Review of Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’

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. 

It’s not a secret if you know.

I have a secret 

Fragile light within me.

I know it shines through my skin

When you are near to me.

When you speak to me

Even the most passing comment

I glow.

It scares me to think that you

Might see it too

That you know it is within me,

You are the one who turns it on,

Still.

Somehow, only your look 

Your words

Are like little fingers

Which find their way inside me

That turn the dial up.

Somehow, you have a secret map

To connect the wires

Or play my veins 

Into a sad melody.

I am your Spanish guitar.

Each time you leave me

The light goes out

And I am left in darkness.

My body aches to find the switch

Itself

Open the windows to my being

And let the light in.

I do not want your fingers

Or words or music

To know me and open me

I want to glow without you.

Men who write

He once said that

Men who write poetry aren’t manly.

He lived by an arbitrary ideal

Of tall men, strong men, silent men.

All the flowers and fauna and feelings

Are for girls.

Yet disappointment

At the unachievable

Plagued him.

As if the canon has not been defined by men.

By Shakespeare and Wordsworth,

Coleridge, Byron,

Blake, Shelly, and Keats.

By Joyce and Yeats,

And Kavanagh and Heaney.

And Whitman

And Eliot

And Pound.

Poetry is a woman’s game for sure

And his toxic masculinity

And fear of poetry

Has nothing to do

With his inability to verbalise

The disappointment he felt

Having never reached the ideals imposed

On his gender.

Don’t dance, don’t speak out, don’t feel small.

Society regulates us all.

Expectations of gender in teenagers

While all the young boys

Talked about fiddling with themselves,

Normalising it.

We could be branded as a durty slut

If we openly admitted to it.

Or made feel totally ashamed

You never even tried

To do it yourself.

We were told to

Keep our legs closed

Or boys wouldn’t respect us.

That’s probably why we

We have so little for them now.

It was all about the boys really.

We were to police them

To tell them no as if we didn’t want it too

To tell them where our eyes were

And tell them when to use a johnny

Because they wouldn’t if we didn’t.

We are told what to wear

So men won’t leer at us

And if we don’t adhere to the strict dress code

We were asking for it.

We can’t wear thongs under our clothes

Because it would give them the wrong idea

Even before they see it.

We were given rules

Don’t be a slut

But you need sexual experience.

Don’t be a prude,

Or dress like an aul wan.

We are intended to be both

Virginal and sexual

And put clothes and makeup

For the attention of men.

We are to always be on alert to ward men off.

This is the self-serving duplicity

Of the patriarchy.

….

An ‘aul wan’ is an older woman, a sometimes derogatory term from Dublin.

Saying important shit

I’m too coarse to be a poet.

Like Polaris keratosis

On me arms in summer

And my skin just outta the shower.

I want to easily articulate the

Innate truths and fundamental

Universalities of the human

Psyche.

But my tongue is too heavy

And my accent’s spattered with cunts and fucks.

How am I gonna escape the escape, the system of inequality

That relegates working class women’s opinions,

That regulates what we say and how we say it.

What if I don’t talk like a nice lady?

Paint me like onea your Clontarf girls.

Is it so cliche

To want flowers to bloom

From my empty mouth?

Stick fingers down my throat

And try to fish the rainbow out

Make that almost vomit noise.

I ache under the weight of

My contemporaries words.

I eat, sleep, and breath cliche.

My pre-used and once loved words

could never expose the inner workings of the working class experience.

Inside story

I feel almost transparent

In the afterglow of us banging.

You’ve seen me naked,

No makeup, no clothes

No nothing.

Kissed the gap

Between my legs

With dedication.

Everyone is walking around

All ordinary

And my skin is

Screaming our secret at them.

I internally jitter

Do they know what we do

When they’re not around.

I am spilling hot tea everywhere.