Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood

It never occurred to me to read any of Haruki Murakami's works. For one, his books are so popular there's a perpetual reservation queue. The books are never on shelf.

But somehow QQ*librarian managed to get a friendly wager going. She suggested I start read Haruki Murakami and she'll read a Science Fiction book. She soon fulfilled her end of the bargain while I've not started yet.

And so I paid my $1.55 to reserve the book. Norwegian Wood (based on QQ*Librarian's suggestion).

Then my reservation arrived.

First thought before I even read the book: "What? I paid $1.55 for this tiny little thing?"

I'd expected a thick novel. Turned out the book was only as long and wide as the palm of my hand. That's not a book. That's a booklet!

But if one should never judge a book by its cover, then one shouldn't judge a book by its size.

Impressions after the first 50 pages: It was the literary equivalent of watching a short foreign art film. You don't quite grasp the premise or the point of the story at the beginning, but you're curious how it develops so you continue with the story. It was also like Manga without the graphics (the penchant for sexual content or innuendos in Manga).

I don't know if all of Haruki Murakami's works reads like "Norwegian Wood". If they do, then I think I know the reason why.

It's the sex isn't it?

Come on. Admit it! Especially you guys out there.

OK OK, some people might not find the sexual scenes that eye-popping or shocking, by today's standards. Still, given such an innocuous title and the seemingly slow-start-that-seems-to-go-no-where beginning of the story, it titillates because it's unexpected.

The book I read was the year 2000 edition -- plain cover, mostly a single green colour, with just the author's name highlighted in gold strip. Like this cover.

The cover emphasised the initial dullness of the story. It lulled me into a complacency. Almost boredom, even.

"So how is this book a good read?" I wondered.

Then it hit me. Seemingly out of the blue. In my case, out of the green book cover.

"Huh? A Lesbian seduction scene?" (oops, I probably spoiled the element of surprise for you, if you've not read it).

Then the part about the protagonist, Watanabe, having some sort of weird unfulfilled relationship with a woman, Naoko, who's being treated for what seems to be Schizophrenia ("so are they going to 'do it' or not... oh, wait... seems they just did").

Or a pretty girl, Midori, requesting Watanabe to think of her when he wanks! So unreal!

What was more, the book was by a Japanese author for goodness sake. Asian authors don't write so much about sex, do they? Ah, goes to show how much I don't know.

Hey, it's not just me who thinks this book is loaded with sex. So does this blogger (para four of his random thoughts of the book): "Obsession with sex. Gosh, don’t let your 12 year old boy read this book".

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't hoping for more naughty bits appearing in the book. But that wasn't what kept me going.

By page 82, I couldn't help but like the Watanabe character. The way he unwittingly made Midori's dad, who was hospitalised and generally not being very responsive, open up and eat something nutritious.

By page 108, I realised Murakami has this knack of describing the little everyday things that us mortals might not be able to articulate. The little things that strike us at the emotional level. Things that would be boring if we were to write, but from Murakami's hands, they have a different kind of literary magic. Like on page 107 -- an innocuous paragraph describing how years later, the protagonist finally understood why he thought a girl, Hatsume, was special.

My favourite parts of the book were also on pages 124, 129, 130, and 133. There are easily a few more pages. I won't write what those scenes were. To do so would take up a few blog posts, and likely violate the Copyright Act.

Reading the liberal thoughts of Midori, I wonder if that would explain why teens nowadays do all this self-made porn stuff. Their way of unconsciously seeking attention and not realising the implications of things in the future. Like Midori, who came across as just living day-to-day with no thoughts about the future.

In case the prudes out there feel like writing a letter to the papers for the library to ban the book, I say please put down your pen. Go read the book first. And maybe you'll be glad for my advice not to write such a letter. I'd have saved you from the ire of the millions of fans.

Besides, it's not pornographic. The scenes were not graphic description of sex acts for pure eroticism only. There really is some aesthetic and emotional value to them.

Who knows, the prudish readers might find the casualness of the sex titillating and scandalous. And secretly go back for more.

Weeks after I've finished the book, the strongest impression I have is still the sexuality of the book. Not the sex scenes, mind you.

I think the sex scenes serve as a deliberate attempt to shock. A juxtaposition to the banality of the protagonist's seemingly aimless and dull lifestyle. Murakami might also have deliberately written it that way for the Japanese market. Heck, maybe he was trying to get men to read more fiction!

I didn't get the point of the story (if there was one) until near the end. The relationship that Watanabe had with Midori, Naoko and even Reiko -- they finally became clear to me.

To me, the crux of the book was a reflection of the life of young Japanese people, growing up in a prosperous society.

Like the Watanabe character, many young people in Japan -- and perhaps all over the world -- lead similar mundane existences, all trying to find their way in life.

In short, it's popularity might be that people just identify with it (like this other blogger).

If you're young and male, probably you'll identify yourself with the male protagonist. Or wish you were him (talk about having some serious Mojo and not realising it!)

As I mentioned earlier, reading Norwegian Wood was like watching a foreign language short film. Particularly those artistic kind whose plot you can't quite grasp but somehow it makes you curious about what the plot is about, and you watch till the end.

Then you stop and wonder.

And you say to yourself, "So that's what it's about. I think."

I take my earlier words back. The $1.55 was well spent. Maybe the next thing I should do is to listen to the Beatles song.

More details of the book at
ISBN: 1860468187
NLB Call No.: MUR

[Also posted at RoughNotes]


  1. Anonymous10:12 am

    I read Norwegian Wood many years ago. I have the red and green book version, packaged in a box.

    Yes, there was a lot of sex in it but there was also this sense of detachment from the rest of the world and a feeling of hopelessness, with the narrator trying to cling on to the past but slowly losing it. It was definitely one of the more memorable works of fiction I've read.

  2. Murakami's Norwegian Wood is generally recommended as a book to start with because of its short length.

    However, I do believe it does differ from the rest of his works. If you're keen to explore Murakami's world, try reading his short stories; they're very digestible and make good entertainment.

    My favourites lie with his longer novels, namely the Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. I do believe only reading his longer works can you truly experience the brilliance of this man.

    Cheers to more reading.

  3. Haha, you finally did it!

    Yah lor, I was very kind to send you to read a thin book - you sent me to read a superthick one okay? :-) Dune was very heavy to carry around, you know?

    Ehyoh, how come the sex part never struck me as the key attraction? I read Norwegian Wood a number of years ago, and my memory of it was an Asian version of "Catcher in the Rye" - a modern asian version of coming-of-age story. You are right in pointing out that Murakami has the gift of capturing the mundane and injecting a poetic beauty to it. That's the surreal world Murakami has a knack of creating and drawing his readers into and THIS is precisely what I like about Murakami's works. Actually, I think this is quite typical of Japanese writers.

    Anyhow, I'm very glad you like the story. Very good review you wrote too! If you are interested to read more Murakami, try "Kafka on the Shore" - this is my favourite of his works. :-)

  4. Anonymous12:35 pm

    Haha, if you're looking for a Murakami that's big and thick, why not try The Wind Up Bird Chronicle? Less sex tho ;p

  5. Librarians also must pay to reserve a copy ah? ;) I managed to borrow Norwegian Wood off the shelf about 2 years ago. I found it an engrossing but depressing read...

  6. Hi there,

    I am a true fan of Haruki. I read almost all of his novels and the one thing I hated about them was that they are incredibly short. for a writer like himself, I would not mind spending days glued to his words.

    Your review was very honest, I like that. My favorite part is though when he wants to cuddle like a spring bear. Aaaah, that was so kawai (cute in Japanese).

  7. Did u realize that in this novel who hasn't sexual activity kill him/herself? I think this novel is about sexual means for humanity.

  8. Hmm... no I didn't realise that. I should re-read to find out!


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