‘Norwegian Wood’ is a novel by Haruki Murakami published in 1987.
This book was on my TBR for the longest. Yeah, it is one of those books that is bound to be there on your TBR! Murakami is certainly one of those authors that every book lover seems to have read and recommends. So, here I go with my experience of reading his book.
The narrative is simple. And, the language is meek so it is easy to just let yourself go with the flow. ‘Norwegian Wood’ is essentially a tale of love and friendship set in Japan of the late 1960s, a relatively unknown part of the world in English literature. What makes ‘Norwegian Wood’ strike a chord with the readers? It is the exploration of depression and its deep-seated impact on young minds. The book envelopes you in melancholy and you can feel an emotional connect with the characters. Though at many places, it feels way too indulgent.
The story begins with Toru Watanabe, 37-years-old on a flight, feeling dizzy and then, having a flashback of memories. He is transported some twenty years back in his life. In 1968, Toru’s best friend Kizuki committed suicide at the age of 17 for no foreseeable reason and left no note behind. Kizuki’s death had a great impact on Naoko, his girlfriend and Toru. Their lives were shattered and affected forever. The two move out of Kobe to put the past behind. However, Toru and Naoko meet in Tokyo after two years and come close but under the shadow of Kizuki’s death.
Naoko is certainly more disturbed and has to leave for the sanatorium, after spending the night of her 20th birthday with Toru. The sense of aloofness and mystery shrouding Naoko is persistent throughout the book. Kizuki’s death is the absolute truth, overpowering the feelings between Toru and Naoko. “This boy Kizuki: what had his existence meant to me? To this question I could find no answer. All I knew – with absolute certainty – was that Kizuki’s death had robbed me for ever of some part of my adolescence.” The despair in this relation is the core of the story.
Apart from sorrow and grief, there is Toru’s college life which is as interesting as it may get. There are characters like Strom Trooper, who is driven to achieve his professional goal and loves what he is studying. In contrast, Toru is uninterested and isolated, more inclined to read books. He meets Nagasawa, who belongs to a wealthy family and has his future sorted. This means he has privileges to leave the dormitory at night, go to the bar for drinks and sleep with girls. Being friends with Nagasawa, Toru joins in for his late-night outings. It is much later when preached by Hatsumi, Nagasawa’s girlfriend that Toru realizes that if he is truly in love with Naoko then he should wait for her, without being with other girls.
In college, Toru meets Midori, a classmate in History of Drama. Midori is an interesting character. Her background is fascinating, belonging to a middle-class family (as we would put in the Indian context), daughter of a bookshop owner in a small town and sent to a rich people’s school for being academically proficient. It isn’t on-the-face-bullying, but there is drudgery as Midori shuttles between the two economic classes – her family and her classmates. And, their inherent incapability to understand the lifestyle of the other class. There is also her mother’s disinterest in cooking that requires Midori to acquire culinary skills at a young age by investing her pocket money into buying cookbooks. When Midori’s mother passed away about two years back, her father grieved more for his wife and showed no affection for his daughters.
To give context, Murakami inserts portions of the university unrest of the 1960s. But, there is very little relevance of these references to the narrative. These references are anyways sporadic. As the studies are disturbed during the protests, Toru takes up odd jobs.
‘When the strike was defused and lectures started up again under police occupation, the first ones to take their seats in the classroom were those arseholes who had led the strike.’
Between Midori and Toru, the two want to be defiant of the student leaders. “The true enemy of this bunch was not State Power but Lack of imagination.” They felt the student leaders demeaned those who did not comply with their views. Their protests had no real meaning for the working class.
As Toru spends more time with Midori, there seems to be an imminent love story at the brim. Especially with Toru taking care of Midori’s dying father admitted at the hospital. But, this love story is struggling to emerge under Naoko’s shadow.
Toru receives a letter from Naoko to visit her at the sanatorium. And, Toru reaches this isolated sanatorium. Here, he meets with Reiko. To me, Reiko is the character that shines out in the book. Her poignant tale of emotional breakdown from being an excellent piano performer to the divorced woman in her late thirties living in isolation in the sanatorium is narrated in such a gripping way. The title is also drawn from her as she plays ‘Norwegian Wood’ on her guitar for Naoko. And, because the tune has such a saddening effect on Naoko, she has to pay Reiko every time she requests her to play, just to curtail the pang.
This portion on the secluded hill for sanatorium has been the best part for me. I wanted Reiko to snatch away the plot and become the narrator or the lead character.
I think Murakami brings across characters of Midori and her sister who went through greater loss and suffering, yet marched ahead carrying the burden of their responsibilities in contrast to other characters. Reiko buckled under the pressure and ruined her happy life as she lived alone for eight years in the sanatorium. On similar lines are the lives of Naoko and Kizuki. Now, given the story, we do not understand whether Toru ended as Reiko or lived like Midori. The only surety being that Toru lived until the age of 37 and remembered Naoko!
From the beginning of Toru’s life in the hostel room, you begin to draw similarities with Holden Caulfield of ‘Catcher in the Rye’. And, midway through the book, the author incorporates a line from Midori to Toru, “The way you speak is so funny, don’t tell me you’re trying to imitate that boy from catcher in the rye”. In Norwegian Wood, the elements of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ is brought out in greater magnitude – from coping with death, physical explorations and confusion in late teens.