There is an episode of Seinfeld (“The Visa”) wherein an Asian-American woman falls in love with Jerry because she thinks he is ‘dark and disturbed’. The show’s writers playing off a stereotype of East Asian personality, there remain, however, moments it rings true. One is Haruki Marukami’s 1987 Norwegian Wood. A gloomy, unsettled experience, the novel looks at suicide, the possibility/impossibility of love, escape, death, sexuality, misanthropy, melancholy, and a variety of other post-modern concerns through the eyes of a university student in Japan. A straight-forward, character driven read, Murakami adds some depth to the stereotype, but achieves a mainstream novel.
The majority set in Tokyo in the 1960s, Norwegian Wood is the story of Toru Watanabe, a young man from the outskirts of Japan who comes to the big city to study Western drama. Lacking passion for his studies, Toru gets his entertainment from the variety of people living in his student dormitory instead, from his rigid roommate (dubbed the Storm Trooper) to the older, wiser, and more experienced Nagasawa, a man who eventually ‘educates’ Toru in his own way. But it is running into an old friend, Naoko, from his hometown that occupies most of Toru’s thoughts. Having drifted apart after the suicide of a common friend, the two have difficulty re-forming their friendship, the past hanging overhead like a cloud. Naoka having her own unspoken agenda, and Toru his, their relationship becomes ever more complicated by the comings and goings of various other characters in their lives. More questions than answers appearing, they lives go where they know not.
Death and suicide are stereotypes hanging over Japanese culture, and in Norwegian Wood Marukami does nothing to dispel the notion. A shadowy dejection is imbued within seemingly each character and scene, the moments the sun breaks through the clouds few and far between. Somewhat romanticized (a la Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther), it’s no wonder the book was a smash hit amongst Japanese youth when the book first appeared.
Reading about the eponymous Beatles’ song from which the book’s title is taken seems to offer only confusion trying to come to terms with its underlying significance. Lennon and McCartney’s descriptions of the impetus, placed in context with the song’s melody, lyrics, and subtitle (“The Bird Has Flown”), creates a wide variety of possibilities which I will not speculate on here, except to say it’s possible to fit the two together given the quantity of reference.
Famed, scorned, brilliant, loved, defied, overrated, popular—whatever adjective you want to attach to the name of Haruki Marukami, there is no denying a certain aura to the man’s writing. A romanticized gloominess described in clear, concise prose, Toru’s plight to find love amongst a nation of people living with the after effects of WWII and trying to find their own way in life characterizes Norwegian Wood. Not the best of Marukami’s writing, it will nevertheless appeal to certain audiences.