When I nominated this novel as the BGO Group Read, I argued that Murakami wrote magical realist novels even though the term is usually applied to work of Latin-American origin. This was my fifth Murakami book, and I certainly considered some of the previous novels I'd read, particularly "Kafka on the Shore", met the criteria.
In the early stages, I had a horrible feeling that the novel I'd picked wasn't actually a magical realist one; it isn't a consistent feature of Murakami's work. However, the dream sequences, the mark on Toru's cheek, Nutmeg's apparent powers and the later encounters in Room 208 later on made me revise my opinion.
Do others agree?
I'll confess that I nominated this novel without having previously read it. However, Murakami is among my very favourite authors and, critically at least, this is often regarded as one of his very finest novels, so I had high hopes for it.
At over 600 pages, I think this is Murakami's longest book to date. This is a rambling novel, both in terms of the glacial pace at which events unfold and its digressions into the past. My guess is those past events are meant to provide echoes of those in the book's present, but with the ever mysterious Murakami I couldn't be certain.
Describing the plot is difficult; this novel is a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Toru Okada is a typical Murakami narrator - unemployed, apathetic and swept along by the increasingly bizarre happenings around him. Even the goadings of teenage neighbour May Kasahara don't seem to get a rise out of him.
The novel opens with the disappearance of the Okadas' cat, named after Toru's politician brother-in-law Noboru Wataya, a man whom the normally laid back Toru hates with a passion. After initial searches prove fruitless Kumiko, Toru's wife, brings in a clairvoyant, Malta Kano, to help. Then, more seriously, Kumiko also vanishes. At the same time, Toru is receiving anonymous 'phone calls from a woman who claims to know him well.
Throw in the grisly stories about Malta Kano's one time prostitute sister Creta and, war veteran Lieutenant Mamiya's tales of his time on the Mongolia/Manchuria border in the 1930s Sino-Japanese war and subsequent imprisonment, Toru's increasingly explicit dreams and the strangle blue patch on his cheek that appears from nowhere, the silent Cinnamon Akahasa and his wealthy mother Nutmeg, the apparent possessor of spiritual powers and witness of a massacre of zoo animals during the same war and you have a novel full of tangled threads that sort of resolve themselves in a denouement in the mysterious Room 208.
Perhaps the novel's reputation rests on the fact that this is the most Murakami-esque of Murakami novels. The atmosphere of a Murakami story is not quite like those by any other writer I've come across - apparently simple prose describing hauntingly surreal worlds of mystery, unease and tension and full of philosophizing characters - and, of the five books of his I've read, this is the most extreme example I've come across so far.
I can't tell you even a week after finishing it if "The Wind Up Bird Chronicle" is a work of profound genius or self-indulgence. Possibly, it is both.
From the official Murakami website
“Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.
In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.
Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.”
This is the first Murakami book that hasn’t worked for me. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters and I didn’t care what happened to any of them. When you read one of his books you have to accept that you may not fully understand it but something in the intricate delicate weaving will touch you. Will shine a light into your own psyche, your own undiscovered well of emotion and let you view the world and your own place in it slightly differently. But this novel left me cold. The main character, Toru Okada, is just plain boring. He meanders through the book encountering strange people and just seems to accept without ever questioning why they have suddenly entered his life. Woven through the book is a secondary tale about a Japanese soldier in WW2. This recurring story seems to have no relevance to the main story except to introduce the well into the story. That’s a dry well that Okada takes to sitting in. A very disappointing novel. The last paragraph in the official blurb up above says it is “gripping, prophetic and suffused with comedy and menace”. I have no idea what future it was trying to foretell but it definitely wasn’t gripping except in that way a boring person is when they won’t stop talking to you. And as for comedy and menace this was about as funny and scary as soggy cornflakes.
Be interested to know if anyone else has read this and what their thoughts on it are.
Occupied City is a short novel, but it's not an easy one. Ostensibly, it is about the poisoning of the staff of a Tokyo bank. Twelve people die.
In reality, the novel is about war and its aftermath; research into chemical weapons, war crimes and what happens when the rules change. Through a series of 12 first person narratives - many of them very fractured - we see different facets of the murder investigation, the weapons research and the world of gangsters. A common theme is the need to adapt or die.
The structure of the novel matches a traditional Japanese ghost story game where narrators sit around a circle of candles. As each concludes a ghost story, he or she extinguishes a candle. The room gets darker, the atmosphere gets heavier, until in the end there is darkness. But in this novel, it is not the stories that are ghosts - it is their narrators.
Some of the stories are lucid and take the narrative forward - although with 12 narrators covering common ground, there is an element of repetition. Other narrators, though, are in the depths of madness and serve to create atmosphere. As with other David Peace novels, the repetition is not confined to the plot; many of the narrators repeat mantra like phrases over and over again. It is intense.
David Peace doesn't provide easy answers. This is not a whodunnit where the culprit is unmasked in the last scene. One man, Sadamichi Hirasawa, an artist, is destined to be convicted of the poisoning despite clear evidence in both the real world and in the Dark Gate of stories that he could not be the killer. We do eventually meet the killer but his identity remains an enigma. In a sense, it doesn't matter. We know what he is, even if we never know the name on his birth certificate.
This is not a novel where things join up. Things touch, they overlap, they diverge, but there is no single answer. We see a city that was secure in its reverence for the Emperor, justified in taking whatever action necessary to protect him, brought to its knees, occupied by foreign powers and those who were most diligent in their support for the Emperor are now those who are held up to be the worst war criminals. Unless, of course, they can remain hidden in the shadows. The powers of the state - and the powers of the occupiers - are focused on creating a mutually acceptable outcome. They manipulate, distort and treat individuals as expendable.
As living people, the twelve victims were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as ghosts seeking justice, again, they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Occupied City is a difficult read but a very satisfying one. It towers over the its predecessor in an apparent trilogy, the somewhat lacklustre Tokyo Year Zero. In fact, it is so radically different in style and content that most readers would probably not place them in the same set at all.
Tokyo is a really complex, intriguing novel.
We meet Ben Monroe, an American academic who moved to Japan via London after his marriage collapsed. He has a thing about death cults. We meet his daughter Mazzy, nearly 16, who is coming out to stay with him as she spends a reluctant semester at an international school in Tokyo whilst her mother, Lydia, stays back in the States and worries about radiation from Fukushima. And we meet Koji, the man who sat next to Mazzy on the plane and seems to like her – perhaps a bit too much.
The star of the show is the sense of place. Hogg evokes a perfect image of Japan. The strange mix of seaminess and sterility; the perfect but soulless nightclubs and bars; the contrast between the wholesome ryokans and the anonymity of the capsule hotels and love hotels. The food and drink feel authentic; the weather, the stations, the alleyways. It’s so accurate you can almost touch it.
The story itself involves Ben spending too much time searching for a mythological woman (a hostess he met on a previous trip to Japan) whilst spending too little time looking out for a real woman (his daughter, who appears to be in great peril). Bad call… The story poses questions about how far a separated man should feel beholden to his former family and how far he should be getting on with the rest of his life. Nicholas Hogg avoids giving an answer to this – we just know that Ben hasn’t got the balance quite right.
In any case, even if Ben is right to put distance between himself and his past life, he lacks a viable game plan for the future. Spending big money on crazy whims, is no way forward. Ben displays the detachment from reality of the worst kind of ex-pat; he behaves as though rules and societal expectations apply only when he wants them to; his actions may have immediate consequences, but as soon as he gets back to his apartment the slate is wiped clean and he can start the next day afresh. Basically, Ben is on one long, indefinite holiday.
The pacing is superb. As the novel builds – and it’s not a long novel – the sense of menace and peril ratchets up. The reader starts to see hidden monsters lurking in the shadows. And the zipping of the narrative from Ben’s first person to Mazzy’s third person – and the occasional viewpoint of Koji keeps a pacy feel.
If there is one reservation, it is the final sections when things go very surreal. For a novel that has felt very real and open, it is a bit jarring. It is explained in subsequent epilogues, but it didn’t feel authentic when being read. It may have been a bit of artifice to bring the novel to a rapid end without having to unfold events in a step by step sequence – which overall is merciful (nothing worse than the tension of a good psychological novel being lost by faithful adherence to the timeline of the denouement). And, in fairness, the handling of the ending is memorable…
Nicholas Hogg really is a first rate writer – engaging, lucid and original, but never showy. Each of his three novels is quite different, but all of equally high quality. Bring on the next one…