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).
And 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 only way 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…