The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Murakami’s Uncanny, Ingenious Exploration of Human Suffering

We know that the central character and narrative arc in Haruki Murakami’s novels have always remained the same. A man or boy’s fear and fantasies starts up a cycle of events, where he gets caught up between real and spiritual world. The man would usually be abandoned or be in a passive state due to loss of desire. He would strike up sexually charged relationship with women, trying to regain some of what he has lost in life. But, it won’t be that easy because the active, intelligent and independent women act more like a medium for the man between his spiritual and real world rather than stay by his side to kindle his desires and dreams. Then, there would be numerous dichotomies: some exists in the man’s inner self, whereas the rest exists in his bizarre worlds. Urban alienation, dislocation, unnamed fears, pain of existence is some of his recurring themes. Murakami’s love for American pop culture, cats, etc would be sprinkled in his easy-to-read, lyrical prose (often translated by Jay Rubin and Philip J. Gabriel). Nevertheless, I am not pointing out these Murakami elements to say ‘I have figured out everything about Murakami’s novels’. I am pointing these out to tell how much this Japanese author is able to immerse us in his world & prose despite dealing with same characters and narrative.

Murakami’s books are not something you read to attain instant gratification. Although his stories depict variety of mysteries, unbelievable coincidences, nothing is resolved at the end of protagonist’s meandering experience. Part of the joy in reading Murakami’s books lies on the question of how much one relate with the loneliness, restlessness of the central character. Since I am very much able to relate with his characters’ emotions, the reading experience turns out to be the most emotionally cathartic one. “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is one of his most layered and complex work. It is the kind of novel where you can take up a particular perspective and derive ample meaning to say ‘this is exactly what this novel is about’. Then, few months or years later you can read it again, taking up a entirely a different perspective from the first time and still come up with new meaning to say ‘this novel could be about this too’.


Haruki Murakami

The first I read “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” I was so enamored by the narrative flow that I didn’t grasp many of its meaning or may be I wasn’t too matured to understand it. Now, reading it again (3 years later) I could grasp new meanings and take different perspective, which I didn’t know existed in the story. Now that I have finished reading it for the second time, I am waiting for the short passage of time to read it again and gain new things from the novel, shaped by my own ever-changing life experiences.  I don’t think a mere ‘review’ of pointing out its plot, themes & quality of prose would do justice to the experience of reading any of Murakami’s works. All I could say is that anyone who had experience the pain of existence (who doesn’t?) should give ‘Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ a try (of course, I can’t guarantee that everyone will be swept away by his writing).

The alienated, young protagonist in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is Toru Okada. The married, 29 year old guy has left his desk job in a law firm and instead of studying for his bar exams, he had stuck into a routine of housekeeping. Okada’s wife Kumiko works as editor of health food magazine and she doesn’t pester him about finding a new job. She’s ok if Okada wants to take a break and figure out what he wants to do next. Meanwhile, Okada continues his routine of doing laundry, buying groceries and cooking dinner, etc. As the story starts, we are informed that the couples’ cat Noboru Wataya goes missing. The cat is named after Kumiko’s elder brother, who is a passionless but an important member of the society. The cat’s disappearance puts Okada in touch with Malta Kano, a mystic. She warns him “I think you are entering a phase of your life in which many things will occur. Bad things that seem good at first and good things that seem bad at first”.

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Okada doesn’t understand what she means, but soon his wife Kumiko goes missing. His personal life collapses and he is plunged into passivity where new strange character and their stories merge with his life. One of the important things that take a hold over Okada’s life is the dry well situated in nearby vacant house. While lounging around the vacant house, searching for his cat (before Kumiko’s disappearance) Okada meets an eccentric teenager May Kasahara, who is obsessed with death. He also comes across Malta Kano’s younger sister Creta Kano, a prostitute of the mind; Old lieutant Mamiya who recalls his experiences in Manchukuo war and about the day he spent in a dry well, where he was cursed to live a life of passivity and regret. Okada makes frequent trips to a hotel room (208) in the surrealistic realm, where he initially thinks Kumiko is trapped or his archenemy is hiding. The plot points won’t certainly make any sense, but as I said the joy or enlightenment, waiting to be derived from the story resides in understanding the characters’ pain in life.

One of the characters (Nutmeg’s father) in the novel makes on observation about reality, “the world was like a revolving door it occurred to him as his consciousness was fading away. And which section you ended up in was just a matter of where your foot happened to fall”. Those words sums up the lack of logical continuity or reasoning in the life we lead and in the stories we tell to ourselves. There’s a Zen saying ‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional’. Toru Okada’s life journey tells our inability to take suffering as optional. We spend most of our lives purging the pain, attained from loss or gained from certain vile encounters. We could delve deep into the pit to fight with suffering, but like that guitar player who got thrashed with baseball bat (by Okada), it only smiles back at our inability to extinguish. The existential suffering is something none of us can overcome by fighting. All we are advised to do is accept the suffering, but is easier said than done. By observing Okada’s relentless pursuit to get away from loss & agony, I was taken closer to my own existential pain and the need for moving out from queasy past.

Loss of masculinity or emasculation is another vital theme in Murakami’s novel. The reason for Kumiko’s departure isn’t precisely described (even Kumiko can’t perfectly describe her feelings), but naturally Okada sees her departure through his own to failure to make Kumiko satisfy on a sexual level, apart from the emotional level. I haven’t been able to understand certain abstract realities of Okada (about the man with no face) and many merging elements of reality and dream requires more contemplation. By evoking history and its interpretation through characters like Mamiya, Murakami is able to question us about the singular view of reality and also to show how history always have a tangible presence in the events happening around us. In the end of novel, not everything is solved in the life of Okada, but he has awakened to life or at least faced his pain and fear. I think that’s what more important in life than amassing wealth & laurels.

Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” has the zen-like profundity which can be enjoyed to the fullest by leaving out our syllogistic thinking.  It is a wonder to behold the way his writings dwell in the middle-zone of realism and surrealism.


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