Friday, July 1, 2011


Haruki Murakami's novels and stories are often filled with magical elements and dream imagery, but the first book I read by him was Norwegian Wood (1987) which was more of a straightforward narrative about loss and sexuality.

 The title comes from the Beatles song of the same name. Norwegian Wood has a nostalgic and dark romantic quality as it covers the reminiscences of Toru, a university student as he reflects on his relationship with two women, the beautiful and emotionally troubled Naoko, and the outgoing and lively Midori. Toru is now 37 years old and hears an orchestral cover of Norwegian Wood when he arrives in Hamburg, which triggers his memories of the past. The flashbacks take place in the late 60s in Tokyo, when Japanese students were protesting the established order. Norwegian Wood is a beautiful and tragic, and tells an emotionally arresting story.

Murakami is influenced by Western writers including Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. He started writing in the late 70s and produced the novels Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. The first work to be published in English was A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) which was a post-modern surreal mock-detective story. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and End of the World (1985) came out next and was strange and dream-like and alternated between two bizarre narratives. Norwegian Wood came next and scaled back the fantasy for a more simply beautiful narrative. Dance Dance Dance (1988) was a sequel to The Wild Sheep Chase and like many of Murakami's works deals with loss and abandonment.

In 1992, South of the Border, West of the Sun was published in Japan and was produced in English in 1999. Like Norwegian Wood, this is a more literary work that is beautifully written and is about nostalgia and romanticism. The story is about a man who reunites with a woman he knew in childhood creating a chain of events that force him to make a major life choice between his current life or making a change to recapture the magic of his past. 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995) is Murakami's magnum opus and the work that fuses his realistic and fantastic themes. The book is more socially conscious than his previous work, and deals with the difficult topic of war crimes in Manchuria. The book contains a lot of violence, but also expands Murakami's palette. The central character is a low-key unemployed man whose cat runs away. A chain of events follow that prove that his seemingly mundane boring life is more complicated than it appears. There are many memorable characters and many flashbacks to the past. Like all of Murakami's work the novel is beautiful, strange, humurous, and at times disturbing.

Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) is about Sumire, an aspiring author who falls in love with an older woman named Miu. The third character is the narrator K, who is in love with Sumire, but she does not feel the same. K is integrated into society and culture, while Sumire is emotional and spontaneous and more of a misfit. The book comes to a tragic and haunting conclusion.

Kafka on the Shore (2002) is a metaphysical mind-bender that alternates between two different plot lines. The odd chapters tell the story of the 15 year old Kafka who has run away from his father's house to escape an Oedipal curse and embark on a quest to find his mother and sister. The even chapters tell Nakata's story, who has found part-time work in his old age as a finder of lost cats. Nakata and Kafka are on a collision course throughout the novel, but their convergence takes place in both reality and on a metaphysical plane.

The book blends Murakami's use of popular culture, magic realism, suspense, humor, and sexuality. The power and beauty of music as a communicative medium is a central theme of the novel. The novel also deals with the themes of self-sufficiency, the relationship between dreams and reality, the threat of fate, the uncertain grip of prophecy, and the power of nature.

Other works by Murakami include the novels After Dark (2004) and the soon to be released 1Q84 and the short story collections The Elephant Vanishes, After The Quake, and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. He also writes non-fiction.  Underground (1998) is about the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. It collects a series of separate interviews with 60 victims and 8 members of the cult. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a memoir about Murakami's interest and participation in long-distance running. 

The books of Haruki Murakami explore the effects of prolonged loneliness, growing up emotionally stunted in an overwhelmingly conformist society, and the conflict of following one's dreams and losing them to assimilate into society. Many of his plots remain deliberately unsolved. True knowledge is elusive. There is also a gap between characters perceptions and what actually happens. All of this is included in a stark, beautifully written prose that is both funny and tragic.

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