Book of the week: Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – ****

Japanese author Haruki Murakami is a great storyteller. His novels and short stories can be fantastical, with little green goblins and elephants that disappear overnight, but they often manage to appear realistic – even ordinary – in their plots, dealing with people’s day-to-day lives. With a gift for the uncanny his stories have impressed me over and again.

Norwegian Wood, the author’s eighth fictional text, showcases the fairly simple years of one student as if these were a strange, glowing object found on a  beach. The black thoughts of friends, his developing morals and their fears become the focus of a book that could also be read as a fairly straightforward love story.

The novel focuses on memories of Toru, a student whose best friend deliberately gases himself to death when the pair are 17. Chapters chronicle Toru’s student days as he wanders around Tokyo making friends and losing them among the bars and bookshops.

Murakami’s main character tries to cope with the loneliness of being in a world without a defined purpose or any wealth of family and friends. The quiet character is taught in his History of Drama lessons that the writer Euripides imagined worlds with gods that sorted out people’s fortunes and decided their fate – deux ex machina. Ironically, it feels like Murakami deliberately writers a world for Toru without the luxury of a set fate. I wonder what Roland Barthes would say about this.

Norwegian Wood reads like a fly on the wall documentary of one attempt to survive life without a meaning – with a non-hero comparable to JD Salinger’s character Holden.

Repeatedly, this is represented as an impossible task. Toru’s sense of time and purpose is only maintained by his attendance to lectures and his determination to keep himself wound up like a clockwork toy; on days off Murakami depicts days floating past him as he becomes increasingly lonely.

The book details the flexibility of morality and personality and its exploration of this leads into several taboo social themes including suicide, mental illness, pornography and sex.

While no message is explictly forced towards us in a book where many of the characters fade away and die without anything to say, a lesson is still suggested in the text’s strongest character – Midori. Though her family have each died slowly of cancer she is shown to be the text’s most able survivor. Her character embodies a principle that one must create a practical moral code, however unique this must be, and must stick to it like a religion – generating a personal Euripides god and living under him.

It’s a tricky idea, not without contradictions, and a perplexing read.

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One Response to “Book of the week: Norwegian Wood”

  1. I really liked this book. Good review. I especially liked the Midori providing a central principal for the novel. I’ve done a review of this book, too, at http://writeronwriter.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/norwegian-wood-by-haruki-murakami/#more-72

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