Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is a love story set in 1960s Japan. I think that when people deem stories to be love stories, it can be very difficult to separate the idea that you will be reading about love, from cliche romance depicted in Hollywood chick flicks. – Not that there’s anything wrong with that – it’s just not really how Murakami depicts love in this story. And, honestly that’s not the type of love story I’m generally interested in. His story articulates something more complex than what can simply be described as a love story; he astutely conveys the complexities of friendship and sexual relations during formative young adult years in college. What resonates from this, is the difficulty people have both being honest and understanding others because of the former. This story seemed so contemporary in style to me that I wondered at times why no one was googling shit or texting, so it is apparent that it’s timeless in its storytelling.
One of the most beautiful and realistic aspects of the narrative is Watanabe’s -the main character- love for Naoko. Now, Naoko isn’t just a 2 dimensional character either. She has a full backstory and a genuine spectrum of very complex emotion. This is of course, something that many love interests lack in a ‘love story’. They were friends first and Murakami shows that well. So we really get the feel for Naoko, what Watanabe loves about her and why he cares for her so deeply throughout the story. Murakami’s style ensures that close connection and friendship comes across in a transparent fashion. It is also very easy to see the successes and pitfalls of their relationship because of their youth and honesty too. There’s a part when Watanabe says that he won’t have sex with anyone else because he doesn’t want to forget her touch and questioned whether or not she knew the importance of her touch to him. It’s simple style like that, that really draws you into Murakami’s story. Like an easily recognisable breakup song.
The blurb itself is something I find misleading actually. It says the story is about this man who hears a song, gets drawn back to his youth in Japan and how he ‘has to choose between his future and his past’ when he meets Midori. So really, my expectations were that we as readers would see snippets of his life in the present day as well as the past. In reality, the entire narrative bar a part of chapter one, is set back in the 60s. The setting is a great antidote to the American 1960s which are usually characterised by an innate sense of freedom, which was sort of happening in Japan in the story but not to the extent that it’s immortalised in film and stories of the American 1960s. We actually see a more honest and in a way Foucaultian, depiction of the 60s. Watanabe is restricted in social setting and can’t really live the free love party all the time lifestyle, he still goes to college and studies and everyday normal aspects of life that go in the background. So the trope of the 1960’s lifestyle is not met. I think as well, while the blurb is true about Midori, putting their relationship down to a ‘choice between his future and his past’ is an oversimplification. Which is fair, because it’s the blurb, don’t give the game away. But, what they have is bizzare and complex and presents itself as a great example of the difficulties people find in being honest in relationships of all sorts. I think where I was mislead is posing Midori as a relationship/sexual interest from the onset. I obviously thought that would go down as the cliched love interest does.
One thing that really struck me that may have been lost in translation was Watanabes sense of humour. He likes to tell stories about his roommate to other characters. The roommate is a clean freak who exercises and loves maps. – My autocorrect just changed that to naps, showing how odd it to love maps. (Not that there’s anything wrong with maps being your niche interest, whatever gets you going.) The roommate becomes the foot of many of Watanabe’s jokes and he always describes them as going down well. However, he never divulges on the content of these jokes and so the reader never gets in on the laugh at these interactions. It was just such a weird thing to read about people laughing and having a great time and the narrator not pulling the joke. It made me think of the narrator as a either being a big liar or seriously unfunny. It really gives you sense that he is a complete outsider and ensures the reader feels like one too. While I think that it could be a feat of style, I also thought this was a pitfall in content. I wanted the laugh, the punchline, the whole conversation.
I’d definitely recommend this book. The characters feel real. They’re complex and endearing. The storytelling is timeless and captivating. Though the main character is -like Harry Potter- never going to be your favorite person in the story, the story is still worth reading. There’s a reason there’s a lot of hype around Murakami and the book exposes it.