Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

"As you are well aware," the man continued, his voice soft but penetrating, "in the course of life we experience many kinds of pain. Pains of the body and pains of the heart. I know I have experienced pain in many different forms in my life, and I'm sure you have too. In most cases, though, I'm sure you've found it very difficult to convey the truth of that pain to another person: to explain it in words. People say that only they themselves can understand the pain they are feeling. But is this true? I for one do not believe that it is. If, before our eyes, we see someone who is truly suffering, we do sometimes feel his suffering and pain as our own. This is the power of empathy. Am I making myself clear?"

I wish I knew where to start to talk about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It is, at least in my opinion, incredibly hard to wrap my mind around this story. I told Chris, when I had about 100 pages left to read, that Wind-Up might just become my favorite book. I can say now that this did not turn out to be the case. The ending left too many mysteries unsolved, even unaddressed. Although looking back, I don't know how I could have imagined the story to play out any other way.

Wind-Up's plot is far too complex for me to do any justice here, but I'll try to give the the briefest description possible for a tale this intricate. Our hero, Toru Okada, isliving in Japan with his wife, Kumiko. Toru learns from Kumiko that their house cat has gone missing. Toru, now left with little to occupy himself after quitting his job, goes looking for the beloved pet. Upon commencing the search, however, Toru finds himself trapped in a series of bizarre events involving his wife, their cat, his brother-in law, psychic prostitution, forgotten war crimes, a slightly demented 16-year-old girl, and a strange bird with a bizarre call that no one can actually see. Without giving anything away, the story quicky jumps from the tale of a man searching for his missing cat to that of a man searching for answers to riddles he can hardly comprehend.

As I said, I have a real hard time explaining this book. While it has achieved critical acclaim almost everywhere, there are some that say the story contains hundreds of unnecessary pages filled with anecdotes completely unrelated to the main plot. As I read the story, however, I felt that Wind-Up was essentially a stream of consciousness. Not the stream of consciousness of Haruki Murakami, a professional writer who could more finely tune the story and target its scope on the only matters of conseuence. To me, Wind-Up seemed to be Toru Okada's stream of consciousness, set to type after all the events had transpired. Hardly a novelist himself, it seems logical that Toru's work would be somewhat misguided and dense.

Toru's adventure has the feel of Theseus' journey through the labyrinth. Perhaps more precisely, the book itself has the feel of a labyrinth. Chapters upon chapters are spent taking wrong turns leading to brick walls, forcing the reader to turn around, forget what they just saw. It becomes a struggle to simply search your way back to the point at which you made the wrong turn. This labyrinthal motif is touched upon by Toru himself near the end of the book. Additionally, one of the story's antagonist's name partially translates in english as "Bull." We encounter Bull, or Ushikawa, once Toru finally begins to approach the center of his dark, twisted labyrinth. Perhaps it's a bit too simplistic to describe Wind-Up as a maze, though. Mazes usually have an exit. Wind-Up's maze seems to only have more entrances. More devices to trick you into thinking that escape is just around the corner, when it is actually far out of reach. In hindsight, maybe Toru's adventure is less like Theseus' and more like one of the innocent Athenians who met their end in the harsh maze.

I certainly enjoyed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although I have a hard time explaining why. Murakami's writing style is addictive in his ability to write about extremely complex and bizarre concepts in an unbelievably accessible way. The book has a heavy, dense feel to it at 600 pages. But there's something about the way Murakami strings together words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into chapters. The pages simply melt together and before you know it, you're halfway through the book. This may sound like I'm trying to describe it as "A real page turner!" or saying "I couldn't put it down!" but its more than that. For example, Murakami goes from describing a sub attack on a passenger liner to a massacre at a Manchurian zoo in a single chapter that flows together so perfectly its as if the entire tale was told on a single page. Coupling that together with the fact that neither the sub attack or the zoo massacre have much to do with the general plot (if there even is one at all) makes Murakami's pacing all the more impressive.

I find myself sitting here with no idea how to tie this up. I feel like I've written 500 words without even saying anything. But then maybe thats exactly the kind of review that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle warrants. Or maybe that's a copout. "I wonder."

Highlights: Murakami has without a doubt, one of the most readable writing styles I've ever been lucky enough to encounter
Lowlights: So many doors left unopened, so many riddles left unsolved. Also it makes me genuinely sad that I don't own a cat named Noburo Wataya.


Nihil Novum said...

Your review sums up exactly how I felt about the book, minus all the allusions to the labyrinth. I loved it up until the end when virtually nothing was resolved.

Nathan said...

Hm. I've always wanted to read this, but now it seems daunting. I think someone tried to tell me once that most of his books are full of riddles that you can only crack if you were born and raised immersed in Japanese culture. But maybe that someone was just trying to be a jackass.

As for the cat, keep hope alive.

Christopher said...

Theseus in the labyrinth. Nice.

Brooke said...

If you haven't tired of him yet, I recommend A Wild Sheep Chase. Much of the content is the same as in his others, though--jaded college student, Japan, too many oddities, loose endings, etc.

Megan said...

I am supposed to read this for a college world lit course. I finished the 1st section and can't seem to get any further. Maybe I am just not sophistocated enough, but none of this makes any sense to me. It just seems to be endless strings of random events.

wonderinaliceland said...

I am about 1/4 through the book, and read this review to help me decide whether to carry through reading it.

I'm afraid I didn't find the writing style as easy to read as you - I don't know if it was just the translation, but the language often seemed awkward and jarring. While the vague sense of mystery kept me interested for a while, I don't think it could for the remaining several hundred pages of the book. That's why I wanted to find out if the plot develops, if the mysteries are solved - you say they are not, so now I know not to bother with the rest. Thank you, it's a weight off my mind!

Jim said...

So its been about 6 years and having read the book one or two more times - it's actually probably my favorite modern novel. So there's that.