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R&R 052 | Norwegian Wood

Haruki Murakami
Norwegian Wood
First published in: 1987
This edition: Vintage, 2003
ISBN: 0-099-44882-3
Cover photography by Markus Klinko & Indrani
R&R photo: lyrics from The Beatles' Norwegian Wood

While traveling to Hamburg by plane, Toru Watanabe hears the song Norwegian Wood by The Beatles. The song affects him immediately and intensely; as he's physically being transported to Germany, emotionally he's traveling back eighteen years, reminiscing his student days in Tokyo. For Watanabe, that time in his life revolved less about his drama studies, and more about a girl named Naoko. Whose favorite song was Norwegian Wood. Whose boyfriend Kizuki killed himself a few years before, when he was only seventeen years old. (Kizuki, by the way, was Watanabe's best friend.)

It's the late sixties. The closer Watanabe and Noako become since Kizuki's suicide, the more troubled Noako seems to feel; to find peace and to work on her (mental) health, she decides to live in a sanatorium in the mountains. Away from Tokyo. Away, perhaps, from memories. While Watanabe commits himself (and his love) to Naoko and decides to wait for her, fate has other plans for him when he meets a girl named Midori from one of his drama classes. Very gradually, something develops between them, forcing Watanabe to make a choice between his past and what's right in front of him, now.

(When this book was first published in Japan, it sold like hot cakes – four million copies. Murakami was shocked, and unprepared for his newfound fame. He fled to Europe and the States until 1995.)

I knew this beforehand, but Norwegian Wood is quite unlike Murakami's other work (e.g. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). Murakami's exploring his protagonist's coming-of-age in a very real world, instead of raising questions in surreal settings. The book is open about sexuality (and its relation to love) while also handling the subject of mental health very well. Norwegian Wood is really down-to-earth with a melancholy tone throughout the book; the main characters deal with loss, the dilemma's brought forth by love, and disillusionment. (Watanabe's favourite book at some point was F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby; its influences are noticable in Norwegian Wood.)

There has been criticism on Rubin's translation compared with that of Birnbaum. I haven't read the Birnbaum translation, so I will only say what I can about Rubin's, which I liked (preferred also by Murakami himself). Rubin's translation is said to be too simple ("boring"), but I felt that worked for the narrator and the content of the story. Rubin's translation seemed humble.
Also, when people recommend you to "get Birnbaum's translation!" they often fail to mention that these copies are rare, and expensive as a result.

I enjoyed reading Norwegian Wood, even though it wasn't a book I could finish in one day. Patience is something I seem to need when I read a book by Murakami. But so far, that patience has paid off. I'm not sure which side of Murakami I prefer. The side of him that makes me wonder, or the side that writes down a story so human (so achingly real). I'm glad that by writing Norwegian Wood, he has made both sides available to his readers.

R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008-2009

R&R 033 | The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Happy new year everyone! A year in which I hope to write plenty more book reviews!

Haruki Murakami
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Translated by: Jay Rubin
First published in 1997
This edition: Vintage international, 1998
Cover design by John Gall
Author’s website:

It’s the 80’s in Tokyo, and the seemingly ordinary lives of Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko take a turn for the unusual when their cat disappears. Fresh out of work and with little else to do in his daily life, Toru sets out to find their pet, thinking that this is the only concern he has in his life. But trouble isn’t finished with Toru yet; soon after their cat disappears, Kumiko vanishes out of thin air. As Toru sets out to locate her, a series of bizarre events take place, involving even stranger people. (The girl next door May Kasahara is among them, as is Kumiko’s brother Noboru Wataya, a cunning and evil politician.) With both the help and resistance from people surrounding him, Toru’s search carries him into a world completely different from the one he’s always known on the surface.

This is the first novel by Murakami I have read, and it took me about two and a half months to finish it. The book wasn’t difficult, and by no means dull. I just found myself needing regular breaks in order to fully… digest what I had just read.

And every time I picked it up again, I got sucked back into the story, only to reach out to a completely different book 10 pages later.

This book, in a way, haunted me.

Frustration often set in as my confusion with him grew. Murakami often appears to be trailing off, and it’s hard to know where he’s going with it all. But I began to see that one is better off to accept Murakami’s symbolic, rather free-writing style. The best reaction to have here, I learned, is to let go and ‘free-read’ – and to enjoy the peculiarity instead of to reject it simply for not completely understanding it.

Throughout all of it, Murakami’s great sense of black humor reveals itself, and his characters are wildly interesting (especially May Kasahara, the youngest of the bunch at sixteen, but somehow the wisest, most mature one of all). It must be said that although it was a terribly confusing story, there is definitely a sense of closure, with core subjects that might be described unusually, but which are obviously confronted by Murakami’s characters: the evil that the human race is capable of, and the responsibilities we as part of the human race must take.

Closure, yes – but a lot is left to still be discovered. Since this was my first experience with Murakami’s work, it also served as an introduction to his bizarre world; Murakami apparently uses recurring themes in a lot of his novels. Themes I haven’t yet completely identified or seen. Having read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has left me feeling aware that I need to acquaint myself with more of Murakami’s work in order to get – not a full, but – a better understanding of him as an author.

It’s odd, really… but this is exactly how I should sum it up: I finished this book, all 600 pages of it, but finishing it has left me feeling like… I’ve only just begun.


Note: I do have another Murakami on my bookshelf – Norwegian Wood – but it’s a different book from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in a sense that it’s more serious.

R&R series (and its photos, reviews) © Karin Elizabeth 2008-2009