never gets old. Murakami definitely follows in Salinger’s footsteps with this novel, but there are critical differences.
While the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye throws his story at you, not caring one bit whether you want to listen or not, Norwegian Wood presents itself with a sober melancholy that reaches all the way into my heart. Toru Watanabe, the main character, is not apologetic about his story, not at all. Instead there is an urgency in his telling, not undercut in any way by the opening scene where a song from the past brings back terrible memories and sparks his telling of his youth.
Having lived in Tokyo, every word depicting its lights, its bustle, its anonymous atmosphere materialises in my inner eye through Murakami’s description. It takes me there. I can imagine that this deep-felt reality of his Tokyo also manifests itself in a mind unfamiliar with its physical being. Watanabe the speaker gently takes the reader’s hand and leads her safely through Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Kobayashi – much like Naoko does the protagonist himself in the novel.
There is never any danger. The slippery balance act always present in the narrative of Catcher in the Rye is not threatening here. Instead Murakami holds his reader’s hand, sometimes letting it go, but always making sure that he’s there, ironically, ready to catch.
I think many readers can identify with at least one of the characters in Norwegian Wood, irrespective of background or history. The perpetual loneliness infecting their hearts paints the image of a universal state of mind, here brought to a deeper, visceral level.
It felt strange to relate so strongly to a character (I will not say which one), to see my thoughts put down in print by an author so far away in time and space. But there they were.
Perhaps that is the strength of Norwegian Wood? Its universality, its ability to understand, to comfort, to rationalise all that which we feel as a jumbled mess in our hearts? Norwegian Wood doesn’t concern itself with every human problem in the world, but it takes one of the most fundamental ones – loneliness – and breaks it down into comprehensible entities: atoms of matter, easier to handle (if not to understand).
I think it safe to say that Norwegian Wood will not leave my conscious mind for a long time.