A few weeks ago, I was wandering around the literary fiction section of Nottingham’s Waterstones, idly picking up books, reading their blurbs, setting them back down, checking out some of the hot hipster girls who happened past and just generally passing time when I came across a promotional table stacked full of books by a guy called Haruki Murakami. I slid one off the top and read the back page.
‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Toru Okada’s cat has disappeared. His wife is growing more distant every day. Then there are the increasingly explicit telephone calls he has recently been receiving. As this compelling story unfolds, the tidy suburban realities of Okada’s vague and blameless life, spent cooking, reading, listening to jazz and opera and drinking beer at the kitchen table, are turned inside out, and he embarks on a bizarre journey, guided (however obscurely) by a succession of characters, each with a tale to tell’.
I flicked through the first ten pages and checked the prose. It was crisp, lean and straightforward, just how I like it. Toru, the protagonist, seemed like the sort of guy I could relate to. There he was cooking spaghetti and listening to the radio. There he was drinking beer. There he was hating things. I quickly forgot about the hipster girls and read on and in next to no time the phone’s ringing and Toru’s holding it to his ear and some dirty old cow on the end of the line’s telling him she’s in bed, she’s naked and she’s wet.
I smiled as I paid the clerk and then off I went, homeward-bound to sit and read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my first taste of Japanese realism…
Except that’s not really how it worked out. What I naively assumed would be an authentic Japanese spin on realist literature turned out to be…well, something else entirely.
Haruki Murakami, I now know, is one of Japanese literature’s leading lights. He is 65, he’s won copious literary awards, his books have been translated into over 50 languages and he’s been described by the Guardian’s Stephen Poole as ‘among the world’s greatest living novelists.’ Murakami is also known for his love of – and references to – Western pop culture, meaning he’s sort of like the Quentin Tarantino of Japanese literature, except with his work, rather than blood, guns, Mexican-stand-offs and casual racism, you get passive protagonists, descriptions of weather and deep, deep, oh-so-deep musings on life, death and the passing of time.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published in 1997. It was Murakami’s eighth novel and remains to this day one of his most critically-successful. It is, as outlined above, the story of Toru Okada, an early 30-something who’s quit his job as a legal clerk, whose cat has disappeared and whose wife is patently having an affair.
It becomes apparent very early on that Toru’s in a slump. He’s friendless, he doesn’t know what to do with his life and he’s lost his sex-drive. Even when the aforesaid dirty caller rings up and asks him to touch her pubic hair and starts breathing heavily down the line, Toru just sort of hesitates, listens and then puts down the receiver. The coward. Safe to say, he’s not your usual macho protagonist. Chinaski he ain’t.
Very soon, proceedings take a turn for the strange and we are introduced to a multitude of characters who bear absolutely no resemblance to anyone I’ve come across in my own life. First off, we meet a local girl called May Kasahara. She’s 16, she works for a wig company, she’s got a gammy leg and she smokes like a steam train. Toru encounters her whilst looking for his missing cat. May tells Toru all about the house at the back of hers in which all the previous inhabitants have suffered loss and then killed themselves. Ok then.
Next up, we meet a psychic and self-described ‘water expert’ with a beautiful yet waxen face and a red vinyl hat. She’s called Malta Kano. Turns out she’s got a sister called Creta Kano who’s been raped (but not literally) by Toru’s brother-in-law, the cold and sinister Noboru Wataya, after whom – despite the fact that Toru hates his guts – the missing cat is named. Malta claims the cat might have done a runner because the ‘flow’ in Toru’s house is all wrong. Toru doesn’t know what the hell to think. Neither did I.
Then Toru’s wife disappears, then he receives a letter from his deaf and elderly friend, Mr Honda, who’s also a psychic, then he receives a letter from Mr Honda’s mate from the army, Lt Mamiya, who’s only got one hand but compensates for his lack of a grasping organ with a long story about a time before the war when, as a military officer, he was stationed in Manchukuo, an occupied region of China on the border of Outer Mongolia and the Soviet Union. Then Toru becomes obsessed with wells and the simple, chronological structure of the novel twists into a series of flashbacks, conversations about flashbacks, flashbacks of conversations, conversations via email, dream sequences and newspaper and magazine articles about events which have yet to happen in the present storyline.
And of course at the centre of all of this is ‘the Wind-Up Bird’ of the title, the heartbeat of the story. Every so often, select characters throughout the novel hear a noise like the winding of a spring emanating from somewhere nearby and believe it to be the call of some kind of rare bird. They never see this bird and it’s never clear whether the noise is real or imaginary but it’s always heard during an important time in a character’s life and is usually followed by some loss of fortune. In a loose way (I think) the noise is meant to represent the forming of people’s motivations. Murakami seems to be asking whether our behavior and actions are the products of our inner processes or whether they are, in actual fact, a result of external events. In a nutshell, do we have free will or don’t we?
Then again, I can’t be certain. The ‘Wind-Up Bird’ could be a metaphor for absolutely anything at all. Or it could mean nothing, in which case I’ve just massively over-extended myself. In any case, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle pretty quickly turns into a complete mind-fuck, as far as the deeper meanings are concerned.
Murakami has claimed that in author QnA’s and seminars, he’s asked more about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle than anything else he’s ever written. And I’m not surprised. It’s 607 pages long, it’s chocca-block full of intrigue and mystery, main characters breeze in out of nowhere and disappear as quickly as they came, it is rich in symbolism and nothing is explained.
And yet – and yet – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle leaves you with a feeling like you’ve had a brush with greatness. For a book that deals with themes like ennui, relationships, pain, violence, suffering, power, politics, war and the existence – or nonexistence – of free will, it is remarkably easy to read. Its prose is clean, orderly and precise, reminiscent of Chandler and Hemingway. Its protagonist, however passive is likeable for his simplicity and naivety. Its passages of description are sublime – take this example from Toru’s first trip down to the bottom of the local well:
‘As time passed my eyes became more accustomed to the darkness. Before long, I could just about make out the shape of my hand if I brought it close to my face. Other things around me began slowly to take on their own dim shapes, like timid little animals letting down their guard in the most gradual stages imaginable. As much as my eyes became used to it, though, the darkness never ceased to be darkness. Anything I tried to focus on would lose its shape and burrow its way soundlessly into the surrounding obscurity. Perhaps this could be called “pale darkness”, but pale as it might be, it had its own particular kind of density, which in some cases contained a more meaningful darkness than perfect pitch darkness. In it, you could see something. And at the same time, you could see nothing at all.’
Although slow, the story-telling is masterful. The tale unfurls gradually. Murakami takes it easy. Reading the book is like sitting in a quiet park in the middle of a big city with an old, sage, Japanese man and being drip-fed the most profound wisdom you’ve ever heard in your entire life. You don’t really understand it – you get bits and bobs – but you listen and nod along and you appreciate that what you’re being told is massive.
On the back page of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a series of quotes taken from reviewers writing for the likes of The New York Times and The Independent on Sunday, praising the book for its originality, beauty and generosity. The words they use to describe the novel are ‘visionary’, ‘bold’ and ‘surreal’ but to be honest, the second I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the only words flying around my mind were ‘what’, ‘the’ and ‘hell’. My first feeling was that I’d been mugged. Mugged by a genius but mugged nonetheless. I had picked up the novel in good faith nearly every day for three weeks and ploughed through its 607 pages, even when the going got tough. I thought that all would become clear at the end and that everything would settle down into place. But I thought wrong. Nothing is ever really explained. And that really pissed me off.
I denounced Murakami as a bull-shitter, a charlatan, a time-waster. I swore I’d never read any of his shit again. I cursed him to the skies. That Murakami with his awards and his smug explorations of life and death and his open endings. I’d show him. I’d write a scathing blog and show the literary world the error of their misplaced adoration.
But again, I was wrong. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a triumph of substance over style. Sure it’s slow, sure it’s overly-philosophical, sure it’s inconclusive. But it’s also brave, masterful and prismatic. Once you start reading, you begin to look at your own world through the prism of Toru’s acquiescence. You begin to stop and appreciate little things. You notice things you’d never noticed before. The book gets into your being and makes you think. And that’s rare.
There’s a chapter towards the end of the novel entitled ‘The Job of Making Others Use Their Imaginations,’ at the end of which Lt Mamiya signs off a letter to Toru thus:
‘To tell you the truth, I have no idea what this long, strange story of mine will mean to you… Perhaps it is nothing more than an old man’s mutterings. But I wanted to – I had to – tell you my story…I have lived my life in total defeat. I have lost. I am lost. I am qualified for nothing…I love no one and am loved by no one. A walking shell, I will simply disappear into darkness. Having managed at long last, however, to pass my story on to you…I will be able to disappear with some small degree of contentment. May the life you lead be a good one, a life free of regrets.’
Lt Mamiya believes he’s led a pointless life and herein lays the central message of the book. For all the talk about the meaning of life, many people struggle to find any meaning at all. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru’s search for meaning in his ‘vague and blameless’ life. As a reader, you expect him to find it. But he doesn’t. The book is about learning to cope without answers and learning to live with mystery – and lots of other things besides. Murakami says nothing and everything at the same time and in that way, the The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of the most accurate and profound reflections of life you will ever come across.
Long live Murakami.