Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Norwegian Wood (1987) by Haruki Murakami is a book (also known as Tokyo Blues) that pulls you in, page by page, moment by moment, ever so gently as though the author whispers his darkest and most secret of memories to you. In reality, however, Norwegian Wood is far from being autobiographical and is simply a work of fiction.
As Murakami explains in the Translator’s Note by Jay Rubin in the back of the book, Norwegian Wood, named after The Beatles’ song of the same name, is a story from the imagination:
“Many of my readers thought that Norwegian Wood was a retreat for me, a betrayal of what my works had stood for until then. For me personally, however, it was just the opposite: it was adventure, a challenge. I had never written that kind of straight, simple story, and I wanted to test myself.
“I set Norwegian Wood in the late 1960s. I borrowed the details of the protagonist’s university environment and daily life from those of my own student days. As a result, many people think it is an autobiographical novel, but in fact it is not autobiographical at all. My own youth was far less dramatic, far more boring than his. If I had simply written the literal truth of my own life, the novel would have been no more than 15 pages” (p 388).
But unlike Murakami’s more recent work IQ84 (the 928-page trilogy originally published in Japan from 2009-2010), Norwegian Wood has far less fantastical elements and remains far truer to the mundane specificity often found in authorial autobiographies.
For example, the descriptions and passages about Naoko bring this young woman to life and all throughout the book the reader half hopes for Naoko and Toru Watanabe (the protagonist) to amend their emotional rifts and live happily ever after, if not for the seductress Midori causing the young university student to challenge his notion of love in a story many readers find burgeoning with sex and sexuality (Midori gives Watanabe a hand job and they even watch an S&M film at one point) and loss. And it is this loss that haunts Watanabe as an older man every time he hears the song “Norwegian Wood.” Even still, Watanabe has a hard time recalling Naoko’s face.
“It’s true, I can’t even bring back her face—not straight away, at least. All I’m left holding is a background, pure scenery, with no people at the front.
“True, given enough time, I can remember her face. I start joining images—her tiny, cold hand; her straight, black hair so smooth and cool to the touch; a soft, rounded earlobe and the microscopic mole just beneath it; the camel-hair coat she wore in the winter; her habit of looking straight into my eyes when asking a question; the slight trembling that would come to her voice now and then (as though she were speaking on a windy hilltop)—and suddenly her face is there, always in profile at first, because Naoko and I were always out walking together, side by side. Then she turns to me and smiles, and tilts her head just a little, and begins to speak, and she looks into my eyes as if trying to catch the image of a minnow that has darted across the pool of a limpid spring” (p 3-4).
With this introduction to Naoko the stage is set for a grand love story, but like all love stories in literature there must be a little tragedy—and who better than Murakami to fill his book and the reader’s mind with loss and despair and suffering (which can be elements of soothing in their own way). The “memories” are not memories at all, but the characters are just as real as you or the cat next to you. By the end of Chapter One, Murakami has the reader believing the story is true, and in a way I’m sure it is:
“Clutching these faded, fading, imperfect memories to my breast, I go on writing this book with all the desperate intensity of a starving man sucking on bones. This is the onlyway I know how to keep my promise to Naoko.
“Once, long ago, when I was still young, when the memories were far more vivid than they are now, I often tried to write about her. But I couldn’t produce a line. I knew that if that first line would come, the rest would pour itself onto the page, but I could never make it happen. Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to start—the way a map that shows too much can sometimes be useless. Now, though, I realize that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts” (p 10).
Death binds Naoko and Watanabe early on in the novel when Kizuki, Naoko’s boyfriend and Watanabe’s best friend, commits suicide. This particular death teaches Watanabe a lesson in life which challenges him throughout the rest of the story:
“I tried hard to forget, but there remained inside me a vague knot of air. And as time went by, the knot began to take on a clear and simple form, a form that I am able to put into words, like this:
“Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life…”
“The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. When it took the 17-year-old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well.
“I lived through the following spring, at 18, with that knot of air in my chest, but I struggled all the while against becoming serious. Becoming serious was not the same thing as approaching the truth, I sensed, however vaguely. But death was a fact, a serious fact, no matter how you looked at it. Stuck inside this suffocating contradiction, I went on endlessly spinning in circles. Those were strange days, now that I look back at them. In the midst of life, everything revolved around death” (p 30-31).
As Naoko and Watanabe attempt to heal from their loss and draw closer while trying to enjoy university life, Watanabe meets Midori, who loves to talk about all things sex and seems to be a nympho but already has a boyfriend. Watanabe questions himself about what he wants while seeking to find, as most young people do, a love that can shake the world.
On one of their friendship dates, Midori speaks to Watanabe about her notion of love:
“‘I guess I’ve been waiting so long I’m looking for perfection. That makes it tough.’
“‘Waiting for the perfect love?’
“‘No, even I know better than that. I’m looking for selfishness. Perfect selfishness. Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortbread. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortbread out to me. And I say I don’t want it any more and throw it out of the window. That’s what I’m looking for.’
“‘I’m not sure that has anything to do with love,’ I said with some amazement.”
“‘It does,’ she said. ‘You just don’t know it. There are times in a girl’s life when things like that are incredibly important…’
“‘So then what?’
“‘So then I’d give him all the love he deserves for what he’s done.’
“‘Sounds crazy to me.’
“‘Well, to me, that’s what love is. Not that anyone can understand me, though.’ Midori gave her head a little shake against my shoulder. ‘For a certain kind of person, love begins from something tiny or silly. From something like that or it doesn’t begin at all.’
“‘I’ve never met a girl who thinks like you’” (p 99-100).
But Watanabe has stronger, deeper feelings for Naoko, who has committed herself into a country sanatorium—far from Tokyo—dedicated to helping her to cope with Kizuki’s death. And on a visit, Watanabe learns of Naoko’s love for him and her thoughts about “Norwegian Wood”, a song they sing together to pass the time in the cabin deep in the forested mountains.
“‘That song can make me feel so sad,’ said Naoko. ‘I don’t know. I guess I imagine myself wandering in a deep wood. I’m all alone and it’s cold and dark, and nobody comes to save me’” (p 143).
Naoko breaks down crying and Reiko, her roommate, must calm her down while Watanabe takes a walk in the moonlit night as he reflects on his own feelings which best sum up the mood of the book:
“Where the road sloped upwards beyond the trees, I sat and looked towards the building where Naoko lived. It was easy to tell her room. All I had to do was find the one window towards the back where a faint light trembled. I focused on that point of light for a long, long time. It made me think of something like the final pulse of a soul’s dying embers. I wanted to cup my hands over what was left and keep it alive. I went on watching it the way Jay Gatsby watched that tiny light on the opposite shore night after night” (p 149).
Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is filled with such beautiful language which mold moments into a living fictive dream that it becomes hard for the reader not to think that the moments in the story are real and that the characters, like distant loved ones, may have the best life has to offer and make it to the end okay.
As for Naoko-Watanabe-Midori-Reiko (yes, Reiko), I won’t be spoiling the book and telling you who ends up together and who finds love and who fucks and who finds healing and who finds themselves alone in the woods on a cold, dark night—because you’ll just have to find out for yourself. Norwegian Wood by Murakami is a strong recommend.
Keep reading and smiling…
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a been member of the Hemingway Society, Americans for the Arts, PEN America, Club Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a been Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America (2020); A Time to Forget in East Berlin (2022), and Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being (2023).
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
A TIME TO FORGET IN EAST BERLIN
BREW Book Excellence Award Winner
BREW Readers’ Choice Award Winner
“A spellbinding tale of love and espionage set under the looming shadow of the Berlin Wall in 1975… A mesmerising read full of charged eroticism.”
~ Ian Skewis, Associate Editor for Bloodhound Books, & author of best-selling novel A Murder of Crows (2017)
“An engrossing story of clandestine espionage… a testament to the lifestyle encountered in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War.”
~ Lone Star Literary Life Magazine
“There is no better way for readers interested in Germany’s history and the dilemma and cultures of the two Berlins to absorb this information than in a novel such as this, which captures the microcosm of two individuals’ love, relationship, and options and expands them against the blossoming dilemmas of a nation divided.”
~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“A Time to Forget in East Berlin is a dream-like interlude of love and passion in the paranoid and violent life of a Cold War spy. The meticulous research is evident on every page, and Fewston’s elegant prose, reminiscent of novels from a bygone era, enhances the sensation that this is a book firmly rooted in another time.”
~ Matthew Harffy, prolific writer & best-selling historical fiction author of the “Bernicia Chronicles” series
“Vivid, nuanced, and poetic…”
“Fewston avoids familiar plot elements of espionage fiction, and he is excellent when it comes to emotional precision and form while crafting his varied cast of characters.”
“There’s a lot to absorb in this book of hefty psychological and philosophical observations and insights, but the reader who stays committed will be greatly rewarded.”
“Readers of The Catcher in the Rye and similar stories will relish the astute, critical inspection of life that makes Little Hometown, America a compelling snapshot of contemporary American life and culture.”
“Fewston employs a literary device called a ‘frame narrative’ which may be less familiar to some, but allows for a picture-in-picture result (to use a photographic term). Snapshots of stories appear as parts of other stories, with the introductory story serving as a backdrop for a series of shorter stories that lead readers into each, dovetailing and connecting in intricate ways.”
~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“The American novelist CG FEWSTON tells a satisfying tale, bolstered by psychology and far-ranging philosophy, calling upon Joseph Campbell, J. D. Salinger, the King James Bible, and Othello.”
“In this way, the author lends intellectual heft to a family story, exploring the ‘purity’ of art, the ‘corrupting’ influences of publishing, the solitary artist, and the messy interconnectedness of human relationships.”
~ Lone Star Literary Life Magazine
GOLD Winner in the 2020 Human Relations Indie Book Awards for Contemporary Realistic Fiction
FINALIST in the SOUTHWEST REGIONAL FICTION category of the 14th Annual National Indie Excellence 2020 Awards (NIEA)
“Fewston’s lyrical, nostalgia-steeped story is told from the perspective of a 40-year-old man gazing back on events from his 1980s Texas childhood…. the narrator movingly conveys and interprets the greater meanings behind childhood memories.”
“The novel’s focus on formative childhood moments is familiar… the narrator’s lived experiences come across as wholly personal, deeply felt, and visceral.”
American Novelist CG FEWSTON
This is my good friend, Nicolasa (Nico) Murillo, CRC, who is a professional chef & a wellness mentor. I’ve known her since childhood & I’m honored to share her story with you. In life, we all have ups & downs, some far more extreme than others. Much like in Canada, in America, the legalization of marijuana has become a national movement, which includes safe & legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use & research for all.
“This is a wellness movement,” Nico explains. The wellness movement is focused on three specific areas: information, encouragement, & accountability.
In these stressful & unprecedented times, it makes good sense to promote & encourage the state or condition of being in good physical & mental health.
To learn more you can visit: Americans For Safe Access & Texans for Safe Access, ASA (if you are in Texas).
The mission of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) is to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research.
TEXANS FOR SAFE ACCESS ~ share the mission of their national organization, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which is to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research, for all Texans.
Stay safe & stay happy. God bless.
Nico Murillo Bio ~ Americans & Texans for Safe Access ~ Medical Cannabis
Murakami adapted the first section of the novel from an earlier short story, “Firefly”. The story was subsequently included in the collection
I didn’t know that. Thanks for sharing because it is always useful to look at source material.
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