How does one review an author that has helped to define the way many people in the English speaking world view the literature of an entire country? ‘Cause I really think that that is what Haruki Murakami has become – the most recognisable Japanese author to everyone who doesn’t live in Japan. But, is he any good? And is my opinion on the matter really worth discussing anyway?
So, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, we begin with Toru Okada, a man who has just quit his job, and is bumming around at home while his wife brings in the money, receiving a phone call from a mysterious woman who tells him that she needs but ten minutes of his time to know him properly. He hangs up. This sets off a chain of events that sees him lose everyone close to him, investigate his mysterious brother-in-law, meet people called Malta and Nutmeg, and spend a lot of time in a well.
This may sound like I’m brushing off the plot of the novel, but it is very long and complex, so I’m not even going to try and explain what even vaguely happens. Suffice to say, Toru goes through a lot to learn something very important about his wife’s family.
Murakami is a very odd writer. Or maybe it’s the translator. I would love to get inside his head, and see how he manages to come up with the bizarre nature of the worlds he creates. In this one, people have sex in their dreams – no, really – and a well is the best cure for a headache. In this novel, he manages to give us a philosophical look at the way we interact with other people, a history of Japan’s involvement in Manchuria at the end of the Second World War, and a mystery about a missing cat.
I seem to keep giving you lists of what happens in the novel to try and explain it. Oddly enough, I think that, for a large chunk of the novel, that is what it does. And that’s a problem. Toru wanders through his life, quite aimlessly, and bumps into people who provide him with answers to some mysteries, and questions that need to be answered by other people later on. I don’t know if this is a bad thing, but it does drag on for a while in the middle of the novel, dragging the very excellent beginning down a little.
Stylistically, I would put this novel into the ‘magical realist’ form. For those not in the know, this is a form that presents its story realistically (like most novels), but it also includes fantastical elements that are treated as realist. In this case, Murakami explores a dream world that can be entered, where one can communicate with people across long distances.
Murakami is a very good writer. While a lot of his critics in Japan deride him as populist, this is not a term I would use. He touches on many issues facing both Japan and the world – in particular, the legacy of World War Two – and in his own unique way, provides us with an ultimately positive view on the nature of humanity.