By: JANICE P. NIMURA
”I once had a girl / Or should I say, she once had me,” go the opening lines of ”Norwegian Wood,” the Beatles song whose title Haruki Murakami borrowed for his 1987 novel. It happens to be a neat summary of Murakami’s basic plot: boy falls for complicated girl and is changed forever. But the song, like the book, is not so easily described. An apparently simple lyric shifts upon closer reading; an oddly haunting snatch of melody repeats in the mind. ”Norwegian Wood” is no idle choice for a title: it creates a subliminal background, both aural and symbolic, for a masterly novel of late-60’s love.
Murakami has become popular in the West for a very different kind of fiction: novels like ”A Wild Sheep Chase” and ”The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” feature matter-of-fact narrators enmeshed in bizarre postmodern fantasias. In his native country, however, ”Norwegian Wood” is the novel that made Murakami famous. Jay Rubin’s superb translation is the first English edition authorized for publication outside Japan. (True fans may have tracked down Alfred Birnbaum’s earlier translation, published for Japanese students of English.) Though it may feel uncharacteristically straightforward to his American following, ”Norwegian Wood” bears the unmistakable marks of Murakami’s hand. Set against the upheaval of the student movement, it is more firmly rooted in Japan (and in Murakami’s own experience) than his other work, but this is, nevertheless, a strikingly Westernized Japan, one where people listen to Bill Evans, read Thomas Mann, drink too much coffee and sound like refugees from a Raymond Carver story. Here also is another of Murakami’s low-key narrators, 37-year-old Toru Watanabe, who recalls the emotional turmoil of his college years with dispassionate detachment. And although what Toru narrates never ventures into the surreal, his story proves that ”ordinary” love is no less rich and strange.
”What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing?” Toru asks as, 20 years later, he tries to set down certain events that took place in the late 1960’s. ”What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?” His question lends the novel a desperate intensity; this is no exercise in soft-focus nostalgia, but an urgent attempt to preserve an exquisitely painful time.
In 1968 Toru is 18, new to Tokyo and living in a private dormitory complex. The buildings give ”the impression of being either apartment houses that had been converted into jails or jails that had been converted into apartment houses,” and the student residents, all male, create a fug of cigarette butts and empty beer cans and dirty laundry — all except for Toru’s roommate, a stuttering geography major whose fanatic cleanliness earns him the nickname Storm Trooper. Neither extreme fazes Toru. Philosophical and almost disturbingly self-contained, he writes off his college years as ”a period of training in techniques for dealing with boredom.”
But then one day he bumps into a fellow student from back home. Naoko was his best friend Kizuki’s girlfriend until Kizuki killed himself — a crisis that begins to explain Toru’s disconnection from his peers as well as Naoko’s increasingly fractured psyche. ”It’s like I’m split in two and playing tag with myself,” she tells Toru. In the course of their mostly wordless Sunday walks along miles of Tokyo streets, a new relationship begins to form, although neither is quite able to define it. In the spring, on the evening of her birthday, Naoko is compulsively chatty, but when Toru mentions his curfew, she begins to sob ”with the force of a person vomiting on all fours.” His desperate efforts to comfort her end in her bed. A few days later she is gone, leaving no forwarding address and taking much of Toru’s shell of composure with her.
It is months before Naoko writes to him from a sanitarium in the mountains outside Kyoto, a place for raveled souls to knit themselves back together. Now it is Toru’s turn to be split in two: half of him waiting, suspended, for Naoko’s recovery, the other half still rooming with Storm Trooper, going to lectures and starting a new friendship with a classmate named Midori. She is the anti-Naoko, a vibrant girl ”like a small animal that has popped into the world with the coming of spring.” Kizuki’s suicide shocked Toru with the realization that death is always present among us, ”and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust.” Midori, who wears her skirts short and wields her candor like a weapon, blows the dust away.
In some ways, the landscape of ”Norwegian Wood” is as disconcerting as that of Murakami’s weirdest work. There are no real homes here, only more or less humane institutions: schools, universities, hospitals. Safe havens don’t exist, and love is never truly unconditional. Sanity is a zero-sum game: a person who offers solace to another often does so at great personal expense. Reiko, Naoko’s wise and slightly wacky roommate at the sanitarium, describes herself as ”the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox” — always helping others to ignite while quietly wearing herself out.
Happiness, it seems, is the ability to ignore hidden danger. When Toru goes to visit Naoko, she tells him about the ”field well,” a dark hole at the border of meadow and forest whose depth is terrifying and whose precise location is unknown. At any moment, ”you could fall in and that’d be the end of you.” Whether the well exists outside Naoko’s troubled mind is irrelevant. The emotional chasm it represents is all too real. Kizuki fell in, and Naoko teeters on its edge.
At 20, Toru finds himself if not at a chasm then at a crossroads. In one direction is the ”quiet and gentle and transparent love” he feels for Naoko, a stalled love with an unhappy present and an uncertain future. In the other is Midori, who inspires in Toru a feeling that ”stands and walks on its own, living and breathing and throbbing and shaking me to the roots of my being.” And cruising beneath is the memory of Kizuki, eternally 17, inviting Naoko and even Toru to opt out of adulthood.
If this were just a love story, either Naoko or Midori would gracefully cede the field, and Toru would stride forward into maturity with the other by his side. But even when Haruki Murakami is writing fantasy, he doesn’t write fairy tales. Toru, trying doggedly to navigate according to his own moral compass, is left with neither resolution nor absolution — just memories, and a song that will always make him shudder.