Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Cross-posted at Diary of a Goldfish

This book has also been reviewed here by The Unreliable Witness, upon whose recommendation I read it.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the surreal tale of Toru Okada, an unemployed man hunting for a missing cat. Over the course of his search, Toru encounters all manner of supernatural and spiritual phenomenon, a host of fascinating characters and discovers very much more than the absconding feline.

This is a story about moving from a position of numbness to a position of feeling. At the outset, Toru is completely devoid of passion. He is not worried or excited this limbo in his career, he doesn’t notice his wife’s increasing absences and whenever anyone wants to see him he has no plans. His central mission over the course of the novel is not to discover some profound intellectual truth or even a factual explanation of events, but merely to get in touch with how he feels, whether this might be drawn out of him by the stories and behaviours of other people (usually mirroring the same theme) or whether he might go down a well and deprive himself of sustenance and stimulation until that monster, emotion, finally emerges.

Which can be, at times, a pretty scary adventure. There is a lot of darkness in this book, but also a lot of light and perhaps most importantly, a lot of beauty - of both the dark and light as well as the ambiguous variety.

Naturally, I was reading in translation, but the style came across as pretty incredible; mastering the art of being at once verbose and minimalist. At first it irritated me to realise that, despite ever economical sentences, the reason I was reading a 600 page book was because the author insisted on rephrasing and the repeating the same statement or sentiment three times, but after a while I decided that this was part of its genius. It becomes quite amusing and together with reassurances that there is no pretension here (the word weird is used more often than any other adjective), it is part of what allows Murakami to lead us seamlessly backwards and forwards between the real and the surreal. Which I consider a pretty impressive achievement.

I was not always convinced by his characterisations. Again, there is a question mark over what might be lost in translation, but several of the characters appeared to have the exactly same ‘voice’; there are several large passages where we are reading a letter or listening to a story told by a character other than our narrator-protagonist, and the syntax remains the same for an elderly war veteran as for a young prostitute.

And then there is the small issue of all female characters being succubi; they phone our protagonist to molest his ears, enter his dreams in order to force themselves upon him, they titillate and frustrate him before threatening his life or else pay hard currency for the privilege of sapping Toru’s spiritual energy. And despite their universally ravenous appetite for Toru’s spunk (in all conceivable senses of the word), the female characters only appear to obtain any sexual pleasure during adultery or rape.

Leading on from this, there is a big problem with sex, which occurs frequently and takes on a level of spiritual significance. Sex can be a way of getting into somebody’s head and it is a small step to seeing this in spiritual or else supernatural terms, but it surely has to be fairly spectacular sex; that kind of inverted torture where a person can be drawn out to the edge of themselves. Unfortunately, there is nothing about Toru’s many sexual adventures which makes them appear above the level of a half-hearted contact-sport. Which is all very well for dispassionate Toru, but it becomes very boring to read and one begins to suspect all this sex has been put in to prove something.

Fortunately, there is one very bright ray of sunshine in the shape of Toru’s teenaged neighbour, May Kasahara. She is yet another blood-sucking temptress (she even renders a hosepipe "warm and limp", groan), but she is also the funniest, wisest, most realistic and thoroughly loveable character in the book, and the one who kept me going through the more tedious patches. Because it can be tedious. You have 600 pages during which you are given a great deal of information, subjected to all manner of images – including some very disturbing ones – and are never really sure what matters, if indeed anything does matter and whether you are going to be offered any resolution in the end.

It is therefore necessary to embark on this book in the right conditions. Deep and increasing curiosity got me through; the desire for an entertaining read would not have.