Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is a nostalgic novel within unusually non-nostalgic topics: loss, grief, death and a whole lot of sexual tension. Murakami sets the novel in 1960’s Japan. A period where Japanese students are protesting and there is civil unrest. These students are painted in a poor light, compared to the protagonist and narrator Toru Wannabe who has no interest in engaging with their protests.
Toru has other things on his mind. Naoko. The girlfriend of his dead best friend and someone he cannot stop thinking about. This already spells disaster. Every time she disappears, we watch Toru spiral into chaos until he receives a letter from her. The first letter tells him she is in some sort of sanitarium, but not the usual sort. He visits her occasionally. He wants her to live with him. She wants him to have sex with other girls. Her only request is that he remembers her.
Toru does a whole lot more than remember her. He buries his grief from the multitude of suicides in the novel and uses Naoko as a shield from it all. Toru cannot do anything with his life until he has her in his arms.
There is a huge amount of sexual charge and it builds up through the novel to the point where it becomes oppressing. Perhaps we are experiencing Naoko’s emotions. Before her death, Naoko admits: “I just don’t want anybody going inside of me again. I just don’t want to be violated like that again — by anybody”. She gave her virginity to Toru and then has a mental breakdown.
Naoko could be read as an asexual character, Murakami seems to have embedded these into some of his novels. In a society dominated by sexual discourse, it seems inevitable that she is driven into this turmoil because she cannot fulfil what is the supposed human function. However, Murakami is also known for writing sexually violent characters. Perhaps Naoko has watched and observed society and she doesn’t want to be exposed to this violence. She has hidden to protect herself. So when they begin to see improvement in her mental state, she is scared that they will release her back into society. She inevitably has to go back into society at some point. So she sees her only option as suicide.
Norwegian Wood was the novel that gave Murakami his international fame and draws more heavily on Western influences. The title takes its name from The Beatles’ song which is a reference throughout the novel as Naoko’s favourite. The novel recalls many songs and can read at times to a playlist dedicated to Naoko. Music is the biggest form of nostalgia. Toru hears the song after landing in Hamburg, it is the catalyst for the narrative. “Each time it appears it delivers a kick to some part of my mind”.
Being set in Japan I was expecting a heap of Japanese cultural references but instead, there is only the setting and geography. The novel is deeply influenced by Western culture. Toru prefers to read American novels like The Great Gatsby. A friend with similar tastes argues “If you only read the books everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”. I wonder if Murakami is suggesting the Eastern culture should draw upon Western, and the West on the East if societal reform is needed. There is stuff we can learn and implement into life to make the world a better place. Does the translation of Norwegian Wood invite the West to converse with the East?
Besides the political commentary of the novel, there is also the personal. The novel particularly appeals to younger readers. Readers who are beginning to discover who they are and going off in the world by themselves — just like Toru and Naoko.
Through Toru, Murakami provides a narrative of desperation. Toru is writing this down now because he knows if he leaves it any longer his memory will fade and he will not be able to fulfil his promise to Naoko — to remember her. Toru knows he has already forgotten bits of their story, and there is a lot he does not know.
As a narrator he is potentially unreliable, his favourite novel is The Great Gatsby after all! He may have potentially painted himself in a better light than we get to see — there is a lot of ambiguity as to why Naoko cannot be with him. And he seems to acknowledge that to some extent. Toru warns us we might not get the full story. He writes: “Now, though, I realise that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thought”.
Norwegian Wood contains a heavy narrative and a lot of ambiguity but also an enlightening conversation into Japan’s history and the mental struggle of the youth. The prose is easy to follow and clenches your heart. There are little snippets of writing in this book for everyone to grab onto and dwell on. It’s a classic!