------------ ---------- Diary of a Goldfish: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Diary of a Goldfish

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Cross-posted at Blogging Bookworms.

This book has also been reviewed here by The Unreliable Witness, upon whose recommendation I read it.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the surreal tale of Toru Okada, an unemployed man hunting for a missing cat. Over the course of his search, Toru encounters all manner of supernatural and spiritual phenomenon, a host of fascinating characters and discovers very much more than the absconding feline.

This is a story about moving from a position of numbness to a position of feeling. At the outset, Toru is completely devoid of passion. He is not worried or excited by this limbo in his career, he doesn’t notice his wife’s increasing absences and whenever anyone wants to see him, he has no plans. His central mission over the course of the novel is not to discover some profound intellectual truth or even a factual explanation of events, but merely to get in touch with how he feels, whether this might be drawn out of him by the stories and behaviours of other people (usually mirroring the same theme) or whether he might go down a well and deprive himself of sustenance and stimulation until that monster, emotion, finally emerges.

Which can be, at times, a pretty scary adventure. There is a lot of darkness in this book, but also a lot of light and perhaps most importantly, a lot of beauty - of both the dark and light as well as the ambiguous variety.

Naturally, I was reading in translation, but the style came across as pretty incredible; mastering the art of being at once verbose and minimalist. At first it irritated me to realise that, despite ever economical sentences, the reason I was reading a 600 page book was because the author insisted on rephrasing and the repeating the same statement or sentiment three times, but after a while I decided that this was part of its genius. It becomes quite amusing and together with reassurances that there is no pretension here (the word weird is used more often than any other adjective), it is part of what allows Murakami to lead us seamlessly backwards and forwards between the real and the surreal. Which I consider a pretty impressive achievement.

I was not always convinced by his characterisations. Again, there is a question mark over what might be lost in translation, but several of the characters appeared to have the exactly same ‘voice’; there are several large passages where we are reading a letter or listening to a story told by a character other than our narrator-protagonist, and the syntax remains the same for an elderly war veteran as for a young prostitute.

And then there is the small issue of all female characters being succubi; they phone our protagonist to molest his ears, enter his dreams in order to force themselves upon him, they titillate and frustrate him before threatening his life or else pay hard currency for the privilege of sapping Toru’s spiritual energy. And despite their universally ravenous appetite for Toru’s spunk (in all conceivable senses of the word), the female characters only appear to obtain any sexual pleasure during adultery or rape.

Leading on from this, there is a big problem with sex, which occurs frequently and takes on a level of spiritual significance. Sex can be a way of getting into somebody’s head and it is a small step to seeing this in spiritual or else supernatural terms, but it surely has to be fairly spectacular sex; that kind of inverted torture where a person can be drawn out to the edge of themselves. Unfortunately, there is nothing about Toru’s many sexual adventures which makes them appear above the level of a half-hearted contact-sport. Which is all very well for dispassionate Toru, but it becomes very boring to read and one begins to suspect all this sex has been put in to prove something.

Fortunately, there is one very bright ray of sunshine in the shape of Toru’s teenaged neighbour, May Kasahara. She is yet another blood-sucking temptress (she even renders a hosepipe "warm and limp", groan), but she is also the funniest, wisest, most realistic and thoroughly loveable character in the book, and the one who kept me going through the more tedious patches. Because it can be tedious. You have 600 pages during which you are given a great deal of information, subjected to all manner of images – including some very disturbing ones – and are never really sure what matters, if indeed anything does matter and whether you are going to be offered any resolution in the end.

It is therefore necessary to embark on this book in the right conditions. Deep and increasing curiosity got me through; the desire for an entertaining read would not have.

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Comments on "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami"


Blogger The Jaw said ... (1:49 AM) : 

Goldfish, I intend to agree with your analysis. I just finished The Wind Up Bird and took to the internet because I felt empty after finishing it. Im still uncertain what Murakami wanted me to learn, if anything. For me the greatest value of the text was its perspective on post WWII Japan. Unlike many novels I read, I am close to concluding that this was a mere story of conjencutre and little meaning, although I hope to find my inital pereception to be false.


Anonymous frustratedreader said ... (7:03 PM) : 

I felt empty after finishing reading this book also. I suspect it is because Jay Rubin, the translator, made the cuts (for the publisher's irrational ridiculously stupid word limit for the translation) from the end of the book. Great description of "verbose and minimalist". It is what made the novel coherent even through the bizarre events and following the thoughts of the character. Meandering internal dialogue usually lose me. Jay Rubin, briefly describes what he cut in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words but does not summarize the key events of the missing chapters.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (8:35 PM) : 

I agree with both of you, I was quite annoyed when I discovered that two chapters had been cut out, although i did find it quite a long book.

I recently read another of Murakami's books, "Norwegian Wood", and really enjoyed it. It's very different from The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but more of a page turner, and is brilliantly written/translated. (It also made more sense to me)


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (7:30 AM) : 

I tend to think that one of the main themes in the book is the rejection of a societal 'norm' for success or lifestyle. Toru defies the norm by quitting his job, and digging deeply into his own lucid, underground world. His wife also bucks what is her expected norm by cheating on Toru and giving herself to other men, seeking out pleasure rather than a stable home life. Malta and Creta's stories also relate, they had a difficult life struggling to be normal (enduring pain for Creta and Malta's supression of her powers), but when they decided to go down a different path (Malta embraces her powers and flees home, developing herself, Creta decides against life altogether) they become more and more 'successful' or happy from their own standpoint.


Blogger Jonathan Mendelsohn said ... (2:21 AM) : 

I like here this kind of opinion cause while I wouldn't dare claim that all 600 pages of Wind Up are entertaining or stimulating I would argue that this book like so so many of Murakami's is the kind of book that changes the way I dream. I think this is a guy digging beneath the surface of things in ways we've never seen before. I think this writer will win the Nobel Prize. Have you read Kafka on the Shore? Have you read Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World? Or Norwegian Wood?

Ok, so I'm a die hard fan. But I think this is the kind of writer who resonates, which is why his books show up on staff picks tables in the various English speaking countries I've visited (ok, really just Canada and America).


Blogger Jonathan Mendelsohn said ... (2:22 AM) : 

to hear. to HEAR!


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:33 AM) : 

Take your politically-correct sexual side-blinders off.

I get really tired of hearing criticism about novels or films that have a male point of view about sex that can be paraphrased roughly as: 'How dare they have a male perspective on sex that doesn't fit my own paradigm!'

Given all of the broad perspectives and cross-generational guilt and social malaise that this book conveys as part of its central theme, don't you think that the sexual politics of the book might be slightly more complex than Murakami vicariously getting his rocks off through his protagonist?

And don't you think that perhaps the book might be getting at something bigger than sexual politics?

This is a deep, complex an frustrating book that your post rather poorly reduces to a one-dimensional account of a subject that is probably of tangential importance to the author, at best.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (1:48 AM) : 

This book is amazing. I felt like it was completely engaging, more so than most authors I've read.
I think both the profound nature of the content and how Harukis' writing unfolds in front of you, are genius hands down.
Its unfortunate that not all people connect with the experience but its an uncomfortable one to give in to. Its easier to analyze aesthetics then to give in to such a strange often disturbing world.
If you can give into a world thats fantastical, fatalistic, gruesome to borderline morbid, and unnerving, and still keep the faith that you will be all the better for having done it. You might gain alot from this book.
Alas it is not a book for everyone. You should feel out Murakamis' writing style before you commit to one of his larger works.


Blogger Kathryn said ... (5:25 AM) : 

I loved this book!! It wasnt even taunting that is was 600 or so pages, it was easy to read!


Anonymous Sam Dolgoff said ... (6:59 PM) : 

I felt the emptiness after finishing the book (not 10 minutes ago, mind you) that is referred to in other posts, but I think it is a good emptiness, a cathardic emptiness. Murakami's books, at least to me, never validate the thoughts I had going in, rather they challenge them, and that challenge can be disconcerting. However, I look forward to letting the story marinate in my brain for a while, and for me to see more angles in it then ever before. It's true, those wanting a bit of mindless literary excitement will be perhaps disappointed by the book's opaqueness at times, those looking for a challenge to their perceptions and a cracking good read at the same time would do well to invest the time and energy needed to appreciate a great novel like this.


Anonymous Dan said ... (6:41 AM) : 

This is amazing storytelling at its best, there is no need for an all-encompasing ending that ties all knots. If anything, such an ending would ruin the sheer purpose of the novel. The genius of the writing kicks in every now and then throughout the book, in deep and dark philosophical investigations (or trips) on humanity, life and the creative process. It involves many pieces of information and conjectures that the author manages to weave into the narrative of the book, he is able to convey he perceives humanity in the twentieth century and its links to the recent past. The themes of these books are many, 600 pages are too few and a single read cannot convey half of whats being said and pondered upon.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (1:17 PM) : 

just about finished my 4th read of this book and thought i'd look to see what others think - wanted to know if i should read something into the book that i'm unable to see. can see that it could change someones life, can't see how anyone could ever think it boring. very thought provoking, occasionally hilarious, often smile inducing. beautifully written and translated.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:55 PM) : 

For me, this book has been life changing. I finished it about 9 months ago. Not directly this book but 'something' (that often moves it's characters) prompted me to leave my career, my life and head out back-packing for several months, five months to be exact. Later I moved to another country, and decided to do nothing. All old dreams appear meaningless. Happy to see that many of you felt empty.

This is one of the best book I have read. Quite engaging, for me it was a page turner. Probably I was not reading it, I was taking a journey within.


Blogger iza17 said ... (3:54 PM) : 

I also felt very empty after finishing the book, but i fekt like murakamis writing was absolutely amazing, even thought it was slow and at times tiring, his minimalist use of language and simple yet deep images grabbed me to the book. Also, everything in the story is linked, with no no exception, which i also found genius. An analysis of this book is almost impossible, but i completely agree with your point of view, toru's search for his feeling and himself. But in my perspective, as in many of his other books, he deals with loneliness, depression, exlusion and characteristcs of the japanese culture and lifestyle.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:09 PM) : 

If you feel "empty" after reading this book read it again. You missed stuff and you didn't get it.
Also it is deeply entertaining, but by no means is it Jersey Shore.


Blogger Christopher Martin said ... (8:42 AM) : 

I loved the book! It was a page turner, but at some point you just have to let go-and let Murakami take you into his world.


Blogger Richy said ... (9:40 PM) : 

This book has been eating at me since I read it a year ago. Like most readers I was left wanting more answers and any possible closure. I was immediately hooked when his wife disappeared I found it sad and wanting our main character to get answers of his own. As a closet romantic male I felt his emptiness and was lured by the unexplainable series of events to follow; the strange phone calls, the dreams, of course every character that was introduced. In the end I suppose the abandonment felt by our main character can truly only be transmitted to us by the vague and confusing ending of this novel. As much I was want to sit down with the author and find out what really went down in that hotel room with the whisky and what happens with the rest our characters life I must appreciate the fact that no book has ever had such a lingering effect on me. I suppose that is what makes it all okay to me that we are supposed to feel this way after the long and tediously detailed read. The feeling of emptiness and loneliness feels good in a strange way. After writing this post I further more am happy that there was really no absolute conclusive ending or answer. Just wonder and openness to a strange journey we may all have one day of our own.


Anonymous Ninj said ... (12:21 PM) : 

I think there was a frustration gnawing at me through the book mainly because I couldn't comprehend Toru's composure to everything unravelling around him. The "emptiness" remains at the end of the book because while at some point towards the end I felt that he was getting SOME answers, in the end he was still left with nothing concrete. Rattled me a little bit- but I guess it was good in its own way.


Blogger Stephanie said ... (5:59 PM) : 

The book, first off, is a mirror for anyone reading it. All abstract things are like that. What you see in the book is a reflection of your own psyche. For me the book was about shame - specifically concerning sex and violence in the West - and redemption. It was a book that brought TO LIGHT unconscious archetypes in the Western collective consciousness. In other words, all of the characters of the book are aspects of you that were previously unconscious, both the devils and the angels. Murakami is like some kind of shaman, who is revealing to us our own violence, shame, detachment, regret, etc, personifying these things through the characters, and then helping us to integrating them by simply making us AWARE of them as distinct complexes (or as jung would say autonomous complexes).....At least that's what I got out of the book. The book is not really a "story" like in the sense that little red riding hood or something is a story. Its more like once you start reading it you are consuming a sacred plant that will help you to see various demons that live within all of us, without judgement but just to see them. The Western world has issues with sex and violence, this is just something that we were born into and is apart of all of us. The book is helping us to work that shit out....


Blogger Stephanie said ... (6:01 PM) : 

If you felt empty after finishing the book, its because the book emptied you of the complexes present within the book. The complexes that were once working inside of you on an unconscious level.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (4:04 PM) : 

At age 77 I look for writers who bring me something beyond the usual. Murakami's fluid style is one of the most refreshing I've come across. I don't have time to waste, therefore, I can hardly wait to read his other books. I hope the chapters left out of WB will surface.


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