Whenever Toru Watanabe hears his favourite Beatles song, “Norwegian Wood,” his mind is taken back to the late 1960s, when he was a student in Tokyo. In particular he relives his relationships with two girls: vulnerable, damaged Naoko, the girlfriend left behind by his best friend Kizuki, who took his own life aged 17, and lively, curious Midori who is Naoko’s opposite in every way.
Norwegian Wood is first and foremost a story about memory. It’s quite difficult to comment on the prose, as being a book in translation, I’m not sure whether to credit the author Murakami, or translator Jay Rubin. Still, the narration is beautiful and poetic. In the descriptions, I felt the effect of a lazy, sultry summer afternoon, as if lying in a meadow and watching the world go by. There is a haunting sense of the sadness of time gone by, lost loves and missed opportunities.
In Watanabe we have a protagonist who is drifting, unsure of what he wants to do with his life. He is an ordinary youth at a time of revolution: he watches his fellow students protest about the “established order,” then slink back to class so as not to fail their course. Watanabe is a student of drama, more out of a vague curiosity than because he has any passion for the subject, a rather world-weary, bored character who describes university as “a period of training in techniques for dealing with boredom.” He is somewhat of a loner, going through to high school making up a third with Kizuki and Naoko. After Kizuki’s death, he and Naoko clung together as if for safety, but when they have spent only one year at university, Naoko takes “leave of absence” and is taken to a sanatorium for mental health.
When compared with Naoko, Watanabe himself, or anyone else, Midori stands out as someone fully alert and alive amongst a cast of sleepy drifters. She is rather a breath of fresh air, a childlike character in her curiosity and frankness. Despite being rather sex-obsessed and starting horribly inappropriate conversations at the worst times, there is a sort of innocence about Midori that is very endearing in a world of “phonies.”
Immediately after I jotted down that thought, a throwaway line from Midori jogged my suspicions as it echoed from another character’s history, and I expected a plot twist that never came to pass – much to my relief, for it would have completely changed my feelings towards one of the most central characters, and not for the better.
Read for the Support Your Local Library 2011 challenge
Usually, love triangles bore me, and I have little patience with a character torn between two people. If it’s not obvious who you should be with, I reason, then should you be with either? In Norwegian Wood, however, I felt sympathy with Toru Watanabe’s dilemma. Naoko and Midori were so different, yet both were such important parts of his life. His choice seemed so impossible.
Norwegian Wood is the first book I have read by Haruki Murakami, and it is described as being very different from his usual style – a coming-of-age novel and a romance – or several romances. I understand that most of his books have more surreal or supernatural elements to them – but this is something I would be perfectly happy to find out for myself.
Norwegian Wood has been made into a film which is released in the UK on Friday.