Toru Watanabe and his friend Kizuki share their childhood and teenage years together until, inexplicably, at the age of 17, Kizuki takes his own life. Unable to deal with his grief, Toru decides to flee the provincial city of his birth and study literature in Tokyo. Settling into life at a seedy dormitory, Toru bumps into Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend who had formed the third leg of their friendship triumvirate. Over the course of the next year, they grow closer, until two events intervene to re-shape Toru’s life: Naoko begins to display the signs of mental and emotional fragility; and the captivating and enigmatic Midori barges her way into Toru’s consciousness, holding out the prospect of a new and different kind of relationship.
Told with all the messy loose ends and cast of intriguing secondary characters who come and go – such as the comically inept Storm Trooper, and the sociopathic diplomat-to-be Nagasawa – that are characteristic of Haruki Murakami’s fiction, “Norwegian Wood” is a skilfully crafted and captivating coming-of-age tale. Through his deceptively simple language that nonetheless conveys great emotional depth, Murakami captures precisely what it means to be an “outsider”, one who by both circumstance and temperament stands to one side of life and the world of “normal” human interactions.
More than a mere romance, “Norwegian Wood” tells the story of one person’s dilemma when confronted by a choice between the past and the future; and of how, despite its messiness and ambivalence, life nonetheless offers us the possibility of hope.
Haruki Murakami writes stories about oddballs and outcasts, loners and misfits; those who dwell in the borderlands of everyday life – and even those who dwell in the borderlands of reality itself. In the deceptively simple but emotionally resonant style that has become his trademark, Murakami takes the unlikeliest of characters to weave poignant tales about the depths, complexities, and consequences of the human heart.
“South of the Border, West of the Sun” tells the first-person story of Hajime, a lonely only child growing up in post-war Japan – a time in Japanese social history when only children were rare and carried a social stigma younger generations would find difficult to appreciate. In his loneliness, Hajime has only one companion: Shimamoto, herself an only child who carries the extra burden of a crippled leg. They grow close – but as children they are separated by circumstance, and are forced to make the difficult and painful journey into adulthood on their own.
By his late thirties, and despite the barrenness of his early adulthood, Hajime has made a success of life: happily married with two young daughters, he has achieved financial security by becoming the owner of two wildly successful jazz bars in central Tokyo. Yet the spectre of Shimamoto continues to haunt his consciousness; and when, one night, she turns up in the larger of his two bars, beautiful and enigmatic, Hajime is confronted by the emptiness he has always known occupies the core of his being.
Both moving and disturbing, filled with the richness of life shadowed by the harshness of death, “South of the Border, West of the Sun” is a master storyteller’s exposition on the irrational truths of human love – and of how hope and redemption are to be found in the unlikeliest of places, even in the midst of deepest despair.
Tsukuru Tazaki had four great friends in high school, each of whom bore a name indicative of a different colour. As the only person with a name that had no colour in it, Tsukuru became the “colourless” one in this group of five. But together, they formed a tight friendship that gave their lives shape and meaning. Except that Tsukuru was the only one of the five who intended – and who actually did – leave their comfortable home town in order to study at university in Tokyo. And it was during his first year in college that the other four cut him off, without notice or any explanation of why he was suddenly persona non grata.
Shaken by this dismissal, Tsukuru drifts through the next decade and a half of life, entering the profession he always dreamed of following – but inside remaining empty and cold, bereft of any real capacity to form close friendships or lasting relationships. The wound is too deep – until he meets Sara; and under the compulsion of her enigmatic character and the force of his own desire, decides to track down his former friends and uncover why they exiled him to a life of loneliness and pain.
The result is an odyssey that uncovers the dark secrets and hidden dynamics of an idealised past that, while it may have served some beneficial purpose, also held the group of five in the grip of a dysfunctional paradigm that ultimately led them to tragedy. As Tsukuru uncovers the layers of his past, he comes to realise that he was not the only victim of injustice; and that the only road to recovery lies in recognising the shared pain of his old friends rather than in persisting in a demand for answers to his own questions.
Once again, Haruki Murakami proves himself a master of exploring the hurt places and damaged spaces of the human psyche, and of the years of grief and suffering that can result from unintended woundings. Whilst not all aspects of this novel bear the weight of credibility, this is nonetheless another powerful tale by one of the foremost narrators of the human heart which modern literature has produced.
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.