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On The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - fiction from a rising son
a feature by David Mathew

Even though he was born in 1949, Haruki Murakami is perceived in his native Japan as a 'young' author.

Elsewhere, and certainly in Western civilization, an author is generally regarded as 'young' until he or she hits the forty mark, and 'mature' thereafter. But Murakami, quite possibly, will be seen as a whippersnapper - a rebel, of sorts, or a changer - if he lives to be writing at the age of ninety.

The perception has less to do with years spent on the planet than with his attitude to his own work, and to the rich formalities of the Japanese literature from which he emerged. There is nothing juvenile about his prose; but his unwillingness to kow-tow to tradition has made him seem petulant to various Japanese critics. Put bluntly, Murakami has less in common with Yukio Mishima or Osamu Dazai (or any of his other direct predecessors) than he has with Raymonds Carver and Chandler (both of whom he has translated into Japanese), or with John Irving, Algis Budrys, or Philip K Dick.

From an early age he read American fiction, and soon grew to love it. Yet he writes about Japan; whatever thrill the reader would ordinarily get from reading fiction soaked in foreign attitudes and translated from foreign tongues (think early Kundera, think Marquez) is thus further skewed by the realisation that the Japan presented in his work is not quite accurate either.

Regardless of what the critics think, however, in Japan Murakami is popular with the book-buying public; he is popular to an almost mythical extent; he is rock-star popular. His career began auspiciously when his first novel, Hear The Wind Sings, was published in 1979, winning the author the Gunzou Literature Prize for budding writers. (In essence, the novel was a reminiscence on the years of being a twenty-something.) And in 1987, on returning to Japan from Italy, he discovered that Norwegian Wood (named after the Beatles song) had transformed him into a superstar, in a fashion that would not seem out of place in one of his weird-and-wonderful short stories; there were ecstatic crowds awaiting his safe arrival at Tokyo Airport. Norwegian Wood alone has sold four million copies in his country... Murakami is a best-selling author, and he has used the money that his success has given him to 'buy peace. I don't want a Mercedes,' he once said in interview. 'I don't want Armani. Money buys time to write.'

cover scan Well, now - as a multimillionaire - he has written The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Or rather, it has appeared in English, having been published in Japan in 1995 as three separate volumes, because the Japanese do not like big books - they want something that can be easily carried on the commuter train.

The English version (translated by Jay Rubin) is over 600 pages long, frequently meandering, occasionally baffling, repetitive or overwritten; but for sheer scale and mental muscle, it may be regarded as a masterpiece. Along with some of his previous novels - such as A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle takes a little bit of Americana, a little bit of science fiction (less than usual), a little bit of philosophy, and a good dash of detective fiction - to make a mixture peculiarly the author's own.

All comparisons to other authors are rendered useless; perhaps even offensive. The record shows, on the other hand, that Murakami was not displeased on hearing A Wild Sheep Chase, which he calls a 'fantasy/adventure,' referred to as 'The Big Sheep,' after the Chandler novel, so maybe offence does not come into it. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, again, has a man searching for truths, both personal and universal. Whereas in A Wild Sheep Chase, for example, the protagonist must look for a war criminal, a woman with gorgeous ears, and a supernatural sheep with a star on its back, in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the quest begins as something simpler: a missing cat.

Toru is our Everyman; for want of a better word, our thirty year-old hero. A graduate who has left his job in law (voluntarily) and is wondering what to do next while his wife goes out to work to support them both. He idles away his days (now free, but consequently undefined in his own and in society's eyes) by cooking pasta and listening to the radio, listening to anonymous sex-talk on phone calls that he receives - and listening to the cries of the curious bird which gives the volume its title. The family cat disappears, and Toru's wife insists that Toru should spend his time wisely by looking for it. While searching near a neighbour's land, he meets May, a precocious sixteen year-old, who says what she likes and likes what she says, and who regards her visitor as something of an interesting specimen. She calls him Mr Wind-Up Bird. And at approximately the same time, Toru also meets two psychic sisters, Malta and Creta Kano (names amusing in Japanese, too), who visit him in his dreams as well as in reality. One of them even has cerebral- or brain-sex with him, many pages before indulging, as it were, in the real thing. Creta reveals to Toru that while she was a prostitute, paying off loans, she was raped by his wife's brother, who is a powerful politician whom Toru has always detested.

Then Kumiko, Toru's wife, also disappears, much to the delight of the politician character, who detests Toru right back again. Because the reader has already seen some of the telltale signs of her adultery (the long hours at work, the unreliability of her phone calls, the gifts of perfume), it is all the more heartbreaking when Toru learns that she has left him for a man who is better in bed. Needless to say, he does not take the news very well; Toru lowers himself to the bottom of a well, the better, in the dark, to get in touch with his true feelings and to introspect. Then May takes away the ladder that will lead him back up to his freedom and leaves him there, hungry and thirsty, for three days...

Before he is rescued from the well by Creta (who then also disappears, only to re-emerge shortly afterwards, minus clothes, in Toru's bed - she cannot remember where she left her clothes), Toru dips into a trance. In a dreamlike state, he passes through a subterranean stone wall into a darkened hotel room, where a woman seduces him. The seduction leaves behind a blue-black mark on his face that gives him healing powers. These powers, in turn, lead Toru to work with Nutmeg and Cinnamon, a mother-and-son partnership that occupies a haunted house and operates a healing parlour for rich women under the guise of a chic boutique. Creta also thinks it will be a good idea to have a long mulling session at the bottom of the neighbour's well...

Things become more complicated.

Characters involve themselves with the narrative and tell their stories - stories of darkness and brutality. Here is Lieutenant Mamiya, who as a prisoner of Mongolian forces during World War II, was made to watch a comrade being skinned alive. He was then left to die at the bottom of a well. (Is the reader to surmise that history might well repeat itself?) And there is a soldier in Hsin-ching, the capital city of Japanese-occupied Manchuria, who orders his troops to kill animals in the local zoo to prevent them from escaping...

One might argue that some of the passages which take the reader away from the main thrust of the narrative are superfluous, and possibly they could have been more diligently edited. Some readers will object to the flabbiness of this novel, and will suggest that it should have been put on a diet. Certainly there is no need for a sentence to be used as a character's thought process, and then as a sentence spoken to another character immediately afterwards; and this is a device that Murakami uses much too often.

But on the other hand, the author is well known to prefer freefalling through his novels, rather than planning, and a certain cumulative force is felt during the reading, possibly as a result of this technique (or lack of technique). After all, Toru is not supposed to be a writer, or any other sort of artist; he's a white-collar schmuck, half-heartedly playing a game of mental footsie with the neighbour's teenage girl and trying to come to terms with life. For quite a while, the two strands of his existence seem to be of equal importance, even when they are not impossibly tangled.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, by and large, a walk around the lead character's brain; and some of it is disorganized, some of it is unwanted ephemera. But many readers like to know it all, right down to descriptions of how best to cook a decent spaghetti; and the 'short stories' - the side-tracking vignettes - within this novel have the same deadpan dislocation as Murakami evidenced in his collection, The Elephant Vanishes (1993), in which a man is obsessed with the disappearance of an elephant from a local zoo, and also with the disappearance of a young mother, whose insomnia teaches her about death. So, as might be seen by the example, Murakami even repeats his themes, from time to time...

There is no equivalent in Japanese for the English word 'identity'. When a Japanese author wishes to discuss the subject directly, he must use the English word, which suggests a great deal.

Early on in his career, Haruki Murakami decided that he did not want to be an 'international' novelist, but rather a Japanese novelist whose books have about them an American feel - or the slow-burning background of a boring, nowhere town. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist's life moves from 'supernormal' to 'unnormal' and his identity is altered by what he sees, hears and feels - rather, to an extent, than what he does. Although he acts and participates in the plot, Toru has a tendency to attract his own destiny - in the shape of unusual people - rather than reach for it. This is a novel which endeavours to explain what it is to be a young man with a flexible approach to his own life: will life break him or merely bend him? What happens when routine is abolished? What does it mean: to be alone?

The questions that The Wind-Up Bird poses are a lot more serious than: What happened to the missing cat and the adulterous wife? Toru, by turns, is both childish in his innocence (one oft-repeated word and theme in Murakami's oeuvre is 'childishness') and cynical in his understanding of modern existence. Many facets of human life are represented in this book, which was tentatively entitled 'The Chronicle of the "Screw-Turning" Bird' before the choice of English nomer had been confirmed; and even with its faults it is an incredible achievement. The prose shows much of the simultaneous cool and agitation of dormant fear.

© David Mathew 2000

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami was published in the UK by Panther, 1999.

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