[Originally published in Pulp magazine]
Biding Time, Drinking Wine
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin
Vintage International, 293 pages
I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.
— Haruki Murakami
Memory play and full-blooded romance, bildungsroman and reverie — not words one ordinarily associates with Haruki Murakami, who has created his own subgenre of laconic antiheroes, metaphysical detective plots, disappearing elephants, and women with perfectly-formed ears. Yet his straightforward Norwegian Wood (1987), which ranks with A Wild Sheep’s Chase (1982) as his masterpiece, stands as an anomaly and turning point in his career, its mega-success in Japan (four million copies sold) bestowing upon him the status of Literary God, the subsequent idolatry leading to self-imposed exile in the US for nearly a decade. Despite this popularity, and the novel’s unique position in Murakami’s ouevre as, well, something more normal, Norwegian Wood has curiously been neglected in translation; until now, Grail seekers had to make do with an Alfred Birnbaum edition (Kodansha Books) intended for Japanese students. Fortunately, Vintage International has provided some long-overdue rectification with Jay Rubin’s new translation.
Perhaps it’s not so difficult to understand the novel’s absence from American bookshelves: it is clearly aimed at a Japanese audience, embracing archetypes of doomed love and suicidal youths one can trace from The Tale of Genji to present-day soap operas. Like Murakami’s other semi-autobiographical works (Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973), it is set in a concrete time and place (Tokyo 1968-1970), generating instant nostalgia. In place of the spiraling zaniness characterizing fantasies such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) is a downright tame plot: middle-aged man remembers when he was a decent but emotionally removed college boy; boy falls for beautiful but emotionally disturbed girl; boy also falls for lively normal girl; boy must grow up and choose.
Bowing to the mainstream, some might say. But Norwegian Wood welds the usual array of Murakami-isms — a hero living the life of stoic desperation, chatty oddballs adept at expressing their tumultuous inner lives, calamities and absurdities related in deadpan tones — to a sturdy story which doesn’t skimp on characterization. The result is a formidable balance of narrative depth, understated melancholy, wry humor, and big-as-outdoors passions. Ironically enough, the strictures of romantic nostalgia draw out some of Murakami’s least mannered writing. His grand tour of Japanese ennui circa 1970 is replete with short-haired women, casual sex, Nietzsche wanna-bes, and hysterical nationalists, and there is real affection in his evocations of the period. His powers of description have also never been better: deserted bookstores, rowdy student dormitories, and idyllic Kansai mountain retreats are painted with deft strokes. In the book’s most lyrical passage, he even reinvigorates the hoariest of cliches, the coming together of lovers in a rainstorm. Accordingly, Rubin supplies a relaxed yet precise translation which lacks the jaunty, jazzy feel of Alfred Birnbaum’s Kodansha version, but fits the meditative richness of the novel to a tee.
Murakami fans should not lose heart: his terse eloquence still takes center stage, and the man doesn’t have a mundane bone in his body. Even in a straight story such as this, one will find moments of whimsy centering on panty bonfires, a dying man’s final meal of cold cucumbers, unusual masturbation fantasies, and bringing Mann’s Magic Mountain on a visit to a sanitarium. This novel is startling proof that Murakami’s offbeat sensibility is at its best — indeed, perhaps better than any other writer of his generation — when he evokes the world of the young adult: the goofy collisions of high and low culture (where else will you find references to Euripides side-by-side with such banalities as “Life is like a box of cookies”?); brand names as incantations; the unearned world-weariness; the sudden, wonderful discovery that we aren’t as impervious to emotion as we thought we were. We see in these characters idealized reflections of ourselves — funky, quirky, a little touched in the head perhaps, always ready to equate life with a barrage of artistic signifiers ranging from Miles Davis to The Great Gatsby and The Graduate.
Despite the near-banality of its plot, Norwegian Wood tends to linger in the memory. Undercurrents of sadness and yearning are present in all of Murakami’s works, but they find their full flower here in the person of this novel’s narrator, who remains rootless and beaten down in the present day despite his tale of hope reborn. There is a sense that the entire story may simply evaporate from memory upon its conclusion, only to resurface at an unknown future. Much like the titular Beatles song which inspires the narrator, the book is ultimately bittersweet and enigmatic, an invocation with the smile-tugging immediacy of a pop jingle.