Here’s a book to rave about. Haruki Murakami, author of last year’s noirish Zen sensation, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and the mammoth The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, has finally OK’d an English translation of his 1987 runaway hit, Norwegian Wood (4 million copies sold in Japan). Don’t let that number fool you — this novel has as much to do with pop drugstore fiction as sushi does with cotton candy. But the Beatles reference is a hook into at least one of the strains running through this hypnotic story. Murakami combines (balances, actually) the onslaught of Western influences on Japanese life with signs of a deep veneration for Japanese traditions — in the service of a tragic love story that takes the reader to totally unexpected places of the mind and heart.
Murakami’s narrator, young Watanabe, is a university student who listens to Bach and Bill Evans, reads Thomas Mann, is fascinated by Edvard Munch, Walt Disney, Casablanca and, of course, the Beatles (he plays their songs on his old acoustic guitar). He’s also obsessed with an impossible love for an emotionally distressed young woman, Naoko, whom he’s known since they were kids. Their essentially long-distance relationship — he at school, she in a sanatorium — is kept alive by their letters, a short visit from Watanabe now and then, and their memories of a long-lost adolescence in which a third comrade took an early exit from life.
The focus throughout all of this is Watanabe’s interior monologue in which everything — feelings, people, the look of everyday things — is turned over, weighed and sifted by a mind moving back through the centuries as much as it moves forward through each passing hour. Watanabe rents a small cottage in a garden where he takes care of the plants, makes simple meals and, in a word, meditates. He seems to think like a Japanese Camus, but — as the sex scenes come up and grab you unawares like a powerful fever — he comes to different conclusions about the world than existentialism does.
Norwegian Wood, once you start it, won’t let you put it down — a seductive read.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].