Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Every once in a while, I find an author who gets me excited about reading. That isn't to say I'm not excited about reading in a general way, all the time; rather, I mean that certain authors draw me into their work in such a way that makes me both want it to last for a long time and speed up so I can read something else they've written. It's very conflicting, but some authors get inside my head and make me want to read a whole lot of their stuff before moving on. Haruki Murakami was one of those authors for me (as well as for many others, I suspect) and his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although not the first of his I read, has maintained the biggest hold on me.

Murakami is a weird writer, let's get that out of the way. His writing combines elements of stark realism with really shadowy spiritual and psychological elements, as well as a clear interest in Japanese history, especially as it pertains to Manchuria. He also tends to have lots of characters. All of these elements combine in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to create a strange, twisting, layered narrative that starts out with a lost cat.

Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko live in Tokyo. Toru is not working, because he has decided he'd rather not and they can afford it right now, so when their cat goes missing, it is his responsibility to look for it. The cat is named Noboru Wataya, after Kumiko's brother, whom neither of them like. Then, with very little explanation, Kumiko also goes missing. Or, rather, she leaves, because she says has been having an affair. With very little notice, Toru is without both his cat and his wife. Since he doesn't really have a place to start looking for his wife, Toru continues to search for the cat. Searching down the back alley, Toru meets May Kasahara, a teenage girl and pro-liar who isn't in school because she has chosen not to be. In a lesser writer's hands, the friendship between May and Toru would be fraught with inappropriate sexual tension, but as it is, Toru is too passive for that and May is too cynical. Mostly, they talk about death, and the missing cat, and Toru's missing wife.

Toru's passivity is a lynchpin in the novel, because none of the people he meets are people he has to seek out; everyone comes to him and then he follows their instructions, practically without question. He is kind of infuriating, really. Toru receives a lot of mail, often letter that continue stories he was partially told in person. One of these stories comes from Lieutenant Mamiya, about what happened to him when he was a soldier occupying Manchuria. It is a gruesome tale and results in him being tossed into a dry well in the middle of the dessert. After three days, he manages to get out, ends up in a Siberian labour camp and, eventually, makes his way back to Japan. It's a harrowing story and provokes a strange link between Toru's life and the history of Japan's occupation of China, which returns later when another character enters Toru's life.

There are really too many pieces of the novel to attempt a detailed explanation. Murakami writes rather like a someone knitting a sweater: all the pieces are so tightly pulled together, that each element ties into another, making it impossible to remove one thread on its own. In that way, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is like a well-crafted mystery novel – with strange characters and false endings – wherein knowing what happens at the end is meaningless until you understand everything that led up to that point.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, in a lot of ways, a novel about loneliness and isolation. But it is also about finding a way out of that isolation into relationships and the wider world. Toru Okada, for all his annoying traits, is the perfect character to build this sort of novel around because he forces the reader to slow down and take in all the weird sights. In this novel, Murakami constructs a life so rich in its strange and mundane details that you can't help but sink into it, making it a great read for this time of year – one the one hand isolating you in your chair, on the other giving a novel you will want everyone to read, if only so you have people to talk about it with.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
First published in English in 1997 (cover image shown from Vintage edition)

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