Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Murakami’s Norwegian Wood: de-romanticising the outsider

“I probably still haven’t completely adapted to the world,” I said, after giving it some thought. “I don’t know, I feel like this isn’t the real world. The people, the scene: they just don’t seem real to me.”
Midori rested an elbow on the bar and looked at me. “There was something like that in a Jim Morrison song, I’m pretty sure.”
“People are strange when you’re a stranger.”
“Peace,” said Midori.
“Peace,” I said.

References to western pop culture from the late 1960s/early 1970s abound in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (starting with its title), as they do in nearly all his work; though he’s probably the most widely known among modern Japanese writers, you won’t find Japanese exotica in his work - no equivalent for the spice-and-musk references that fill the pages of many Indian novels in English, for instance.

But the above passage also highlights one of the things about the novel that I found most striking: the character of its narrator, Toru Watanabe, a young student living in a dormitory in Tokyo. Watanabe is a young man without a centre, without any firm emotional moorings; throughout the novel, one gets the sense of someone on the outside, looking in with a mildly puzzled expression on his face. And yet - this is important - he isn’t a romantic figure (in the heroic or anti-heroic sense) either. None of the nouns or adjectives we commonly use to describe such characters - “loner”, “malcontent”, “drifter”, “brooding” - really apply to him, because these are words that have acquired glamorous overtones, thanks to their association with Hollywood stereotypes. And there’s nothing glamorous about Watanabe. He’s an ordinary young man, he mingles with other people, participates in frat-boy jokes and pranks, is “normal” for long stretches, even boring at times. But one still gets the sense that he isn’t quite all there, that he isn’t really interested in being part of the crowd, that he can opt out anytime he chooses.

In this context, it’s interesting that though Norwegian Wood is Watanabe’s story - the story of his relationships with two very different women at a crucial stage of his life - he rarely has much to say. In the book’s conversation passages, the long monologues always belong to someone else; significantly, Watanabe gets to do most of the talking on only one occasion, in a hospital room, where he’s trying to keep a dying old man (the father of his friend Midori) amused.

Watanabe is the latest in a series of disquietingly passive narrators/protagonists I’ve stumbled across recently, characters who rarely seem interested enough to be pro-active, who come across more as blank sheets on which things are being inscribed. Prominent examples are Ka, the melancholy poet in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and especially Vikram Lall, the narrator of M G Vassanji’s elegiac The In-Between World of Vikram Lall - a character who, even when he participates in acts of coruption involving large sums of money in Africa, still seems to merely be drifting with the tide, never in control of his own destiny. And another such passive figure from an earlier age could be Jay Gatsby, the “hero” of Watanabe’s favourite novel.

P.S. If any of the above makes Norwegian Wood seem a solemn or ponderous novel, that’s entirely my fault - because I’ve homed in on an aspect of the book that interested me, and gone on about it as if it’s the only thing worth discussing. While pain and loss do run through the story, this is a beautifully written, lucid and, for the most part, uplifting novel. It’s also a good starting point if you want to read Murakami, because it’s the most accessible of his works and a linear narrative. His later books, like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, are heavy with surrealism and not to all tastes, though I’d still recommend them highly.

Murakami information and links here and here. Interview here on Salon.


  1. Re: the 'outsider-looking-in' archetype, cherchez la Russians -- from Pushkin to Lermontov to Dosteovsky, they invented and then disseminated the entire idea of 'the superfluous' man.

  2. Maybe like Samar in "The Romantics", or Baumgartner.

    Would be interested to know how the author's voice comes through, if the narrator doesn't "speak"

  3. I didn’t mean that the author’s voice doesn’t come through. Obviously the narration is all his and we get the story through his perspective. But he doesn’t contribute much to the actual conversations, which gives the impression that he isn’t too involved. Also, he’s never really explicit about his own feelings, even in standard narration.

  4. Ya, definitely would recommend "Norwegian Wood" for folks who haven't read Murakami. The lost, slightly dangerous quality if Toru's innocence is oddly gripping.

    "Wind Up Bird Chronicle" is a rather different beast, altogether longer and weirder and episodic. It was like being stuck in a room with an acid-addled logomaniac. Only for Murakami fans, in my opinion.

    One summer in Vienna, finding myself with lots of time on my hands, I read the 600 pages of Wind-Up Bird, followed by the 600 pages of John Fowles' "Daniel Martin", followed by "Pnin" which, compared to the flabby reads preceding it, was a masterpiece of comic brio and linguistic precision. I swore off long novels for the next couple of years, but then coming out of that to read something like "The Last Samurai" totally renews one's faith in big fat books.

    Abdul-Walid of Acerbia

  5. but 'wild sheep chase', has still got to be my favourite murakami novel. its a garden of quirky delights!

  6. unconnected and outdated comment:

    glad i discovered murakami thru this blog, after having run thru half a dozen of his books.

    miss your author recos(ie if u can all this post such)... maybe u could revive them in some way

  7. I just wrapped up 'Kafka on the shore' and it's still lingering on my senses (if that makes any sense whatsoever!). I only wish I'd discovered Murakami sooner.

  8. i started with kafka and got totally addicted.