Norwegian Wood sold more than 4 million copies in Japan—all
the more remarkable when one considers that the population of
the country was approximately 120 million when Haruki Mura-
kami's breakthrough novel was published in 1987.  In other
words, roughly 5% of the adult population of Japan purchased
the book.  Murakami became a national celebrity in the aftermath
—much to his own dismay.

"It became a phenomenon. It wasn't
a book any more. I didn't want to be
famous. I felt betrayed. I lost some of
my friends. I don't know why but they
left.  I was not happy at all." Murakami
responded by leaving Japan, first
spending time in Europe and later
taking a position at Princeton.  He
didn't move back to Japan until
1995, when Murakami was in his
late 40s.

“When I was writing my other books, in
Japan, I just wanted to escape. Once I got out of my country, I
was wondering: What am I? What am I as a writer? I'm writing
books in Japanese, so that means I'm a Japanese writer, so
what is my identity?”  This identity, as it came to the fore over the
course of more than a dozen books, represented a dramatic
departure from the accepted models of modern Japanese fiction
as set forth in the works of Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima and
Kobo Abe.   Nobel laureate Oe, for his part, savagely attacked
Murakami for writing works that influenced “the lifestyles of youth”
while "failing to appeal to intellectuals with models for Japan's

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Readers coming to Murakami for the first time will be struck by
the persistent references to Western popular and highbrow
culture in his stories.  
Norwegian Wood, of course, borrows its
title from a famous
Beatles song.  During the course of this novel,
Murakami’s characters talk about
Casablanca and smoke
Marlboros.  They read Thomas Mann, John Updike, F. Scott
Fitzgerald and Joseph Conrad.  They listen to
Sgt. Pepper’s
Lonely Hearts Club Band
or Bill Evans’s Waltz for Debby.
Murakami, for his part, describes a row of wooden houses as
“what you might get if Walt Disney did an animated version of a
Munch painting” and likens a mountain landscape to “a scene
from The Sound of Music.”

This willingness to stray from traditional Japanese ways is
perhaps even more evident in the attitudes and psychological
traits of the characters of
Norwegian.Wood.   Instead of the
salarymen and office ladies that play a such a prominent role in
Japan’s society and economy, Murakami focused on the
bohemian and alienated, those who rejected the conformity and
self-sacrifice that had contributed to the country’s rising standard
of living. “Murakami was completely different from his
predecessors,” Ginki Kobayashi wrote in the
Daily Yomiuri. ”
He managed to detach himself from Japan’s literary past while
creating a fictitious world that felt very close to home for his
country’s younger generation...It felt fresh at the same time as
being familiar.”  

Norwegian Wood is told from the perspective of Toru Watanabe,
who looks back on a turbulent period of his life during the late
1960s, when he was a college student in Tokyo.  Toru’s friend
Kizuki commits suicide on his 17th birthday, and in the aftermath
of this death, Toru becomes involved with Kizuki’s girlfriend
Naoko.  Naoko is reeling from the loss of both Kizuki and her
older sister, another suicide victim, and soon leaves college to
move to a mountain sanatorium near Kyoto.  Toru now finds
himself attracted to Midori, whose vivacity and assertive
personality stand in sharp contrast to Naoko’s fragility.  Toru is
caught between the two women, and runs the risk of undermining
both relationships through his own indecisiveness.

The student unrest of the period provides the backdrop for
Norwegian Wood.  In many ways, Toru’s rootlessness, his sense
that he is neither
uchi or soto—inside or outside—of his milieu
reflects a prevalent attitude among his generation, the first to
enjoy the benefits of Japan’s new found affluence.  Japan’s
economy grew at a compounded rate of 10% p.a. during the
1960s, and per capita GDP more than doubled over this same
time frame.  For Murakami (born in 1949) and his peers, this
provided opportunities and hitherto unknown luxuries, even while
it led many to question the enormous personal sacrifices of their
parents’ generation that had made this national transformation
possible.  In 1969—the time period for much of
Norwegian Wood
—more than 10,000 Japanese college students self-identified as
“communists” and an equally large group saw themselves as
political activists.   In Japan, as in the United States and Europe,
demonstrations and protests were as much a part of campus life
as lectures and final exams.

These conflicts only occasionally rise to the forefront of
Norwegian Wood, but they add color and even occasional humor
to what might otherwise be a dark, introspective coming-of-age
novel.  Toru’s roommate, known only as “Storm Trooper”
personifies the “old school” attitudes of the establishment.
"Storm Trooper" is “clean crazy”—he launders the window
curtains, airs out the mattresses, hunts down and kills any stray
insect with excessive amounts of bug stray—and prods Toru to
take regular baths and visit the local barbershop.  Storm Trooper
studies cartography with the goal of working for the government’s
Geographical Survey Institute.  Murakami could very well have
taken an adversarial stance to this character, but instead he
plays up the comic elements in the “odd couple” clash between
roommates.  In the context of
Norwegian Wood, Storm Trooper
offers one more alternative in an already confusing array of life
choices facing our irresolute hero.  

This ambiguity of outcomes persists to the book’s final pages,
with many questions about Toru life and loves remaining
unanswered at the novel's conclusion.  But this lack of tidy
resolutions no doubt contributed to the appeal of
for its readers—especially the many young admirers who
were drawn to Murakami precisely because he did not offer up
compact answers, wise aphorisms and point-by-point advice.  If
some authors stand out for the strength and solidity of their
worldview, others are equally persuasive for their unwillingness to
accept any ultimate solutions. Murakami falls into the latter camp.

And he would be even more mysterious and harder to pin down
in later years.   When Murakami published
Kafka on the Shore,
fifteen years later, his publisher felt compelled to set up a website
where readers could ask questions about what the novel meant.   
Eight thousand of them submitted their queries.   By this time,
Murakami had left the realism of
Norwegian Wood behind, but
even in that early novel, we see the complexity and nuanced
sensibility that has set this author apart. “My stories appeal to
some sense of liberty or freedom in my readers,” Murakami has
commented.  With
Norwegian Wood, he created a book that was
so successful at channeling such feelings, that it became not only
a bestseller and admired literary work but also, to a great extent,
defined an entire generation.
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Norwegian Wood

by Haruki Murakami

Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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