Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Book Review: Murakami's Norwegian Wood: Sex, Suicide, and Love in 1960s Japan

"Don't feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that." 
A cross between Joyce's Ulysses and Kerouac's On the Road, Haruki Marakumi takes the reader on a stumbling, windy journey from teenager to adult in Norwegian Wood (2000). Set in the 1960s, our protagonist Watanabe is out of place at his university but takes on habits--obsessive cleaning, wanton sexual flings, etc.--of his more polished, affluent students. He quickly tires of the pomp and false fronts--characterized by one suicide after another--and sets out to find himself. In the meantime, he is caught between two women: Naoko, a friend in a strange, bitter love triangle who cannot bring herself to consummate her relationship with Watanabe more than once; and Midori, a carefree, unpredictable woman also out of place among affluent classmates but from a working class background that grounds her and her sister. Midori is so captivating, so passionate, the book pales until she enters, like the Kate Winslet character in the 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Later, another woman enters the mix and allows Watanabe to move forward, but until the very end, his desires vacillate between a love he cannot have and a love he cannot predict. 

Unfortunately, the translation from Japanese to English creates stilted dialogue. Only Midori's conversations seem unforced. Perhaps Watanabe intended Midori to be the only interesting character in the book, but it's hard to believe he deliberately made all other characters bleak in order to let Midori's light shine that much brighter. If you can tolerate the dreary first 65% of the book, the final 35% is well worth your time. 

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