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Norwegian Wood (Murakami, 1987)

By on November 29, 2011

Norwegian Wood

Unlike Murakami’s other books which will leave your head spinning for an illogical world setup, bizarre concepts as mackerel rains, talking cats, dried-up well, Norwegian Wood touches more on human emotions. The story centers on Toru Watanabe, the narrator in the story who has a reminiscence of his younger self, of his bestfriend, Kizuki, who committed suicide, of Naoko, Kizuki’s girlfriend who eventually becomes his as well and Midori, an outgoing girl he dated.

The title does not have anything to do with Norway rather, it is a nod to the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) which was often alluded in the story and is a favorite of Naoko.

Plot (lifted from wiki)

Toru, his classmate Kizuki, and Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko are the best of friends. Kizuki and Naoko are particularly close and feel as if they are soulmates, and Toru seems more than happy to be their enforcer. This idyllic existence is interrupted by the unexpected suicide of Kizuki on his 17th birthday. Kizuki’s death deeply touches both surviving friends; Toru feels the influence of death everywhere, while Naoko feels as if some integral part of her has been permanently lost. The two of them spend more and more time together, trying to console one another, and they eventually fall in love. On the night of Naoko’s 20th birthday, she feels especially vulnerable, and they consummate their love. Afterwards, Naoko leaves Toru a letter saying that she needs some time apart and that she is quitting college to go to a sanatorium.

The blossoming of their love is set against a backdrop of civil unrest. The students at Toru’s college go on strike and call for a revolution. Inexplicably, the students end their strike and act as if nothing had happened, which enrages Toru as a sign of hypocrisy.

Toru befriends a fellow drama classmate, Midori Kobayashi. She is everything that Naoko is not — outgoing, vivacious, supremely self-confident. Despite his love for Naoko, Toru finds himself attracted to Midori as well. Midori is attracted to him also, and their friendship grows during Naoko’s absence.

Toru visits Naoko at her secluded mountain sanatorium near Kyoto. There he meets Reiko Ishida, another patient there who has become Naoko’s confidante. During this and subsequent visits, Reiko and Naoko reveal more about their past: Reiko talks about her search for sexual identity, and Naoko talks about the unexpected suicide of her older sister several years ago.

Now back in Tokyo, Toru unintentionally alienates Midori through both his lack of consideration of her wants and needs, and his continuing thoughts about Naoko. He writes a letter to Reiko, asking for her advice about his conflicted affections for both Naoko and Midori. He doesn’t want to hurt Naoko, but he doesn’t want to lose Midori either. Reiko counsels him to seize this chance for happiness and see how his relationship with Midori turns out.

A later letter informs Toru that Naoko has killed herself. Toru, grieving and in a daze, wanders aimlessly around Japan, while Midori — with whom he hasn’t kept in touch — wonders what has happened to him. After about a month of wandering, he returns to the Tokyo area. He gets in contact with Reiko, who leaves the sanatorium to come visit. The middle-aged Reiko stays with Toru, and they have sexual intercourse. It is through this experience, and the intimate conversation that Toru and Reiko share that night, that he comes to realise that Midori is the most important person in his life. Toru calls Midori out of the blue to declare his love for her. What happens following this is never revealed — Midori’s response is characteristically (by this point) cold, yet the fact that she does not explicitly cut Toru off at that point (as she did before) leaves things open.”

Norwegian Wood takes one to 1960 Tokyo when student movements are known to rebel and  are into strident demonstrations. You get to know the characters as their dreams, their lives and deaths intertwine. Watanabe was not an activist which portrays his lack of involvement but was frustrated when he saw how the students settled later on – reflects that despite his being not involved he too has strong opinion on things.

The deaths in the story served as a stimulus for the characters to learn, feel, be alone, be together and later be left in solitude. Some of the many struggles that we humans have…

It was never revealed how Toru got on with his life from there. Readers know that he was 37-years-old –  has just arrived in Hamburg, Germany. He hears an orchestral cover of the Beatles’ song “Norwegian Wood,” and is suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of loss and nostalgia. He thinks back to the 1960s, where the story begins.

A film has been adapted in 2010.

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