I started this blog a year ago with the goal of giving a second chance to books, foods, and games I missed the first time. I haven’t gotten to the games–I’m planning a card party in the coming months–but I’m thankful to have read so many wonderful books this year and that’s only because I’ve successfully broken several reading habits that kept me from discovering hidden literary gems. To start I’ve relinquished my knee-jerk bias toward new releases. I’ve been going back decades to catch up with authors with whom I’ve never been acquainted. A second reading habit that I’ve abandoned was an offshoot of life working in the legal trenches. After a long day reading case law, it’s extremely difficult to focus on anything that has intellectual heft. I was drawn to mindless fantasy sagas because they offered escape from everyday drudgery without demanding much in the way of intellectual involvement. With retirement, I can put my intellectual resources to novels with more substance. During my working days, I also stuck with the American-British canon mostly because it takes more effort to find translated works of merit. I now have the freedom to look overseas for my literary pleasures.
This is where Huraki Murakami comes in. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s time Bookmakers gave him 4:1 odds of winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. In contrast, the eventual winner, Bob Dylan, faced odds of 50:1. Scuttlebutt is that Murakami is considered too lightweight, too popular, and too disinterested in social justice to ever come out on top. Dylan demonstrated interest in social justice in spades.
I’ve just come off reading a very heavy handed social justice novel which felt like it was sledgehammering me with its concerns, valid though they were. Murakami may not inveigh against social injustice but The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle had some some very important things to say about Japanese and Soviet atrocities in Manchuria, Mongolia, and in Japanese P.O.W. camps in Siberia, and overall about the ability of an individual to confront arrogant, violent, and bullying leadership. These historical events–some real, some fictional–are embedded in a work of magical realism that takes place in contemporary Japan. Toru Okada, a young, aimless, unemployed paralegal faces the disappearance of first his cat, then his wife Kumiko. He is determined to find both, helped along the way by two clairvoyant sisters, Malta Kano and Creta Kano, a war veteran, Lieutenant Mamiya, and his insightful, but troubled teenage neighbor, May Kasahara. Toru also encounters mother-son team Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka who teach him about healing and the meaning of the wind-up bird, heard by few, seen by none, whose winding-spring cry presages a universal reset. Toru finds the portal to a parallel universe in the bottom of a dry well (and acquires his own healing ability in the form of a large blue-black mark on his cheek), learns about the duality of human conscious and unconscious, and finds that everyone possesses an inner core that can be stolen or upset, but whose imbalance may be restored. For these characters and Murakami, “fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual.” An individual’s inner core is more than a summary of what he or she has done.
The events Toru discovers about Japan’s Manchurian past, his every human interaction, are interconnected, with each piece finding a place in a larger puzzle. The past is an inescapable shadow upon the present. Putting the pieces together, Toru is able to confront his villainous and corrupt brother-in-law Noboru Wataya who is responsible for Kumiko’s disappearance.
The almost timeless construction of the novel reminded me of David Mitchell’s work, except that it was Murakami who influenced Mitchell. The historical allusions may be to the Japanese past, but Murakami peppers his work with streams of references to Western culture, both low-and highbrow. The music of Rossini, Mozart, and Andy Williams plays in the background. Toru makes spaghetti and chugs coffee. He reads Hemingway. The constant Western cultural allusions may be one reason that Murakami appeals to Western readers. According to The Paris Review, Murakami is internationally “the mostly widely-read Japanese novelist of his generation.” The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle won the 1995 Yomiuri Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award. It deserves a second chance.