Set in 1968 Japan, Murakami's most famous novel is all too relevant today with its sad and gritty depiction of college years.
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This review refers to the 2000 Jay Rubin & Murakami translation. 386 pages, warnings for suicide, death and sexual assault.
A book which is equal parts a love letter to the Japanese countryside and to 60s American pop culture; a coming-of-age tale of first love, simultaneously plagued by death at every corner: it could only be Murakami. I happened upon this book in a mall in Jerusalem in the tiny English section and was intrigued by the stark red cover, so picked it up. Looking at the blurb, I was immediately taken in by the description:
‘When he hears her favourite Beatles song, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki Immediately he is transported back almost twenty years ato his student days in Tokyo, adrift in a world of uneasy friendships, casual sex, passion, loss and desire - to a time when an impetuous young woman called Midori marched into his life and he had to choose between the future and the past.’
I couldn’t wrap my head around this plot description that sounded like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and the setting of the Tokyo of 50-some years ago, of which the little I know of it was quite a conservative society. I immediately bought it, and I remember on the bus home googling the author and finding that he is actually one of the most famous authors in Japan, and that his work is internationally acclaimed. I don’t know what I expected when I got round to actually beginning this novel, but it turned out to be a more intricate, sad and real portrait of university years than I could have imagined.
For the characters of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 novel ‘Norwegian Wood’, there is a constant, seemingly inevitable threat of suicide hovering over their every poor decision and failure. To the western reader this is extreme, but in Japan suicide is somewhat of an epidemic. In 2017 Japan had the seventh highest suicide rate in the world; more people died from suicide in just October of 2020 than of COVID-19 over the whole year. There is a cultural attitude of suicide being tolerable, and in some historical cases, even honorable. The tradition of ‘Seppuku’ was that the samurai warrior would choose an ‘honorable formal suicide’ when it was clear that his defeat was inevitable.
I think Murakami was playing off of this historical attitude when writing this novel. The author presents his characters as easily turning to death when faced with the challenges of relationships, growing up and responsibility. Toru Watanabe was the cheerful third wheel of his best friend and his high school sweetheart, Naoko, until one day Kizuki, their mutual link, suddenly and inexplicably commits suicide just shy of the threesome’s high school graduation, leaving Toru and Naoko behind with unanswered questions and a new darkness in their hearts.
The beginning of the novel follows Toru as he attempts to assimilate into his upper class college in Tokyo where his blasé, American-ish attitude finds him popularity. Toru is very different from his college fellows, who attempt to be passionate about the right thing, illustrated in the book by countless student uprisings and protests which ultimately end in no change with the boys relenting for fear of their grades slipping or of a negative effect on their future careers. I felt that this provided an enlightening insight into the upper-middle class youth of Japan, who feel generations of pressure to get a good job; to conform and to provide a decent life; of forced nationalism (the men must arise at 6am every morning to solute the flag) which has become routine at this point. Toru, however, is not concerned with the political musings and performative activism of his peers, because he really just doesn’t care. I read Toru’s existential ambivalence as a mask for his depression and poor processing of his best friend’s suicide, which he was never really able to deal with.
Norwegian Wood presents an interesting depiction of the differences of depression in men and women. In Japan over 70% of suicides are male; though the main focus of mental health in the novel is of Naoko’s deteriorating state, Toru’s mental state too goes through a rapid decline and yet is barely stated explicitly, despite the novel coming from his point of view. Toru becomes unhealthily fixated on Naoko, desperate to fix her and ignoring his own torn mind. A psychologist would love this book - the characters are so flawed, so juvenile and real that it at times feels like reading a true account of a group of college friends. I wouldn’t even say that any character was really likeable, but their incredible tangibility gripped me and made me care about them. However I was frustrated with the way that all the women in the novel seem to act as a symbol for Toru, and yet they were still well developed and complex. I could certainly relate to the grittier parts of the college experience presented in this book, where high school attitudes carry over and no one is really sure where they stand; this environment is prime for dysfunction and mental illness.
Toru’s life is in the centre of Tokyo, with stunning descriptions of the nightlife of the bustling city, yet there is a kind of cyclical return to the hills of the Kyoto countryside: a different world of quiet snow, few people and immense, ancient mountains. I felt like the huge chasm between the two worlds was emblematic of Toru’s rejection of his own feelings. Though his life is moving forward in Tokyo, he wants nothing more than to run back to peaceful Kyoto and to remnants of his past. Sometimes grief and depression can be an immense, snow covered mountain that is so impossible to overcome that it actually becomes a comfort to stay with it.
Though a bit depressing and male-centric, this book is so real in its subtle depictions of loss, grief and toxicity. What made it a stand out novel to me was the rich and beautiful use of location and the wonderful dialogue. The theme that stood out to me was that the painful topics of suicide and grief need to be talked about amongst young people. It can no longer be swept under the rug or hushed up - as is painfully illustrated in this novel, the danger of a cycle of tragedy is all too real.