How to be alone in a 'Norwegian Wood'
Death exists, not as the opposite of life 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 a knot of air inside me. Death exists... and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust.
It is hard to tell whether reading a book like Norwegian Wood makes you feel comforted when you relate to the loneliness of the characters, or even lonelier when you realise that you relate a little too strongly.
I’ve read some of Murakami’s other work and Norwegian Wood struck me as the most personal. The events and characters are entirely fictional, but the setting, coming of age in post-war Japan and the mood of teenage despair draw from his own experiences.
The success of Norwegian Wood came as both a shock and a disappointment to Murakami. His most ardent fans criticised the book for being ‘just a love story’ but for Murakami himself, this kind of simple, slice of life story was a personal challenge, testing his ability to bring out the drama of everyday events.
I straightened up and looked out of the window... thinking of all I had lost in the course of my life: times gone for ever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.
Norwegian Wood begins with Toru Watanabe reminiscing about the past. In the very first chapter, you get the sense that Toru is disappointed about the way things turned out. Yet all the way through, you want to believe that things will somehow work out. We know what kind of story it is from the outset and yet we still hope for more.
From the beginning, Murakami is telling us, ‘don’t get your hopes up. This isn’t that kind of story. This isn’t that kind of world.’ Fiction is often an escape but stories like Norwegian Wood are uncomfortably real. They don’t just take you into your own head but all the way to the pit of your stomach.
Murakami has a way of making the mundane magical, giving ordinary events surreal circumstances that give them an otherworldly quality. How interesting an event is depends more on the character’s emotional engagement, than on the event itself and you often feel the sensation of being lost in that character’s thoughts. A burning building serves as a backdrop to a romantic scene rather than as a dramatic event in its own right.
The suicide of Toru’s childhood friend alerts him to the presence of death in everyday life. Toru himself seems unsure of how to process death and becomes emotionally withdrawn. There is almost no mention of his family and he doesn’t take the opportunity to visit them during holidays or breaks. Toru’s isolation feels more numb than sad. When he encounters a dying man in a hospital, Toru is able to connect with him seemingly through his indifference, convincing the man to finally eat some food without trying to persuade him, just by doing his own thing, treating the man not as a patient, but as a person.
If I relaxed for a second, I’d never find my way back. I’d go to pieces, and the pieces would be blown away. Why can’t you see that? How can you talk about watching over me if you can’t see that?
Before he dies, the man asks Toru to look after his daughter, who Toru came to the hospital with, mistaking him for his daughter’s boyfriend. Throughout the book, the people that Toru connects to are all off-balance in one way or another. Due to Toru’s ‘blank canvas’ personality, each of them projects something about their own desires or shortcomings onto Toru, expecting him to fulfil the missing role in their lives. Toru’s university friend takes him to pick up girls convincing himself that Toru is just like him when Toru actually finds it repulsive. Similarly, one of Toru’s love interests wants him to understand the thoughts she can’t articulate and look after her, where the another wants Toru to be a kind of romantic hero. In the end, each of them is disappointment by Toru’s unwillingness or inability to become what they expect of him.
Toru for his part seems to seek out this kind of person, absorbing their projections externally, while internally wrestling with misgivings about his own life and how he should live it before it ends.