First published in: 1987
This edition: Vintage, 2003
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