Book Review: Norwegian Wood

If you were asked to name a single novelist from Japan, your answer would, most likely, be Haruki Murakami.

Although he is heavily dismissed by his contemporaries for his ‘western sensibilities’ and apolitical tone, Haruki Murakami is Japan’s best-selling author. His 1987 work, Norwegian Wood, launched his writing career into international ‘stardom’.

Murakami’s works center themselves around themes of loneliness and alienation in a Kalkaesque world. Similar to his latest work, Colorless: Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, published in 2013, Norwegian Wood is a first-person narrative retold through the lens of a thirty-something year old nostalgically reminiscing his years as a college students.

Toru Watanabe is a Drama student in Tokyo, studying for a degree for which he has neither passion nor conviction. The unrequited love of his life, Naoko, traumatized by the suicides of both her boyfriend and her sister, takes an indefinite leave of absence, leaving Toru in an emotional void. Fill that void is the happy-go-lucky, vivacious Midori Kobayashi, who, herself, is secretly harbouring a dark past.

Midori is the early version for the archetypal ‘manic pixie dream girl’ complementing the quiet and emotionally-distraught Toru. I actually enjoyed the conversations they have with each other. Perhaps, I have a thing for whimsical girls. And unlike Natalie Portman’s character from Garden State, Midori somehow seemed more authentic and real. She reminds me of a number of my female friends (and borderline crushes) who’ve colored my world.

The political backdrop of the story was quite intriguing. As a news junkie and history buff, I’ve always been fascinated with the 1960’s Counterculture. Because I’ve fixated my attention on the events occurring in my own country, I didn’t realize the aura of rebellion had also overtaken the Japanese youth. Toru recalls the myriad of student protests within the halls and corridors of his university. He remembers how passionate his fellow students were in overthrowing the restrictive, bourgeoisie system. Romanticized rhetoric espousing ‘free love’ and ‘revolution’ were commonplace.

Yet, similarly in the United States, the revolutionary spirit quickly evaporated in Japan. Toru laments how weak-willed and fragile the student movements were. He frowns how quickly they abandoned their ideals and donned business suits to apply for corporate jobs, not unlike their contemporaries in the United States. In a way, this is Murakami’s indictment of utopian political agendas. Perhaps, this is his explanation for straying away from the political realm.

Individual thought and nonconformity are also recurring concept throughout the novel. Toru exemplifies the lone wolf. His idiosyncratic demeanor continuously entices Midori, who takes notice by saying phrases like ‘I like how you say….” and “I’ve never met anyone who does that”.

One of my favorite quotes from this novel is “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”. Ironically, given this novel is a best-seller, I feel guilty for selecting it in the first place.

Eventually Midori and Toru lose touch as Toru reunites with his unrequited love in a mental asylum. Although Naoko is essential to Toru’s tale, I found his infatuation with her to be extremely aggravating. I suppose I’m always infuriated by a protagonist’s quest for a girl who can never love him. In addition, I never deciphered what attracted Toru to Naoko in the first place. Unlike Midori, Naoko never had much of a personality. She was always this fragile girl dishearted by the tragedies in her life. I could certainly sympathize with her but nothing more. Either way, the subsequent events from the mental asylum to the present day leads a frustratingly ambiguous conclusion.

Murakami’s novels are extremely different from books I’ve previously read. The recurring themes, the characters, and even the plot itself takes a considerable amount of time to digest. Despite being a best-seller, Norwegian Wood is an anthem for every pretentious hipster in Mile End, Montreal. Nevertheless, I’d recommend it. You’ll be set to ride in the tunnel of your own mind.


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