Saturday, 21 May 2011

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

have read several Murakami, all sadly in English translation as I am no longer up to reading Japanese fiction in the original.  But this one is translated by the excellent Jay Rubin, who is one of the (very few) translators I would wish to be.  I thought I had read this already (it was first published in English translation in 2000) but I had not.  It is one of those books, maybe like Catcher In The Rye, that you hear so much about you think you have read it even though you have not.  Like that book it is about very young people, though there the resemblance ends.  And regular readers know my issues with reading in translation.  I felt as though I knew Murakami though, as my Japanese teacher in 1979-80 when I was living in that country had known him at university, and he told me they had talked about the song "Norwegian Wood".  The book is named for the song, although it is not about the song, and barely references it, and I feel privileged to have known about the conversations about the song before the book (I suppose) had even been written.  Because my Japanese teacher of the time, whom I will not name but who is an eminent financial consultant these days, seven years older than me and one of the most charismatic and fascinating characters it has ever been my good fortune to meet (I suspect he is portrayed in the book) told me Murakami's understanding of the song and asked me if he was correct.  And he was not. Those who know the song (and who does not?) will have a view about what happened at the end.  You know the line, "So, I lit a fire, isn't it good, Norwegian wood".  I know what I believe happened next.  You?

Even the title in Japanese uses the word "mori" for "wood", and "mori", if my limited command of Japanese does not play me false, means a small forest or a large copse, anyway a group of trees.  Which is NOT what is meant by "wood" in the song.  Hein?  But enough about the song.

The book probably references the first line of the song "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me" - it is about a young man of twenty, who is not close to his family but who has a great friend, Kizuki, who kills himself at the age of seventeen.  Kizuki's childhood sweetheart, Naoko, becomes very sad, perhaps always has been, anyway she does not get over the death.  And the protagonist loves Naoko.  And spends quite a lot of time with her.  "And so the two of us kept walking the streets of Tokyo, Naoko searching for words in space". (p. 29).

A lot of nothing happens in this book.  The author is clearly referencing his own youth - the main events happen in 1969-70, when Murakami was about that age - and those of us who are past our youth know that nothing much happens when you are young, but you think all of it is hugely important.

A lot of death happens in this book.  Especially by suicide.  Japan is a country with no Christian heritage or culture, and thus no stigma about suicide (or abortion for that matter).  But surely the effect of a suicide on those close to the person must be something like this: "...died that night, and ever since then a cold, stiffening wind had come between me and the world" (p. 79).  One theme is mental illness.  Here is a way it is described: "She just looked at me.  Her eyes were absolutely flat.  I had never seen them that way before.  It was as if they had been painted on cardboard." (p. 156).  Someone I know well suffers from depression which is disabling at times.  That person's eyes go exactly like that at those times.

There are a lot of flowers, too.  Sometimes Murakami consciously links them with human death, as when he compares the scent of cherry blossoms to the smell of rotting flesh.  But, to me heartbreakingly, they are elsewhere too, as when he is thinking, his character mentions "a small jar of anemones stood by the window".

I think often about rain in books.  I grew up after all in (fairly) rainy England, and I live now in eastern France in the Rhine valley, where it rains a lot, mostly in spring (steady heavy rain from leaden skies) and in summer (oppressive heat followed by spectacular thunderstorms and torrential rain, on a five-day cycle), but I have also lived in Japan, where it rains quite a lot too, but differently.  The rain in Japan comes in spring and summer too (autumn and winter are mostly dry, I think October is the nicest month, with fairly warm days, cool nights and sunny blue skies).  Japan has a rainy season in June ("tsuyu"), which is the tail end of the Asian monsoon.  Here is something  Murakami says about rain: "You knew it was raining only because of the ripples on puddles and the sound of dripping from the eaves" (p. 163).  That I have only seen in Japan.  Rain so soft you only know it is there because of the ripples.

This book is written in American English, in this translation.  But none the worse for that.  Japan is not in Europe, after all.

I made sure to read this book because it has now been filmed, and is currently showing here, and I hope to see it very soon indeed.  Its title in French (why do they DO this?) is "La ballade de l'Impossible".


Jonny said...

I've not read any Murakami, but feel I should. My problem is that his admirers seem to be acolytes, and I can't approach a book knowing that people worship an author without my negative expectations waiting to be fulfilled. I have the same problem with Herman Hesse - although I did try to read the Glass Bead Game and thought it was adolescent rubbish.
As for Norwegian Wood (the song), I've always thought the narrator burns the girl's house down.

Jane Griffiths said...

with you on the song and on Hesse

Shruthi said...

After reading Norwegian Wood, I hd to go on a reading hiatus. Maybe because I am young and this book affected me in some very profound way, but this book was very disturbing for me to read.

I still cannot articulate it.

Jane Griffiths said...

yes, me too