I am not a great fan of Murakami though he seems to have acolytes in legions. I do, however, have a good friend who is his advocate (he even has a Japanese boyfriend) and so have now acquiesced three times. I found ‘Norwegian Wood’ somewhat distant and not greatly engaging. ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage’ I enjoyed a lot more with a clear narrative and developmental line with good writing as well. My Svengali tells that ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’ abounds in ‘magical realism’ which probably explains my main difficulty with it.
All the usual colour that typifies his novels are present – Western clothing, music, food and drink. Essentially there are not a lot of characters and they are developed but always somewhat mistily with plenty of question marks left over their motivations. In effect a somewhat ineffectual drifting married man (Toru Okada) loses his wife and his cat. After a lot of meandering, the cat and wife return – end of novel. The organization is episodic with diverse storylines often developed separately but which eventually coalesce and offer insights. This is certainly seen in the case of his use of the Manchuko episode in Japanese history in its broadest sense. Some of the writing concerning more gruesome aspects of the invasion is the best in the book.
I had difficulty with the ‘down the well’ aspects of self-realisation that dominate the novel and very little with the metaphysical or magical aspects. This is purely a matter of personal taste but I find it intrusive like the US phenomenon of having dead characters come back and offer advice to the living.
I have read reviews that offer a variety of themes ranging from an analysis of modern Japanese life and especially the male role in society and in contemporary politics through to an attempt to come to grips with the sometimes self-denied aspects of Japan at war with emphasis on their behaviour in Manchuria and China and I was aware of these at times. My last comment would be that I would have preferred less cloudiness, obliqueness and ‘magic realism’ in what was presented – but then that may simply be a very Japanese and/or Murukami way of dealing with these issues.
Here, in part, is a borrowed exposition of some of the plot.
‘The story of ”The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” (the title refers to a weird, unseen bird, whose cry is a recurring harbinger of evil) is a hallucinatory vortex revolving around several loosely connected searches carried out in suburban Tokyo by the protagonist-narrator, Toru Okada, a lost man-boy in his early 30’s who has no job, no ambition and a failing marriage. When his cat disappears, he consults a whimsical pair of psychics, sisters named Malta and Creta Kano, who visit him in his dreams as often as in reality. Then his wife leaves him, suddenly and with no explanation, and he spends his days hanging out with an adolescent girl named May Kasahara, a high-school dropout obsessed with death, who works for a wig factory. At one point, seeking solitude, Toru descends to the bottom of a dry well in the neighborhood, and while he’s down there, he has a bizarre experience, which might or might not be another dream: he passes through the subterranean stone wall into a dark hotel room, where a woman seduces him. This experience leaves a blue-black mark on his cheek that gives him miraculous healing powers. Eventually, he’s rescued by Creta Kano, who reveals to him that she has been defiled in some hideous, unnatural way by Toru’s brother-in-law, a politician whose rising career appears to be propelled by demonic powers.
As the plot proceeds, with Toru spending more and more time in the well or else in the mysterious hotel room, it becomes harder and harder to tell what’s real and what’s not. Toru’s story is also interrupted at several points by characters who wander in to tell stories of their own, and these Boccaccio-like interpolations contain some of the best writing in the book. One, for example, is an account of a Japanese soldier’s experiences in Outer Mongolia during the war. While on a spy mission in enemy territory, his outfit is captured by Mongolian and Russian soldiers. He is forced to watch one of his comrades being skinned alive, and then is left to die at the bottom of a well — an experience that echoes or foreshadows Toru’s. This story is balanced by another, in the second half of the book, about a soldier posted in Hsin-ching, the capital of Japanese-occupied Manchuria. With Chinese soldiers closing in, he is ordered to kill the animals in the zoo to prevent them from escaping. It’s a terrible tale, told with icy coolness: ”The officer gave his order, and the bullets from the Model 38 rifles ripped through the smooth hide of a tiger, tearing at the animal’s guts. The summer sky was blue, and from the surrounding trees the screams of cicadas rained down like a sudden shower.” ’