Nejimaki-dori Kuronikuru [The wind-up Bird Chronicle]
October seems like my Murakami month. A year ago, around the same time, I was reading A wild sheep chase, and now I finally decided to give The Wind up bird chronicle a try. In fact, a friend went on holiday in Japan and, as I saw photos and heard the stories, I had a sudden urge to read this book. What I like about Murakami (and what I assume is the source of his mass appeal) is that he is a writer of the modern, westernized Japan. Not to judge whether it’s a good or a bad thing, but he is certainly much more accessible than..say…Yukio Mishima or Kobo Abe – more accessible and more relatable, while still holding on to bits of the Japanese tradition.
Now…about this bird chronicle – I should start by saying that it seems overtly ambitious, quite self-aware, occasionally repetitive and thus too long. That’s for the bad part – the good (because there is good, no doubt) is that the subject matter is quite interesting, the characters and intriguing, though slightly contrived, the twists are indeed unexpected and Mr. Murakami tries to exhaust as many narative devices as possible: flashbacks, letters, internet conversations, newspaper inserts, dream sequences, point of view shifts etc.
Toru Okada (later nicknamed in the book Wind-up Bird), our perfectly average and seemingly uninteresting hero leads a dull life in a nice Tokyo neighborhood. When he loses his job, his wife Kumiko willingly becomes the sole breadwinner of the family, supposedly until he decides which path to pursue. But, eventually, this will not be up to him; as, starting with the disappearance of this cat, Noboru Wataya (named after Kumiko’s brother) a whole range of oddities will cross his path. A few weeks after Kumiko will leave him too, and will reveal, through a letter, that she had an affair with another man – affair which is now terminated, but this doesn’t affect her decision to get a divorce. Okada is not convinced; he feels that somehow Kumiko was forced into this decision – and that his brother-in-law, a powerful politician and media figure – is somehow involved. From then on, his only purpose is to find her, and along the way he meets all sorts of colorful and surreal characters.
First there are the Kano sisters; Malta and Crete (named after the islands) who are supposedly helping him find his cat. While Malta is the one to contact him, he will eventually develop a more intimate relationship with Crete who will share her life story (which includes, but is not limited to, suicide attempts and prostitution – both of the spirit and of the body) with him. May Kasahara, his teenage neighbor, will also come to play a part in his life. Initially a distraction in the long afternoons when he had nothing else to do but wait for his wife, she will become an eerie presence during his stay in the fountain (I’ll get to this later 😀 ). May is not in school by choice; she does field work for a wig company (classifying men she sees on the street according to the percentage of hair loss) and she spends most of her day tanning. Their conversations range from meaningless chit chat to her recurring thoughts about death. She will move, but we get to read her letters to him – letters filled with a mix of angst, acceptance boredom and, of course, death – which explain a bit more about her character: she has unwillingly caused the death of a boyfriend in a motorcycle accident form which she escaped with minor bruises. Then we move on to Nutmeg Akasaka (and her son Cinnamon, who has refused to talk since he was 6) – her life story is, again, captivating and odd, marked by loss: her father was a vet at the zoo** in Hsinking in Manchukuo and he died there, her husband was murdered in a most atrocious way, her lost her first all-consuming passion (fashion design) only to discover that she had a medium-like gift.
Now….about that fountain. Lt. Mamyia, an acquaintance of Toru’s, tells (in person and through subsequent letters) his WWII story – the battle of Nomohan, an ill-fated incursion in Mongolia, years spent in a Siberian labor camp – and the defining (and possibly the most disturbing) incident is his 2-day imprisonment in an abandoned well. Saved by sheer luck he will spend another 8 years on the continent – and will return to Japan as a shell of his former self. The war trauma is too intense and, with nothing left to lose or gain, Mamyia will feel stuck for the rest of his life. Easily my favorite part of the book, his story is also a cautionary tale regarding the damages of knowing one’s destiny before it’s come to pass. Inspired by this, Toru will find a fountain in the garden of an abandoned house (a hanged man’s house, surrounded by urban legend and superstition) and will proceed to spend a few days at the bottom, with only a bottle of water. May’s obsession with death will push her to rid him of all possible means to get out of the well – and this will force him, through the hardships he endures, to be aware of himself and those around and to become somewhat psychic. The lucid dreams thus induced will lead him to an out of body experience to a room where, seemingly, his wife is being held captive (either physically or spiritually) – the immediate outcome of which will be a dark mark on his face.
While taken separately all the stories are captivating – when put together, they don’t make a particularly coherent unit. Coincidences – the Manchukuo experience shared by Nutmeg and Mamyia, the dark spot on the face shared by Toru and Nutmeg’s father, Noboru Wataya’s relationship with Creta Kano, the sound made by this wind-up bird whenever something significant happened in our characters’ lives – remain nothing more than that: simple coincidences, and the final chapters of the book fail to bring closure to most of the narrative threads.
**the zoo massacre episode reminded me a lot of a Russian book I read as a child. I think my copy was published sometime in the 60s (at the time I was impressed by how old it was); and it was about a zoo worker and her experiences with animals – how she adopted a baby lion, how she tried to protect others, the impact an air raid had on the zoo….My memories are a bit blurred, I must have been about 10 when I read this – but does this ring a bell to anyone? I’d like to remember at least the author 😀