Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I’d be very curious to hear a die-hard Murakami fan’s reaction to Norwegian Wood. This was my first Murakami, and possibly it was a mistake to read it first. I believe it’s quite different from his other work. I tried reading Dance, Dance, Dance once a few years ago but gave up after a few chapters because I was just too confused. I think, however, that confusion is part of the aesthetic Murakami would like his readers to experience and I just wasn’t prepared for that at the time.

Norwegian Wood, however, isn’t confusing in the least. It is a fairly conventional love story about a young student, Toru, and two women, Naoko and Midori. Toru and Naoko have known each other for a long time because of Naoko’s former boyfriend and Toru’s longtime best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide before the novel opens, while Toru and Midori get together after meeting at a class at university.

The story basically follows Toru to school, on walks with Naoko, on dates with Midori, on escapades into Tokyo with his friend Nagasawa. Loosely, it is about the deterioration of his relationship with Naoko and the development of his relationship with Midori. But I think Norwegian Wood is more interesting when broken down into its themes.

First, the book takes place in the late sixties, at the height of the sexual revolution, although I think we could debate whether that sexual revolution included Japan in the same way as the Western world. In any case, the novel is about how Toru conflates sexual experience and emotional growth and then how he ultimately distinguishes and balances the two.

Second, Norwegian Wood takes a frank look at suicide, a troubling aspect of Japanese culture. Murakami’s discussion of suicide is interesting in and of itself, but it also prompts a related discussion on whether a person has obligations to the past, to the people they have left behind. Much of Toru’s growth is bound up in the idea of his being able to step forward into the future or bound to elements of his past.

Yes, I enjoyed and appreciated these aspects of the book.

But I feel pretty underwhelmed about the novel as a whole. This is perhaps a bit nitpicky of me, but I even found the opening introduction awkward…why bother opening the novel with 38 year-old Toru sitting on a plane in Germany if we’re never going to go back there? Or if that frame is never going to inform the rest of the story? I like narrative texture when it’s meaningful…and I suppose you could argue there is a small commentary on the power of memory in those opening paragraphs…but I’m not convinced it was necessary.

I won’t go into a laundry list of the other things that distracted me from fully enjoying this novel. But I would like to know where I should go next…The Wind-up Bird Chronicle? Kafka on the Shore?

22 Responses to “Haruki Murakami – Norwegian Wood”

  1. farmlanebooks

    I was a bit underwhelmed by Norwegian Wood too. It is very ordinary. My favourite Murakami is Kafka on the Shore, closly followed by Wild Sheep Chase. Either would be a good place to start. WUBC has a fantastic beginning, but goes a bit weird in the end (not in a good way) it is very long, so probably isn’t a good place to start. I hope you enjoy your next Murakami a bit more.

  2. Steph

    I haven’t read any Murakami yet, but I think from what I’ve read Norwegian Wood seems to be the one people feel most let down by. I recently picked up Kafka on the Shore and everyone who’s commented over at my site has expressed huge love for it, so I guess that seems like a good place for you to go next!

  3. nicole

    Die-hard Murakami fan here. I read Norwegian Wood when it was first brought out here in the States, long after several of his weirder books had been available, and was underwhelmed. It is good, it is nice, it is a bit ordinary. It is something I would re-read because I am a big Murakami fan and I would re-read all his work, really. But it is fairly atypical.

    Personally, I would read A Wild Sheep Chase next, because that was my introduction to Murakami and I think it was a good one. My second recommendation would be Wind-Up Bird, but I think that is a little big and intense and benefits from a warm-up. Kafka on the Shore was good but not at all my favorite. I would also recommend Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; it’s a bit less-read but has a fun structure that I think you might like.

    I would also check out his short stories. I’m a short story person, so I’m biased, but I highly recommend the older collection The Elephant Vanishes for a somewhat smaller taste of that confusion aesthetic.

  4. verbivore

    Farmlanebooks – Thanks for the tip. It sounds like I should have skipped Norwegian Wood and started with something else. oh well!

    Steph – I’ve also heard good things about Kafka on the Shore, so I’ll definitely add it to the list.

    Nicole – I should have mentioned that I’ve loved all the short stories of his that I have read, so I think I will get The Elephant Vanishes. I know a couple of the stories inthere already, from The New Yorker. I will head for Wild Sheep Chase next. I’ve heard great things about Wind Up Bird Chronicle but I’m starting to worry that I might not love Jay Rubin’s translations (and he did WUBC). Part of my frustration with Norwegian Wood was the language felt so odd and stilted in places, which is a feeling I had with another Rubin translation a year or so ago. Wild Sheep Chase has a diffrent translator, so I’ll go for that. And I’ll pick up some Murakami in Japanese when I head to Japan at the end of the month, I’m drying to try him in the original.

    Colleen – Well, I will be very interested to see what you think. Have you read anything else by him?

  5. nicole

    I shouldn’t be at all surprised that you would note the translation issues! My earliest Murakami experiences were all mediated by Alfred Birnbaum, who translated A Wild Sheep Chase, and I was also a bit put off by the switch to Jay Rubin (though I did enjoy Rubin’s biography of Murakami). The most recent translations are done by a third person, Philip Gabriel, and they are a bit different again. I think I still like Birnbaum’s best, but I vaguely remember reading that was not Murakami’s preference.

    I have no idea how closely he oversees his own translations, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was very closely, considering he does translation work in the reverse direction.

  6. litlove

    I’m really interested to read the comments as Murakami is a writer I keep meaning to read, but I can never decide which book to try first. Not Norwegian Wood, then! 🙂

  7. verbivore

    Nicole – I feel strange quibbling with Rubin’s work, because I’m certain it’s a “flawless” translation. Japanese is a formal language, with so many layers of distance inherent to its structure, so I know it would be an immense challenge to put a Japanese text into English which is so much more immediate. But I had the exact same experience with Norwegian Wood as I had with Akutagawa and so I went and checked and yep, Rubin’s the translator. I don’t remember having this kind of reaction to other Japanese lit in translation, so I’d like to try Murakami translated by someone else, and a little in the original.

    I also think he must be intricately involved in his translations…at least the English ones. And maybe the German, too.

  8. verbivore

    Litlove – Yes, I’d say avoid Norwegian Wood as a first read. Have you read any of his short stories? There are probably some available on The New Yorker website and it would give you a taste before you commit!

  9. Care

    I was going to comment something similar to LitLove. I think I will start with short stories. I admit that Kafka on the Shore intrigues me and I know so many people loved Wind Up Bird.

    Do you ever think sometimes that reading is “collecting authors?” I need to read so many but I feel like I’m doing it just to check off a list.

  10. Stefanie

    I’ve only read Hard-Boild Wonderland at the End of the World and I loved it. I’ve got Kafka on the Shore and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on the shelf and I’m looking forward to reading them one of these days. I like the bizarre surrealness of his writing so I’ll save Norwegian Wood for the day I have nothing left of his to read 🙂

  11. verbivore

    Care – Oh absolutely, when you’re a really avid reader it’s hard not to want to read absolutely everyone and everything.

    Stefanie – I’ll definitely get to Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World. It sounds like a good one as well. But yes, maybe wait on Norwegian Wood until you have to!

  12. ds

    I haven’t read Norwegian Wood (it’s on the list though), but do recommend Wind-Up Bird. It was the first Murakami that I read, and it hooked me completely! I’m also a big fan of the stories and yes, Kafka on the Shore. I just don’t know where to go next–everyone seems mixed about his earlier work!

  13. Colleen

    I’ve just posted about the novel. I loved it, but I am in the North American minority and prefer his “normal” books (NW, South of the Border, West of the Sun) to his fantastical books (Kafka, etc). His “normal” books are much more popular in Japan than his others, while the reverse is true in English-speaking countries.

    Not that I don’t really like at least one of his super-fantastical books: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is one of my all-time favourites. But I prefer the human stuff more and found Kafka on the Shore to begin well but spiral into meaninglessness near the end.

  14. chasing bawa

    Norwegian Wood is my favourite Murakami, closely followed by The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (my first Murakami many years ago) and Kafka on the Shore (which I read last year). Maybe I prefer his work to be closer to the ordinary than the fantastical, I’m not sure. But I found Norwegian Wood to be beautiful.

    • verbivore

      Chasing Bawa – It seems people either prefer one or the other, I’m looking forward to reading one of his more surreal novels so I can decide. I liked elements of Norwegian Wood but it won’t ever be a favorite of mine.

  15. Diana Raabe

    Great! I can’t wait to read this one. “After the Quake” was my first Murakami followed very soon thereafter by “Wind-up Bird” which remains my favorite – so far.

    I believe we have to wait until next year for the English translation of his latest novel, “1Q84.” Of course, it’s probably worth it to learn Japanese just to read Murakami in his own native language.

    In the meantime, I think the best introduction to Murakami would be any of his short stories.

  16. Ishel

    CAUTION: SPOILERS. I have just completed “Norwegian Wood”, having really enjoyed the process despite being filled with aching sadness at all the loss Toru endures. I note verbivore’s comment about the opening, and I did wonder about that myself, having assumed he would return to that opening scene at some point. In fact, the only episode where he refers to his ‘later’ life again is when he looks back on the death of Hatsumi from a standpoint “a dozen or so years” after the main narrative period, in other words about 6 years prior to the opening scene of the novel. From that brief passage we learn that Nagasawa was in Germany at the time of Hatsumi’s death, and it is curious that the opening scene takes place as Toru arrives in Germany; but this may have little significance (though would be curious what others think). However, I think the opening scene, especially the statement that Toru was “thinking of all I had lost in the course of my life… friends who had died or disappeared” allows the reader to open broader speculation about the outcome of the novel, where all except Midori area dead or departed, and the future of Toru and Midori is by no means conclsuive. I am certainly learning that the very inconclusive ending is very much characteristic of Japanese and indeed of other East Asian story telling (as seen for example in many Korean movies as well) and I think that without the opening of the novel, with no reference to Midori at all and in fact the distinct sense that Toru is practically devoid of long-standing human relationships, the reader might feel more certain that he would soon be more permanently linked to Midori.

    As to other reading, I am not surprised that you found “Dance, Dance, Dance” confusing… that novel ideally would be read only after first reading “A Wild Sheep Chase”, and to be honest, before reading that you should get hold of Murakami’s more raw first novels “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973″… these two have not been properly published outside Japan, but are quite readily available at fair prices on eBay these days in editions done by Kodansha for Japanese students of English. The four novels together form a loose quadrilogy which ultimately concludes surprisingly satusfactorily despite many loose ends and unanswered questions along the way.

  17. Jonathan Mendelsohn

    A rather big Murakami fan (flew to New York to hear the author speak at The New Yorker Festival a couple years back), whenever someone asks which of his novels to start with I always try and assess the person’s tastes. My answer breaks down as follows:

    –The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – for the epic, needs a big thick, book with a little history to feel satisfied kind of reader.

    –Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – for the adult reader of literature that has “outgrown” fantasy but loved it as a child and kind of wishes they could go back… this is a fantastically imaginative book!

    –Dance Dance Dance – for the pure pleasure of earlier Murakami, for the journey, the ride, the humor, the surreal, and the rather inscrutable. This is the most literary fun I’ve had in a decade of serious reading.

    –Norwegian Wood – for the romantic and the melancholic. For anyone who loved The Catcher in the Rye.

    I am a big fan of the vast majority of what Murakami has written (including perhaps near the very top of the list one I haven’t even included – Kafka on the Shore. Norwegian Wood, though, which reads rather deceptively simple, is for me up there with The Catcher in the Rye as an all-time classic. As I wrote on my blog post about the novel:

    “When I reached the last page of the novel, after reading its pitch-perfect last line, due to an utter unwillingness, a near inability, to leave the beautiful world Murakami had created, I proceeded to immediately flip back to the first page and start all over again.”

    No other book has effected me so strongly. On dark, lonely nights, it’s the kind of novel I go back to. For comfort. To Heal my soul.
    Over and Out.

    • verbivore

      Hello Jonathan, this is wonderful! Thank you. I’m delighted to hear your thoughts on Murakami and I look forward to reading more of him. I think it takes a certain kind of reader to fall in love with Murakami, I’m not sure I am that reader, but I haven’t read enough of his work to really say. I’ll be taking your advice and reading Dance, Dance, Dance next.

  18. Maldoror

    I can not comprehend for a moment why Murakami is admired in the least bit. I have given every one of his novels a chance and have found him nothing but laughable To me he sounds like a first-year writing student. In fact, I have found many passages in his works to be some of the worst examples of writing in literature. “When they awoke, their heads were as empty as the young DH Laurence’s piggy bank” is one such example. No one can tell me that that line isn’t completely awful.

  19. tracycutie

    Upon reading your comments, I can classify myself as a romantic, melancholic reader thus have immensely enjoyed Norwegian Wood as my first Murakami books.

    I might be the same as Colleen preferring simple stories to the fantastical ones so I’m going to read ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ next.

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