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Norwegian Wood

During my travels in Southeast Asia, I had several chats with a fellow traveller from Portugal, who also seemed to enjoy Haruki Murakami, and other works by modern Japanese authors. She was surprised to hear I did not like Norwegian Wood, which was her first Murakami, and brimmed over with enthusiasm about discussing Murakami (who's been my favourite author for about a year now), I promised to reread the book to find out just why I didn't like it. Here's what I came up with:

Norwegian Wood was the one of Murakami's novels that I didn't like at all, wish I had never read, and by which I felt "cheated" and let down by what may well be my favourite author for the time being -- well, maybe Dance Dance Dance is also one of those. It was previously impossible for me to determine exactly why I felt so bad about the book, which made this reread a little more challenging -- and rather interesting in the end. Norwegian Wood was my third Murakami novel, after I had read the Wild Sheep Chase and After the Quake.

Up front those reasons that I think made me dislike the book the first time around: the story line of Norwegian Wood is absolutely boring and way too autobiographical, and the ending is painfully artificial. In fact, half way through the book, the story takes a turn (I cannot pinpoint the exact moment), around which I often put down the book in refusal, annoyed and disappointed. If I say that the story line is boring, I mean that it's a boring foundation, but as with all stories, it's in the author's hands to make it into an exciting novel. Murakami fails in this novel, in my opinion (he claims he set out to achieve something else, that this book was a challenge to him). Anyway, I do remember from my first reading that I really liked the tension and potential in the character interplay Murakami describes in the first half of the book, and I anticipated a deadlock between them, which would have to be solved by Watanabe (the main character) in a lose-lose type of resolution. However, what happens is that everything sort of resolves itself, dragging the characters along. It never touches once on paradoxical or supernatural elements as found in most other Murakami novels, which is a shame. Furthermore, it's a love story, and one with too many romantic and melancholic moments for my taste.

Upon rereading (having gone through another four Murakami books in the mean time), I noticed a number of other things that disturbed me, or otherwise came in perpendicular to my taste: Toru Watanabe, the main character, aged around 20, goes through a great deal of effort to make sure the world knows he's just ordinary. Yet, the way he swings life is just a little too good for the ordinary. Throughout the book, you get the impression that he's not very happy or satisfied with his life, yet if you look at the days he fills, you'll tend to see them as complete. This turns Watanabe into a grouchy pessimist, and that mood transferred to me as the reader.

On a side note: one thing I definitely like about Murakami's main characters (at least those I have met) is their self-sufficiency: the whole world could vanish and still they'd continue doing what they always did. In some ways, I have found myself in those characters, but more often I find myself looking up to them and wishing I could be like that.

Watanabe is, however, just too much of a polished character (and with that I don't mean polished to be good, just polished), and one that seems to do everything right when it comes to the moral level. Sure, he asks himself about moral issues here or there, but my feeling was always that Murakami put those monologues in for completeness, not for character. I find it hard to imagine a boy between the ages of 17 and 21 (which is the years the book covers) with traits like Watanabe, and such integrity: he's never dishonest or even plagued by the possibility, and he appears to be consciously doing everything he does.

He ends up in bed (or close by) with one of several girls he devours on a number of occasions, but each time stays in absolute control, not allowing himself to "do it", or accepting whatever excuse comes =66rom the girl. I don't mean to say that this by itself is unlike a boy at his age, but I guess what I am really lacking is a reflection on his thoughts, or at least some insight, which Murakami withholds each time. It would have added a lot of tension to those moments, made them even a bit erotic (which despite all the sex and sexual references, I found none of the book to be).

Finally, there is almost no character development in the novel. Even though the time span of the novel spans a very important time in the development of a boy, he does not change much, nor does his perception of the characters around him (the book is told in the first person).

In the end, despite a serious lack of motivation to read on throughout most of the text, I think I did learn to appreciate it after all. On the one hand, Murakami hides many little gems of thoughts in the conversations with Midori, the girl ready to shake up Toru's life, which often have Zen-character ("I wonder what ants do on rainy days"), and it did take me a reread to notice those -- and I smiled every time I did. On the other hand, the reread did allow me to get a closer look at the relationships between the characters, and how Murakami explores them, mostly with parallels referencing the past. He remains in my eyes as one of the most imaginative writers of modern literature, and while it strikes me as easier to be imaginative in an imaginary story, the challenge is all the more as you move into real life, and in this case: real life as tangible as it gets because of the elements of love.

I am still looking forward to my next novel, which will either be Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (which is said to be his best), a book recommended to me by the aforementioned traveller (Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto), or one suggested today by my physiotherapist, but I fail to recall the name at this moment and shall have to wait until I receive my next treatment on Wednesday.