Last week in the bookstore I came across a new release of Haruki Murakami’s 1987 groundbreaking novel Norwegian Wood. The book was first translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum in 1989, but in a style intended for Japanese students of English. A second translation in 2000 by Jay Rubin, is now the authorized version for publication outside Japan, Vintage International in the US and Harvill Press in the UK. The new Vintage edition I found last week was released in conjunction with a film adaptation of the book directed by Tran Anh Hung and released in Japan in 2010. The film stars Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi and Kiko Mizuhara and was nominated for a Golden Lion award at the 67th Venice International Film Festival.
Haruki Murakami, the book’s 63 year-old author is Japan’s superstar of postmodern literature whose publishing numbers continue to shatter records. Since it was first published, Norwegian Wood has sold more than ten million copies in Japan alone, and has further been read by millions of people around the world in more than thirty languages. The book’s success affected the author in unexpected ways. “It became a phenomenon. It wasn’t a book any more. I didn’t want to be famous. I felt betrayed. I lost some of my friends. I don't know why but they left. I was not happy at all.” He reacted by leaving Japan, spending time in Europe and later taking a teaching position at Princeton. He was in his late forties when in 1995 he finally returned to live in Japan.
Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of Tokyo in the 1960s. Murakami’s focus is mainly on the bohemian and alienated, those who rejected the conformity and self-sacrifice that contributed to the country’s increased standard of living. To a great extent Norwegian Wood defines the 1960s generation of Japanese—first to enjoy the country’s newly found affluence. The protagonist and narrator is Toru Watanabe, who looks back on his rather melancholy days as a university student living in Tokyo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, at a time when he formed relationships with two very different young women. For readers around the world who’ve never been to Japan, the book offers a detailed view of Tokyo as it was in those days.
During high school, Toru, his friend Kizuki, and Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko are good friends. Their friendship is interrupted by the suicide of Kizuki on his 17th birthday. Their friend’s death touches both Toru and Naoko deeply and the two spend more and more time together. Eventually their relationship verges on something like love and on the night of Naoko’s 20th birthday, they sleep together for the first time. Shortly after their night together Naoko leaves Toru a letter explaining that she needs some time apart, that she is quitting college to enter a sanatorium near their hometown. After some time has passed and Toru has yet to hear from Naoko, he befriends a girl named Midori, a fellow classmate. Despite the love for Naoko, Toru finds himself attracted to Midori as well. The feeling is mutual and the friendship with Midori grows during Naoko’s absence. In time, Toru visits Naoko in the sanatorium and is moved by his talk with her and knowing her as never before. Something happens that changes Toru and…
Further details of the story I will leave open-ended, unwilling to spoil the story for those interested in reading the book.
For readers unfamiliar with Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood is the perfect choice for sampling Japan’s most popular writer. In this novel Murakami hadn’t yet begun his experiments with magic realism and there are no odd characters or talking cats to figure out and put meaning to. That isn’t to say that the later work incorporating magic realism is anything to steer away from. However Haruki Murakami chooses to tell a story the result is masterful.