Revisiting Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is like a nightmare that has come back to haunt you. I’ve recoiled at the mere mention of its name, inspiring dread and boredom. I remember reading it back in high school at Singapore; I was sixteen maybe and was sitting on this one bench on the third floor that oversaw the whole field. My copy was from Heathrow Airport’s book store and Murakami was my first real contemporary writer. I’ve also bought Naomi (痴人の愛) by Junichiro Tanizaki and After Dark by Murakami, both I love very dearly. But Norwegian Wood, despite having the title of a decent Beatles track, had fogged up my memory. I couldn’t recall any sort of memory reading it except images, scenes, and the numerous sex scenes. And oh yes, the tanks. The memories were all turning into mud, just dirty mud that got stuck on your boot.
Now, I’m twenty-two in Chicago and one of the class texts is, of course, Norwegian Wood. I have to study it for its writing techniques and other writerly things. I love my fate, thank you very much Nietzsche, so I shall stay for the night to write a response on the first few fifty pages. “But wait,” I said to my professor, “may I read this book in Japanese?” My professor was all excited and said, “Yes, please tell us how different it is.”
I have actually told my professor that Murakami reads basically the same as translations, but the fear of “losing meaning” in translations shall always override any reason.
So today I have read up to chapter three, which is about 86 pages in the 上/Part One (286 pages total). The original Norwegian Wood is split up into two books; most of Murakami’s novels are like that because they are quite long by Japanese standards.
I hope I have grown up from my pretentious hipster teenage self who preferred to watch The Element of Crime over The Princess Bride. In fact, I doubt my series of posts on Norwegian Wood will be very negative. If it is negative, it is at least a side-effect of being critical as I reexamine Norwegian Wood and possibly myself as I read the work. I want to put myself into check whether I actually mean it when I say I try to read works critically with an awareness of my biases or not. Many people seem interested in how I read too (unless I am so narcissistic and in reality, people think I’m insane) so I feel like this is an opportunity for me to note down things I’ve observed before I forget. I do need these notes for class discussion on Monday anyway.
So let’s talk about Murakami. Contemporary Japanese writer, likes jazz and classical music, magical realist writer (whatever this means). He has been nominated for Nobel Prize in Literature aka the award no one in literary circles care. John Updike has called Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore not only a pageturner but a “metaphysical mind-bender” in the New Yorker. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is more cautious, suggesting that while Wind-up Bird Chronicle is ambitious it “often seems so messy that its refusal of closure feels less like an artistic choice than simple laziness, a reluctance on the part of the author to run his manuscript through the typewriter (or computer) one last time.” In Japan, many critics and writers have divided themselves into two camps. Critic Fukuda Kazuya (福田和也) claims that in his ranking of writers Murakami is one of the best writers since Natsume Soseki. Saitou Tamaki, the psychologist most famous for coining the term hikikomori and also critic, has an eloquent description of Murakami’s popularity, which I will now translate poorly:
Haruki Murakami’s writing is practically like a marriage scam. The people who read his books are those who want to be fooled by the scam. This situation is much like David Beckham’s popularity; people who don’t know soccer love Beckham.
It’s hard to not accumulate this knowledge as I start rereading Norwegian Wood in Japanese. My professor has read the beginning of the book in English aloud and I can remember the memories trickling back. We have just finished reading a few pages of Orlando: A Biography and are practically exhausted from Woolf’s listing of images forever and ever. To read something as simple as Murakami is a relief.
As my professor read aloud in her earthy voice, mispronouncing Watanabe and Naoko a couple of times, I have scribbled everything that has caught my mind’s eye on my notebooks. Most of these words don’t mean much but small glimmers of images. But the ones that stick out and actually relive a certain memory have something in common: they are concrete:
“… that day in the meadow, mountain a brilliant green, one long strand of cloud on a dome of blue … hazy sound, two bright red birds dart into a meadow, two of us together … the smell, the bark … no one is there, tiny cold hands, straight black hair…”
My notes on Orlando, by the way, are titled “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and are far, far detailed because Woolf is more insistent in listing tangible, concrete images:
“… deers swarming, single oak tree, 19 English counties or 40 if weather is fine, English cute, rivers with boats, mansion circled with walls, east spires of London … the pheasants, the back of the great horses, the little leaves hug, the dragonfly flew past, a body webbed by nature, red clouds turned red … abyss black, trumpet…”
I do remember my wrist aching when I was noting down images for Orlando.
And so, my professor assigns us fifty pages to read from both books. Like every good college student, I procrastinate (furi: well, I actually have work to submit but I’m bad at time management) until the weekends. I start reading the beginning of Norwegian Wood again, this time in Japanese.
And the first thing that strikes me is how un-Japanese the writing is.
I’ve read and dropped Kafka on the Shore in Japanese before since that was the only major novel outside Tsukuru Tanizaki I haven’t read. But I do not recall if Kafka was this dense:
Japanese writing doesn’t usually have these long ass paragraphs. Lines are divided up by 段落 (danraku), which are uh vague. They really are line breaks and do not constitute the belief of “a paragraph is an idea”. Sometimes, they’re just one sentences. A million years ago, Moogy-heika-dono-sama has shown me this interesting paper on writers who have written in 段落 for their whole lives try to write in paragraphs. It’s quite interesting if you want to check out the difference in composition. The nonexistence of topic sentences in Japanese is quite mind-blowing when you think about it.
I have realized that I take for granted how 段落 and paragraphs work whenever I read. It’s hard to follow what Murakami writes in Japanese as his paragraphs are unbelievably long:
Naoko was unusually talkative that night. She told me about her childhood, her school, her family. Each episode was a long one, executed with the painstaking detail of a miniature. I was amazed at the power of her memory, but as I sat listening it began to dawn on me that there was something wrong with the way she was telling these 47 stories: something strange, warped even. Each tale had its own internal logic, but the link from one to the next was odd. Before you knew it, story A had turned into story B, which had been contained in A, and then came C from something in B, with no end in sight. I found things to say in response at first, but after a while I stopped trying. I put on a record, and when it ended I lifted the needle and put on another. After the last record I went back to the first. She only had six. The cycle started with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and ended with Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie. Rain fell past the window. Time moved slowly. Naoko went on talking by herself.
This ain’t Mareni whose writing gives us breaks through commas (remember: Japanese commas don’t signify a separate clause or whatever; they are just pauses). This is just Murakami not knowing how to press the Enter button. But it is far easier to read in English because Murakami does supply us with a topic sentence and the paragraph ends because the idea in the topic sentence has been explored with a full stop. In Japanese, it’s just a lot of words.
I only encounter this wordspam whenever Murakami goes into descriptions of places and character’s mannerisms.
First, places: Watanabe Toru (he is called ワタナベ for some reason — a bunch of characters’ names like 直子/Naoko are referred in kanji and others are in katakana) is moving into the dorm for the first time. He observes the buildings around him:
Located on a hill in the middle of the city with open views, the dormitory compound sat on a large quadrangle surrounded by a concrete wall. A huge, towering zelkova tree stood just inside the front gate. People said it was at least 150 years old. Standing at its base, you could look up and see nothing of the sky through its dense cover of green leaves.
The paved path leading from the gate circumvented the tree and continued on long and straight across a broad quadrangle, two three-story concrete dorm buildings facing each other on either side of the path. They were large with lots of windows and gave the impression of being either flats that had been converted into jails or jails that had been converted into flats. However there was nothing dirty about them, nor did they feel dark. You could hear radios playing through open windows, all of which had the same cream-coloured curtains that the sun could not fade.
Beyond the two dormitories, the path led up to the entrance of a two-story common building, the first floor of which contained a dining hall and bathrooms, the second consisting of an auditorium, meeting rooms, and even guest rooms, whose use I could never fathom. Next to the common building stood a third dormitory, also three storeys high. Broad green lawns filled the quadrangle, and circulating sprinklers caught the sunlight as they turned. Behind the common building there was a field used for baseball and football, and six tennis courts. The complex had everything you could want
This paragraph is interesting to examine because it creates spatial relations in the world Murakami is building. We are following his map with Watanabe as the tour guide through this dorm and its surroundings. Hell, I think we’re in Watanabe’s shoes as we walk around the dorm and seeing all these flats sandwich us. We like to remember lyrical descriptions of places fondly, but I argue the best descriptions should include those that do it plainly. This part in Norwegian Wood is an example of that because we do see the dorm’s layout clearly.
When it comes to character mannerisms, Murakami likes to sperg on this a lot. This is understandable because how else do we understand a character through their quirks? Quirks, mannerisms, habits are what makes characters alive. Murakami uses this to actually characterize the right-wing nature of the dorm:
Each day began with the solemn raising of the flag. They played the national anthem, too, of course. You can’t have one without the other. The flagpole stood in the very center of the compound, where it was visible from every window of all three dormitories.
The Head of the east dormitory (my building) was in charge of the flag. He was a tall, eagle-eyed man in his late fifties or early sixties. His bristly hair was flecked with grey, and his sunburned neck bore a long scar. People whispered that he was a graduate of the wartime Nakano spy school, but no one knew for sure. Next to him stood a student who acted as his assistant. No one really knew this guy, either. He had the world’s shortest crewcut and always wore a navy-blue student uniform. I didn’t know his name or which room he lived in, never saw him in the dining hall or the bath. I’m not even sure he was a student, though you would think he must have been, given the uniform – which quickly became his nickname. In contrast to Sir Nakano, “Uniform” was short, pudgy and pasty-faced. This creepy couple would raise the banner of the Rising Sun every morning at six. When I first entered the dormitory, the sheer novelty of the event would often prompt me to get up early to observe this patriotic ritual. The two would appear in the quadrangle at almost the exact moment the radio beeped the six o’clock signal. Uniform was wearing his uniform, of course, with black leather shoes, and Nakano wore a short jacket and white trainers. Uniform held a ceremonial box of untreated paulownia wood, while Nakano carried a Sony tape recorder at his side. He placed this at the base of the flagpole, while Uniform opened the box to reveal a neatly folded banner. This he reverentially proffered to Nakano, who would clip it to the rope on the flagpole, revealing the bright red circle of the Rising Sun on a field of pure white. Then Uniform pressed the switch for the playing of the anthem.
“May Our Lord’s Reign…”
And up the flag would climb.
“Until pebbles turn to boulders …” It would reach halfway up the pole.
“And be covered with moss.”
Now it was at the top. The two stood to attention, rigid, looking up at the flag, which was quite a sight on clear days when the wind was blowing.
These two super duper minor characters and their religious ritual of raising the flag may be the vocal minority, but they represent how absurdly right-wing and nationalistic this dorm is.
It will, of course, foreshadow the upcoming student riots. Murakami is setting up how dorm life is always like. When the tanks start rolling in, then of course this ritual ends. It is much like how fairy tales always start like “Once upon a time, long time ago, the Smurfs lived happily. They always liked to cut wood and sing songs on the campfire. Until the Big Bad Wolf came.” It’s the until that starts the story. Till then, we get some fun and interesting setup.
Also, it’s interesting how this small event eclipses previous paragraphs where Toru talks about the political gossips surrounding this dorm. The image of two dudes raising the Flag of the Rising Sun is far more potent than the usual narration in this book which I will talk about in the next post, I think.
Naoko’s second appearance has this:
We kept on walking like this almost every weekend. She would lead, and I would follow close behind. Naoko had a variety of hairslides and always wore them with her right ear exposed. I remember her most clearly this way, from the back. She would toy with her hairslide whenever she felt embarrassed by something. And she was always dabbing at her mouth with a handkerchief. She did this whenever she had something to say. The more I observed these habits of hers, the more I came to like her.
We get not only a glimpse of Naoko’s moe (pardon my literary jargon) but Toru’s perceptiveness. In the first chapter, Toru is trying to remember how Naoko looks like and all he can see is abstraction. One of the conflicts that haunts Norwegian Wood is the problem of memory especially with appearances and death. Naoko asks Toru to remember her in the end of the flashback at chapter one, but Toru remembers nothing. But this slide of the hair he does remember.
Naoko also unwittingly suggests she is innocent, exposing herself to danger, and I don’t think I am not the only one who finds Toru’s narration here kinda creepy. I mean, sure, we can read the last line as something charming and gentlemanly. I would have rendered the line as pure as yuri when I read it in high school. But my cynical self today will raise his eyebrows. Is this foreshadowing how much of a fucking loser Toru becomes in the end (or beginning) of the book? If you recall the lyrics of “Norwegian Wood”, then you may understand why I find this moment very interesting.
And so, I understand why these paragraphs are wordspams compared to the others: it’s because these descriptions are actually packed with concrete images and information. They let you visualize the scene and hence, the easiest to excerpt without the need of much context. I find excerpting scenes out of context a good way to figure out if the image sticks with you or not.
But most people who have Norwegian Wood will be surprised I haven’t mentioned anything of the abstract so far. To me, personally, those are the weakest parts of Murakami’s writings.
It’s easy to find these passages. Murakami’s works are filled with these. Norwegian Wood is more blunt with these abstractions because it’s not surreal like anything in his previous works like The Rat Trilogy.
I tried hard to forget, but there remained inside me a vague knot of air. And as time went by, the knot began to take on a clear and simple form, a form that I am able to put into words, like this:
Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life.
It’s a cliché translated into words, but at the time I felt it not as words but as that knot of air inside me. Death exists – in a paperweight, in four red and white balls on a pool table – and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust.
This paragraph is just cheesy and what you’d expect to read from bad poetry. It tries to be philosophical on the concept of death while Toru struggles with it internally, but utterly fails because the metaphors are clumsy. What does the 「空気のかたまりのようなもの」 (a vague knot of air) mean and how does it remain inside you? How in the world does that knot become clearer and simpler and then, become a form that one can put into words? I can see what Murakami is trying to do as it is a human reaction to try and find words that capture our state of distress. But the narration becomes waxing poetic, especially when we get to the part about the cliche. There is one neat literary trick in this paragraph however: Murakami mentions the pool table, which becomes a small motif in this scene.
Remember Saitou Tamaki who compared Murakami’s undeserved fame to Beckham’s? He talks about why he thinks Murakami’s writing is a marriage scam: his words are so abstract that it has a fake impenetrable depth to it. The reader can project anything he or she wants to Murakami’s words. Vagueness is plastic surgery of beauty.
The one that offends me gravely is, of course,「空気のかたまりのようなもの」. It could mean anything. I have come up with several interpretations: solitude, loneliness, depression, emptiness… It’s infinite because it’s vague.
This problem does challenge my philosophy of reading and aesthetics. I have always believed that the more interpretations, the better since the novel is an interpretation-generation machine. But I guess I have to be more explicit: only the novel is allowed this treatment. If a phrase is this vague, it’s just bad writing and doesn’t deserve examination. You would expect people to get offended by this sort of vagueness (furi: bewitchery) but Google ‘Murakami “knot of air”‘ and get real wrong.
But is it just me? Am I just offended by anything that I perceive as manipulative and vague? Is everything I perceive in this book as negative really a reflection that I am a hypocrite when I say, “I try to look for the positives and love every book as hard as I can!”?
I have grown to be less sure that there are such things as “objective standards”, which are probably more like institutionalized criterions by the cultures I am in. It is difficult whether what I perceive as negative is a case of value-judgment or poor writing.
I know, for one, I still giggle like an idiot whenever I see the word “penis” in printed text:
I kissed her and held her soft breasts in my hands. She clutched at my erection. Her opening was warm and wet and asking for me.
Maturity as a writer and an adult is impossible to gauge, but I am beginning to feel that I kinda need it.
Putting the dull anxieties aside, I finish the assigned reading. The last page of chapter 3 ends with a total contrast from the “knot of air”: this 空気のかたまりのようなもの has materialized into something tangible — a firefly.
The firefly made a faint glow in the bottom of the jar, its light all too weak, its colour all too pale. I hadn’t seen a firefly in years, but the ones in my memory sent a far more intense light into the summer darkness, and that brilliant, burning image was the one that had stayed with me all that time.
And I feel confident that I am actually right on this matter. Toru releasing the firefly is an image I can actually see and conjecture about unlike the knot of air. We don’t need the literary snazz of vagueness to grasp the reader’s emotions. Concrete images are what make good writing (and poetry) stick in the reader’s mind. Abstract, fleeting things like emotion can only make an impression on us if we see something like a firefly disappear into the darkness.
Anyway, this blog post is too long now and I only wanted to write this as a way to warm up my writing skills. I hope you enjoy this blog post.