Murakami is my comfort read if not my guilty pleasure. So, it is no surprise that I turned to him to get me out of a reading slump caused inevitably by my A-Levels. Reading Murakami is a surreal experience much like reading someone’s dream diary: he is the commercial postmodern Kafka. What puts him in the magical realism box instead of fantasy is the lack of internal logic in his books as things happen for seemingly no reason or explanation.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one such book. To outline the plot or give a summary of the book would be as long as the book itself. Yet, the premise of the book is that Toru Okada, a 30-year old unemployed married man living in suburban Tokyo, loses his cat. Not long after, his wife Kumiko also vanishes. You can read the book as a detective novel as Toru encounters strange people, each with a story to tell, and does strange deeds in his quest to find her.
Let’s play the Murakami bingo for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:
Starting with the glaringly obvious: cats, unexpected phone calls, unusual names, something vanishing, old records, cooking, parallel worlds, urban ennui, supernatural powers, sports, train stations, historical flashbacks, weird sex, Tokyo at night, more cats? Check.
Mysterious women? Check. All the women in the novel have a distant and mysterious aura, they are incomprehensible beings and objects of desire which is quite a problematic representation. Yet, the Kano sisters and Nutmeg have strange psychic abilities, and they pull Toru into a realm that had hitherto been completely unknown to him. With their guidance, he discovers a parallel world and his own supernatural abilities in his journey to find Kumiko.
Dried-up well? Check. Wells in Murakami’s fiction are places of deep reflection and soul-searching. A major philosophical theme in this book is the self: what does it mean for me to be me, what does it mean for you to be you? Lieutenant Mamiya, one of the characters with an interesting tale, tells how he was thrown into a well in Outer Mongolia during Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and left to die. In those extreme conditions, he describes that:
‘I believe my consciousness had attained such a viscid state of concentration that when the intense beam of light shone down for those few seconds, I was able to descend into a place that might be called the very core of my own consciousness.’ (Page 208)
This influences Toru’s own descent into a dry well where he searches the depths of his own consciousness, coming to the conclusion that:
‘This person, this self, this me, was made somewhere else. Everything had come from somewhere else, and it would all go somewhere else. I was nothing but a pathway for the person known as me.’ (Page 262)
The WW2 veteran clairvoyant Mr Honda is relevant to understanding Toru’s answer. He gives Toru some advice that makes no sense to him until Kumiko’s disappearance:
‘The point is not to resist the flow. You go up when you are supposed to go up and down when you are supposed to go down. When you are supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you are supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still.’ (Page 51)
By taking his advice literally he makes it down the well where he forms his idea about identity and flow. ‘Being a pathway for the person known as you’ is a difficult idea to get your head around but I think what Toru means is identity is a fluid concept. The self lies deep within someone’s consciousness: it is not their actions, thoughts or emotions even though all of these spring from it. We mistakenly take all these ripples as the ocean that is the self.
Yet, the idea of flow is important in the novel for other reasons. For example, Malto Kano, the psychic cat-hunter Kumiko reaches out to when their cat goes missing, explains to Toru that cats are ‘sensitive’ creatures, susceptible to feeling the changes in the ‘flow’. The cat that goes missing could itself be a symbol of Toru and Kumiko’s close, loving, trusting relationship. Whatever blocked the flow caused that relationship to deteriorate, secrets built up between them and Kumiko left.
The focus on one’s self and the self of another individual pushes Toru into thinking that one can never really know another person:
‘We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to understand another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?’ (Page 24)
Having these doubts from the beginning, Kumiko’s abandonment convinces Toru of this rather bleak and lonely idea. This is a feeling I personally experience quite often – the invisible walls that separate an individual from another cannot be torn down even with all the time and words in the world.
The last item on our bingo is the precocious teenager. Check. May Kasahara is Toru’s 16-year-old neighbour who is obsessed with death after a motorcycle accident she causes. She is wise beyond her years but also at the same time too child-like and naive for a 16-year-old. Because of this, she gives lots of Lolita vibes throughout; her over-sexualisation is uncomfortable to read at some points. She’s ‘serious,’ which she probably uses to mean contemplative and restless. This leads to her frustration at the adults in her life for their shallow suburban existence. May knows Toru is just another of these completely ordinary people she cannot tolerate, but she is at the same time intrigued by the weird happenings in his life and the out-of-the-ordinary way he deals with them. She is also deeply concerned about her identity and the impossibility of reaching out to others in her search of being understood:
‘Everybody’s born with some different thing at the core of their existence. And that thing, whatever it is, becomes like a heat source that runs each person from the inside. But sometimes it gets out of hand. It swells or shrinks inside me, and it shakes me up. What I’d really like to do is find a way to communicate that feeling to another person. But I can’t seem to do it.’ (Page 322)
When I finished the novel I made a note at the back in my usual illegible scribbling: ‘so basically there are two wizards, the good one and the bad one. The good wizard tries to save the princess from the bad.’ I don’t think my Barthean oversimplification gives anything away about the book or its ending, but it is what I found underneath layers and layers of mystification and absurdity. As usual, there are lots and lots of questions Murakami leaves unanswered but with him, it is more about the ride than the destination. I find his books enjoyable to read. You don’t need to take life lessons from them. They are just entertaining and challenging, engrossing the reader in a strange world that looks similar to ours yet is immeasurably far away.