Very few books survive despite being completely honest to heart. The Catcher In The Rye. The Motorcycle Diaries. For Whom The Bell Tolls.
To that list, I can add today – Norwegian Wood.
Written by famed Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami (who owes most of his fame and readership to this book), the book captures the ecclectic and living images of ’60s Japan as well as the turbulent adolescent lives of its protagonists in a way that has rarely been matched. Often one wonders if it is not the almost perfectly woven characters that make you cringe with pain, whoosh with excitement and coo with love rather than the actual story line. Fact remains this could be anybody’s story and it could be about as boring as one wants it to be. But in the lives of Watanabe, Naoko, Reiko, Kizuki and Midori, one sees a part of oneself. And that’s where the book connects.
Set in 1960 Japan, the book revolves around Watanabe, the reclusive and slightly eccentric teenager from Kobe who is often so lost in sorting out his views on things that he ends up being honest about them. For lack of choice. His love for the young, pretty and deeply in love Naoko (but not in love with Watanabe) ends up becoming the central thread of his life to come. The common bond they share is Kizuki. Naoko and Kizuki share a kind of love only innocence can create – sexual but devoid of any judgements. But his adolescent struggle with his life brings him to commit suicide at 17 leaving Naoko with nothing but a bundle of tangled, raw nerves to live the rest of her life on. She breaks. Crushed.
To get away from the pain of the loss, Watanabe comes to Tokyo and leads a life of reclusion, drinks and casual sex. Naoko comes back in his life once more and vanishes after sleeping with him one night. Her nerves get the better of her and she lands up in a sanatorium. As she tries to come to grips with her reality, Midori walks into Watanabe’s life. The struggle begins as Midori tries to find her place in Watanabe’s life, Watanabe tries to hang on to the hope of Naoko someday coming back in his life and Naoko tries to just get along life as any other person on the road would. When things don’t seem to get any better with Naoko, Watanabe makes his decision and decides to give Midori her due without telling Naoko. Naoko suddenly starts getting better and shows hope of complete recovery and guilt of having abandoned Naoko so soon comes over Watanabe like storm clouds in the tropics. Naoko, however, had decided otherwise. She commits suicide. Watanabe ends up with a decision he lives to regret and a girl he cannot possibly tell anything about this. One short lines sums up Watanabe’s story at the end – “Where am I now?”
The most striking thing about the book is the imagery that the author is able to create. The shirt hanging on the clothesline, the tall grass in the meadow, the sensual curves of Naoko, the outworldly sanatorium – all these images are dealt in great detail and give some insight into the working of Watanabe’s mind. Japan comes alive as one leafs through the pages. For precisely this reason, this book will never be one that once can finish in one go. The author forces one to sit back and take in the sights and sounds from Kyoto to Kobe to Tokyo.
The handbills were full of the usual simplistic sloganeering: “Smash faudulent elections of University President!”, “Marshal all forces for new all-campus strike!” and “Crush the Imperial- Educational-Industrial Complex!”. I had no problem with what they were saying but the writing was lame…. The true enemy of this bunch was not State Power but Lack Of Imagination.
There is a startling amount of realism. Urban relationships in the megapolis of Tokyo based on convenience often criss cross the story. Main characters, which make up most of the substance, end up disappearing one after another – Kizuki, Storm Trooper, Nagasawa, Midori’s father, Naoko. Within the one love story, there are many as is often the case with love. Memories often stagnate and new ways of coming to terms with loss are created. Lines which at once hit you at the deepest core of your hidden thoughts – “Only the dead stay seventeen forever”.
But perhaps the thing one gets most baffled about in this book is its potrayal of sex. Satisfaction is rarely correlated to sex and when it does happen it comes out as either a one night stand worth nothing or a lifetime worth of love changing the lives of protagonists forever. Even so there is no dearth of sexual encounters between the players without ending up in consummation. Its queer and yet seems completely natural in the setting.
Read this book. Especially the ones who like or atleast can stand a romantic novel. For others, read it for Murakami. Read it for the picture of the agitating, changing, boiling Japan of the 1960s.