Saturday, March 26, 2011

Norwegian Wood - A Novel

Like the main protagonist, Toru Watanabe, of "Norwegian Wood", I am also a voracious reader (of fiction only though). I estimate that I have probably read two to three thousand (maybe more) books up till now (which translates to about an average of 100 books a year from the time I was 7. ) But unlike Watanabe, I am not a great fan of "literary" novels like "The Great Gatsby",  "Jude the Obscure", etc., which is too heavy going (and boring!!!) for me, since I read mostly to relax, not to think. Not that I dislike all "literary" classics - some of them made it to my all-time favourites' list like Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird", George Orwell's "1984", John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", Louisa Alcott's "Little Women" and many more. But generally my tastes in books veer towards the trashy and the pedestrian. I would choose Dan Brown over Thomas Hardy any day, or read the stupid "Twilight" series over "The Virgin Suicides" (both of which I read). Sad, but true. AND I only read non-fiction books when I was forced to by teachers in school.

But I have gone ahead of myself in this post. Since the chances of the Samurai and I being able to visit Japan this year are close to zero (even if we wanted to, there would be an uproar in the family), we have been doing a lot of "Japanese" things in Singapore - eating at Japanese restaurants, buying Japanese DVDs to watch at home, and upon the recommendation of my girlfriend, I bought the e-book version of Norwegian Wood (Noruwei no Mori) by one of Japan's most famous authors, Haruki Murakami. I am embarrassed to say that although I am a Japano-phile, I have never read Japanese fiction before (Memoirs of a Geisha doesn't count since it was NOT written by a Japanese). But I guess I can plead that 1) I can't read Japanese; 2) My Chinese sucks enough to hamper me in reading the Chinese version; but since there is now an English translated novel, I have no more excuses.

According to my girlfriend, Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, is apparently the most widely read book in Japan, with 1 in 3 adult Japanese having read the book. In a nutshell, Norwegian Wood is about young love set against the backdrop of the tumultuous times of late 1960s Japan, with Toru Watanabe at the centre of it all. But it is certainly not the typical trashy romance novels I am used to reading, even though it is peppered with A LOT of sexual activity (Some critics who panned the novel called it "soft porn"). Rather, the lyricism and almost hypnotic story telling with its twists and turns makes this book a cut above the rest. So many things to note on so many levels, yet the story is surprisingly easy to read and I finished it within 24 hours.


Yet by the end it made me feel depressed. It was like reading The Virgin Suicides all over again, with a record 4 characters committing the dastardly deed over the course of the story. I know Japan has one of the highest (if not THE highest) suicide rate in the world but it seemed like the ONLY solution for all the crazy, miserable or lovelorn people. In the case of Watanabe's high school best friend, Kizuki, who killed himself at seventeen, and whose death sparked off the chain of events in the novel, his motive remained a complete mystery till the end. Murakami instead focused on the impact his suicide had on Watanabe and his girlfriend, Naoko, on how they both dealt with the aftermath and each other as the ones left behind. Watanabe turned out to be the survivor, but his constant struggle with his self-imposed loneliness in the busy city of Tokyo was hard to watch, His tentative friendship and eventual redeeming romance with the second female lead Midori was lovely to behold and the most compelling of all storylines.

On the other hand, Naoko's on-off relationship with Watanabe and her deadly spiral into depression irritated me to no end. Many times I wanted to slap her out of her own self-absorbed misery. Okay, I got it, she was traumatised not just by Kizuki's death but also had the misfortune to have her elder sister commit suicide too. If anyone had the best reasons to go bonkers, it would be her. Still I did not quite understand why Watanabe would be so obsessed over her - perhaps the simplest reason was that it was a shallow boy's first love, based on looks alone. Who cared that she was mopey and corpse-like with zero ounce of personality? (Not surprising since most men think with the head below?!)

Thankfully other characters in the novel were markedly more interesting, from Naoko's friend in the sanatorium, Reiko, and Watanabe's morally ambivalent college senior, Nagasawa. I also found it interesting to have a story written from a male point of view, and while sometimes slow, the insight to Watanabe's life, moving from his dorm to college classes to his workplaces was truly fascinating and engaging. I was not so interested in the political aspects of the book, since I am neither from the country nor born during those times. It helped that the prose was beautifully written, the descriptions vivid, yet without the hindrance of big words for the reader to stumble over. Now I am truly inspired to master the Japanese language so that I can read the original novel to see if anything was lost in translation. I doubt it would be in the near future though, but it is always good to have a goal to work towards.

And oh, why was the title "Norwegian Wood"? Unlike my first stupid guess that it was set in Norway, it was actually a Beatles song which was a favourite of Naoko's. Unfortunately I am not familiar with this song at all, but I am sure there are probably more literary connections. And maybe because Naoko finally hanged herself in the woods. (Adios, sayonara!!!)

The ending is vague, which spoiled my enjoyment of the book somewhat since I prefer clear cut endings. Till now, I cannot make up my mind whether it is a positive or negative ending. Just like the movie Inception. Anyone has ideas on this?

Now I shall try to find a more upbeat Murakami book to read.

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