The first line of the Beatles’ song ‘Norwegian Wood’ released in 1965, succinctly and un-coincidentally foreshadows the plot and sums up the entire novel. However, more than a late-60’s love story, coloured with nostalgia, the depressingly beautiful novel takes place in Japan and deals with uncomfortable notions of loneliness, death and choice.
I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.
Image source: Politico
Concerned with the unfamiliar and unfathomable elements of human nature, the Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami has extraordinary acuity for subtleties. His works, often enigmatic, reveal no absolute answer but alternatives and multiple interpretations, reflecting his reputation as a writer of the surreal, fantastic and postmodernist. Norwegian Wood had by no means fallen short with its bizarre and abrupt ending and inexplicable events.
The novel takes the form of a retrospective, autobiographical narration in which the protagonist recollects the vicissitudes of a past romantic relationship. Right at the beginning, the narrator, 37-year-old Toru Watanabe is reminiscing as 20 years later, to set down certain events that took place in the late 1960’s. We are thrown back into late-sixties Tokyo with a focus on a young love triangle where Toru and Naoko are drawn together yet perpetually haunted by a tragic event by the death of their mutual friend Kizuki. As they both mutually develop something more than friendship, Toru, however, cannot shake the influence of death. Meanwhile, Naoko senses that some vital part of her is now permanently lost and irretrievable, and spends much of her time in an idyllic sanitarium. While Naoko is away, Toru, despite loving her completely, meets and later on connects with Midori, a vibrant character full of life and the exact opposite of Naoko.
Image source: The New York Times
The entire book is a treatise on the power of memories and nostalgia, with Toru reflecting back upon his college days and his young loves. The power and vulnerability of memories are constantly brought up throughout the novel with Kizuki’s haunting death and Naoko begging Toru to keep her memory alive. In the start of the novel as well, Toru’s desperate attempt to preserve an exquisitely painful time questions the authenticity and reliability of one’s memories throughout the times.
What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing? […] What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?
With suicide rampant in the whole novel, Norwegian Wood is also a novel that centers around death and the feeling of loss related to it. Inexplicable, shocking suicides of young people with no particular reasoning happen throughout the novel where each character is left to deal with loss of loved ones in their own ways of grieving. As such, a sense of loneliness and isolation pervades the lives of all the main characters, fuelling an unfulfilled desire for connection and love which drives people to various forms of psychosis. Like Toru, trying doggedly to navigate according to his own moral compass, we are as lost in figuring out life.
Hey, there, Kizuki, I thought. Unlike you, I’ve chosen to live – and to live the best I know how.
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The parallel symbolism of Toru being torn between two contrasting love interests also reflects his wavering decision between life and death. Dark, anxious, melancholic Naoko symbolizes death while light, exuberant, vivacious Midori represents life. Toru is drawn to both of them, a dilemma under which lies the need of an ultimate decision. There is, then, the continual motif of letting things go, either through death or by choice. Even so, death itself has to eventually be gotten over: the dead released to death and the living liberated from the memory of the dead.
The whole book is basically a flashback and this is a story about moving on. It is about making it past the grief and the sorrow, and despite all, choose to continue living. While many of the pages are despairing and gloomy, many others are filled with hope and humour. Authentic, fresh and unconventional, even as a translated work, the novel leaves the reader with neither resolution nor absolution, just memories and a hauntingly beautiful song.
Featured image source: JoV’s Book Pyramid
By Yap Jia Ming