A Novel For The Heart
When this book, "Norwegian Wood", first appeared in Japan in 1987, the author, Haruki Murakami, became such a celebrity that he fled his native land and lived abroad for several years. Since that time, the book has retained its popularity in Japan and become almost as popular elsewhere. With its intimacy, gentle sadness, and wisdom, the book deserves the love in which it is held.
"Norwegian Wood" describes the search for love in the face of the loneliness which separates people. The story is recounted by the 37-year old narrator, Toru Watanabe, in recollecting his university life in Tokyo eighteen years earlier. Watanabe is moved to reflect on his younger life by hearing a pale orchestral version of the Beatle's song "Norwegian Wood" while flying on a plane to Hamburg. Thus Murakami suggests at the outset how memory pales in comparison to actual events. The narrator, Watanabe, writes down his memories as an act of catharsis.
Although set in Japan, the characters in this book are largely westernized in their interests and behavior. The book is set against the backdrop of the student protests which were a prominent feature of university life in Japan, as in the United States, in the late 1960s. But the element of protest is muted and downplayed. It is largely a foil to the novel's themes of the search for love, intimacy, and sexuality. It is the latter types of things that matter, for the book, rather than the evanescent forms of public protest.
"Norwegian Wood" is a coming-of-age story in the manner of many American novels. The young Watanabe falls in love with two young women, Naoko and Midori. Naoko had been the childhood sweetheart of Watanabe's friend Kizuki, who mysteriously commits suicide at the age of 17. She and Watanabe renew their acquaintance by chance in Tokyo and gradually become intimate. They sleep together only on Naoko's 20th birthday, but this event becomes pivotal to their relationship. Watanabe also befriends and gradually becomes involved with an extroverted, independent young woman named Midori who helps her aging father operate a small bookstore. Watanabe befriends her father when he is dying in the hospital. When Naoko leaves the university to live in a rest home or sanitarium (in the manner of Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain") Watanabe struggles with his feelings for her and for Midori. Even in his maturity, when the reader meets Watanabe age 37, it is unclear whether he has fully resolved his feelings in a way that brings him peace.
Murakami's novel focuses on sex and on its relationship to love. Much of the book describes the frustration of wanting a person that is distant or that one otherwise cannot have. Watanabe, and the young women in this book, all struggle with their feelings. While pursuing his serious relationships, Watanabe, in the company of his friend Nagasawa, frequently and successfully pursue young women in bars for one-night stands, an activity which Watanabe claims brings him little pleasure. In contrast to these incidents, Watanabe has only the single act of consummation with Naoko and apparently none during the course of the book with Midori. In a time of relatively easy sexuality, which is nostalgically and non-critically protrayed, Watanabe tries to know his emotions. Sexuality is portrayed positively, on the whole, and as integral to full human intimacy.
This is a sad tale which ends unhappily for many of its characters. Yet Watanabe and the other figures in the book struggle on to adulthood. Music plays a large role in the book. Much of the story reenacts the enigmatic lyrics to the Beatle song of the title, which was the favorite song of Naoko. Midori is a singer and Watanabe plays the guitar, both poorly. Naoko's friend at the sanitarium, an older woman named Reiko, is a trained classical pianist who continues to play on the guitar, "Norwegian Wood", other Beatles songs, Bach fugues and much else. Reiko also teaches Watanabe a great deal about knowing his own heart. Music, love, and sex are tied intimately here, as they are in life.
Some time ago, I read Murakami's novel "Sputnik Sweetheart" which explores similar themes of love, sexuality, music, and frustration. Although I enjoyed that novel a great deal, it lacks the poignancy of this earlier and on the surface simple love story. This book speaks of the centrality and difficulty in life of the search for love. It also shows the difficulty of knowing oneself.