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.
Murakami’s third novel continues the story of the Rat, a character that featured in the first and second novel. The Rat is once again not the main character, more a catalyst for the exploration of mystery the unnamed narrator is sent on. Apart from the Rat I don’t think anyone is named in the novel. Even the narrator’s girlfriend is just talked about as she etc.
As always Murakami heads down avenues of thought that on the surface seem commonplace but with just enough twist to make the tale seem surreal. I always come away from a Murakami book with more questions than answers and perhaps that’s another reason why I love them. They don’t explain everything. Life is mostly an unresolved wander to death and Murakami seems to reflect that in his writing.
This novel seems to be the beginning of his interest (obsession?) with religion and cults. Having read some of his later novels I can now see the germinating seeds of thought in this novel. The story flowed easily as good tales of travel and mystery do, possibly making this a good place to start if you want to explore the other horizons found in Murakami’s work. Also even though it is the third in the Rat trilogy you don’t need to have read the first two to follow this story.
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.
From my blog...
This is strange indeed. I am not a Murakami aficionado, but I know that many are and I would be interested to know whether this is typical of Murakami.
Physically it is a lovely thing. Quite small, with an old fashioned library ticket pocket on the front. Inside is a curious tale of a boy on the way home from school who pops into a library to pick up a book. He is taken to a special reading room, run by an odd man who locks him there and says he will be released when he can memorise the contents of the books he wants. What follows is a strange, supernatural and rather suspenseful story rooted in whether escape from the maze of the library basement is possible.
The books is beautifully illustrated by Chip Kidd with odd drawings which create an amazing backdrop for the reader to overlay the narrative. It is very short, only 88 pages, but it utterly engrossing.