reading my way through every country in the world…
Currently Browsing: Japan

#11 Japan – Alex in Wind-up-bird-land

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
By Haruki Murakami
Vintage Books, 2003

Who needs to take drugs? Having just read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, my brain feels like to has been subjected to more altering states, bends, twists and turns than Charlie Sheen’s is on a typical Saturday night.

The book is like a modern day Alice in Wonderland except Alice is a 30-something Japanese man whose adventures begin after pursuit of a cat rather than a rabbit and who rather than accidentally ending up at the bottom of a magical hole, voluntarily descends into a magical well.

Another version of the cover featuring the cat...

Like Alice, however, Toru Okada shares his adventures with a cast of increasingly bizarre characters with names like Malta and Creta (named after the islands Malta and Crete) and Cinnamon and Nutmeg. Toru’s encounters with these people and various others within the book form multiple parallel storylines that interweave into a complex web that you will find yourself trapped within and then spun mercilessly around and across all 600-odd pages.

The book begins simply enough -  in fact, it seems Murakami’s intention is to introduce a character whose life is so exceptionally “average” (is that an oxymoron?), even mundane, in order to set up an even more starkly contrasting state of affairs as the ensuing narrative unfolds.

Toru has recently left an unsatisfying job as a legal assistant and rather than pursuing career aspirations or completing his legal studies, he prefers to spend his days tending to the house he shares with his wife Kumiko, cooking pasta, collecting dry cleaning and roaming the streets searching for their recently lost cat. Murakami describes this existence in all its monotonous minutiae – one of my favourite parts of the novel is when Kumiko and Toru have a fight over the fact that despite their long relationship, Toru has failed to realise that Kimiko hates blue tissues, patterned toilet paper and beef with green peppers which Toru continues to buy and make, respectively.

Breaking this unremarkable existence, however, is a phone call Toru receives from a mysterious woman who later comes to play an increasingly important part in the novel when not only Toru’s cat but his wife inexplicably disappear and this strange caller is supposed to know something about it.

So begins Toru’s quest to find his wife and, it would seem, to find himself. Each of the characters Toru meets from this point on have some influence on this process of self-discovery (if not the search for Kumiko) yet it could also be said that each character is also undertaking their own journeys. While there are few sweeping statements that can be made about the characters and plot lines in this book, what did strike me is that each of these characters has experienced some form of significant tragedy in their lives and their rather unusual behaviours are perhaps coping mechanisms for dealing with this.

Another cover...

There is Toru’s neighbour May, for example, a Lolita-esque teen who having lost her boyfriend to a motorcycle accident in which she was also involved, is no longer able to attend school but spends her days sitting in public areas, categorising bald men for research on behalf of a wig manufacturer. She later finds solace working for the wig company in a factory in the mountains.

There is Lieutenant Mamiya who having witnessed an almost unspeakable torture during the Nomonhan Incident in World War II and was himself left for dead by the Soviets and Mongols in the bottom of a deserted well, is no longer capable of love but finds some sort of catharsis in recounting his story to Toru.

Then there is Creta Kano who was raped by Toru’s brother-in-law and has subsequently become a “prostitute of the mind” – able to inhabit men’s (including Toru’s) dreams, resemble the form of their partners (e.g. Kumiko) and sleep with them…well, in their subconscious, at least.

And another cover...

There is Nutmeg Akasaka, the daughter of a man who also suffered brutal acts during  WWII and who had a mysterious blue-black mark appear on his face similar to a mark which suddenly takes shape on Toru’s face and provides the means by which Nutmeg and Toru meet. Nutmeg’s husband, we discover, was murdered in a shocking manner and following his death, Nutmeg also found herself unable to continue working as a designer. She soon discovers, however, that she has a magical healing power – an ability to find and extract the “something” in others’ heads that causes them physical pain. She  has set up a successful consultancy, sharing administrative duties with her son Cinnamon who, has found his own way of coping with his father’s murder – becoming a mute – and he attends to the daily tasks of the business with an almost obsessive-compulsive order and rigidity.

Finally, there is Kumiko who we eventually discover not only suffered a complex and difficult childhood but also shared a tragedy with Toru from which she has never fully recovered. Her way to cope with this is to leave Toru.

As for Toru, his way of dealing with the disappearance of his wife and perhaps also an existential dilemma being thrust upon him is to retreat into the depths of an abandoned well, which later comes to take on magical properties.

This action is not only a mirroring of what occurred to Lieutenant Mamiya but also a literal manifestation of advice given to him by his spiritual guide: “The point is not to resist the flow. You go up when you are supposed to go up and down when you are supposed to go down. When you are supposed to go up find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you are supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom”.

If all of this sounds confusing and strange, that is because it is. This book is not a straightforward read, nor will it tidily tie up its ends into a neat bow; producing, instead, a complicated tangle which you could sit and unpick for hours and still find more knots. Parts of the novel are extremely confronting – I actually had to skip a few pages during Lieutenant Mamiya’s description of the torture inflicted by the Soviets – other parts are extremely frustrating. Toru is so emotionally inert at times and exasperatingly unquestioning that he almost verges on vacuity. He is a man who lets life happen to him and his lack of overt responses to some of the most ridiculous events occurring to him – e.g. Nutmeg licking the blue-black mark on his face – borders on absurd. I found it difficult to empathise with Toru (in fact, at times I wondered how Kumiko ever married him at all) but I suspect Murakami intends to create this distance between the character and reader to add to the surreal nature of the book.

As for the cultural value of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I knew I was taking a risk choosing this b0ok for Japan as I had heard that it is not overly defined by its setting. However, I did learn a lot about Japan’s involvement in WWII, its ownership of Manchuria as a puppet state and tensions with Mongolia which were some of the best parts of the book.

Rather like the experience of reading Alice the point is to suspend belief, to  excuse unresolved and sometimes inexplicable plot lines and to simply be swept away on the current of novelty, imagination and sheer unpredictability that is Murakami’s writing. I defy you to start reading and be able to put this book down.

My next stop takes us to snowy Finland, perfect timing for Xmas!

The Literary Nomad xx

General reading value: 4.5/5
Armchair travel value: 1.5/5

More on Japan…

Capital: Tokyo

Population: 127,360,000

Area: 377,944km2

Language: Japanese

Religion: Shinto/Buddhism

Currency: Yen

Delay your stay: The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden; An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro; Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto; The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki Shikibu; Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe; Silence by Shusaku Endo

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens