Norwegian Wood – A Spellbinding Fiction on Unspoken Grief, Death and Intense Young Love
We know how unrequited love could torture our soul. We may have experienced a strong yearning to save our love which gradually pushes us into insanity. To all lonely outsiders love is the only thing worth seeking in an ocean of tragedy and disappointments. All this makes love more than a positive virtue; it seems to be the strongest emotion that determines our destiny. Legendary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s novel Norwegian Wood is about love and the confusion that accompanies it. The novel’s structure looks like reading someone’s personal journal. It chronicles a young man’s emotional instability, alienation, and depression. But remember that it’s the tale is written by Murakami. Hence, each of the contemplative passages is poetic and achingly beautiful. You feel happy as well as sad when going through the old photographs of the people cherish in life. You absorb all the details in the photographs, hoping to bundle up your inner self and send it into the pictures. I got that familiar feeling when reading through central character Toru Watanabe’s trip into the nostalgia-inducing past in Norwegian Wood.
Unlike most of Murakami’s fiction, Norwegian Wood (written in 1987) doesn’t have any parallel universes or heavy doses of magical realism. Although there are distinct Murakami characters, nothing abnormal or weird happens to them. The novel also has nothing do with Norway. Similar to titles of previous works, Murakami has derived this particular title from Western musical compositions (Norwegian Wood – a famous song of the Beatles). The novel opens with 37 year old Toru Watanabe recalling his good-old college days after listening to a song in the airplane. Toru’s thoughts are teleported to the 1960s when he moved to a college dorm in Tokyo. “Death exists, not as the opposite of life but as part of life” goes the wonderful phrase in the opening chapter. And, the 17 year old Toru has already understood the truth of that phrase. His best friend Kizuki has committed suicide right before the high school graduation.
The 1960s were the most politically chaotic period in Japan. Like in USA and Europe, Japan witnessed its share of sexual revolution, radical socialist movements, and anti-Vietnam War protests, etc. Toru is an open-minded, non-judgmental person who speaks very less, reads a lot and observes everything. Most of the Murakami characters, especially the female ones confide in details of their private life to the male protagonists. In Norwegian Wood, Toru Watanabe shares such special bond with two girls – Naoko and Midori. Naoko was the girlfriend of Toru’s deceased best friend Kizuki. Naoko has also left her home to leave the painful memories about Kizuki. Toru bumps into Naoko in the train. She asks if he would walk with her. Soon, it becomes a ritual as Toru follows up Naoko in her long walks around Tokyo. The emotional scar they share kind of brings them closer.
Another vital character in Murakami’s novel is a flamboyant, extroverted guy. Here it is Nagasawa, a wealthy womanizer who is on the path to become a high-level bureaucrat. Nagasawa, the senior college student, is unapologetic about his lifestyle and an avid reader, which is what, draws Toru to him. And, Toru doesn’t care much about the moneyed nature of Nagasawa, which is why Nagasawa thinks Toru as his special friend. Soon, Naoko is afflicted by the new-found intimacy with Toru. Unable to cope with suicide of Kizuki and process the fresh feelings of love, she retreats to a new-age mental treatment center, situated in a beautiful mountain landscape. While Naoko is in the sanitarium, Toru bumps into an eccentric girl Midori. Despite carrying lot of personal tragedies, Midori moves like a bundle of energy. Naoko and Toru share letters with each other. In one of the letters, Naoko invites Toru to visit her and he says yes. The trip and its aftermath brings Toru the existential dilemma of whether he should wait for his true love or move on by clinging to the whirlwind of life.
Muramaki’s fictions are non-conclusive and force you to come up with what it’s about. Norwegian Wood is the tale of people who put up with life’s extremities and people who don’t. It is a mournful call of a tortured, deeply scarred soul. The novel is also about mental illness and the indelible mark it leaves on one’s soul. To me, it seemed that Toru Watanabe was agonized over what to choose in life; to choose the ‘one’ that brings meaning to his life. Should it be death or life; should he withdraw himself from the cliff or jump into the abyss? The question is represented by the characters of Naoko and Midori. They embody Toru’s inner emotional battle. As expected, you don’t find any conclusive answers. But the strength of any Murakami’s fiction (including Norwegian Wood) lies in the strong bond you forge with the idiosyncratic observations of his characters. In that way, Toru Watanabe’s introspective nature underlines my own boiling emotional turmoil.
[Norwegian Wood was adapted into a movie under the same title by director/writer Tran Anh Hung (The Scent of Green Papaya). Although the film had splendiferous visuals and a good performance from Rinko Kikuchi, it missed the magic of Murakami’s prose.]