Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Caught in the Woods

Book Review
Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami
New York: Vintage, 2000

"Insanity is contagious." – Joseph Heller

This ran in my head as I read and finished this beautiful novel by Haruki Murakami. The book captures the themes of love, loss, and sexuality, which reflection I'm trying to find in Japanese society. The feelings pent-up, and the emotions boiling underneath a mild-mannered outer shelling, the beautiful Japanese people.

I’ve been wanting to read “Norwegian Wood” since I was first introduced to this award-winning novelist through another of his books, "After Dark". "After Dark" was a bit more simple, but “Norwegian Wood” was immensely rich in images and feelings. I’m not sure about how “Norwegian Wood” feels in its original Japanese-language form, but the translation version was every bit a masterpiece.

Murakami succeeded in bringing us inside the head of Toru Watanabe, who is in love with his dead best friend’s girlfriend, Naoko. Unwilling to let go of the life that he fantasizes with Naoko, Toru is unable to open himself to the love affectionately proposed by another girl, Midori. Kizuki, Toru’s best friend, and the boy who Naoko could never get over, was dead at the beginning of the book but remained omnipresent, haunting the lives of people he touched.

Then, throw into the mix a handful of other “wacky” characters: the older, seemingly “normal” mental institute patient, Reiko; the “perfect” queen, Hatsumi; and her playboy boyfriend, Nagasawa, who is an overachieving under-achiever and an aspiring diplomat… (ehem-ehem …)

The story flows easily between the seemingly “real” world of Toru and Midori, and the dream-like world of Toru and Naoko. It pulls and pushes the reader emotionally, making us question what is real and not, which is the world of the sane and “the mentally incorrect”. At one point, the novel gave me a slight understanding of how many Japanese youths may have plunged themselves into suicide. Every character is pushed to the brink of emotional wreckage, only escapable through death.

I checked a Japanese-English dictionary and learned that “Toru” means either “persistent/transparent” or “the sea”. I couldn’t find any other word that would best describe the central character of this book. Toru lived in this world as if a transparent being, unheeding of other’s feelings even as strong as Midori’s. Toru is also persistent in his self-proclaimed oath to protect Naoko. And more so, Toru’s mind is wide and deep like the sea; or for some, as lost and untraceable as the woods in Norway.

And then, I remembered another quote:

"When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained." – Mark Twain

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