Teen without spirit

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. 1987 French title: La ballade de l’impossible. 

That’s it, I’ve finished Norwegian Wood and I’m ready to write my thoughts about it.

When the books opens, Watanabe is on a plane, approaching Germany. Hearing Norwegian Wood by the Beatles triggers some memories of his youth. The memories flow out painfully.

Watanabe is 18, he’s moving in a student house in Tôkyô for his first year of university. When he was in high school, his best friend Kizuki committed suicide. Watanabe, Kizuki and his long-time girl-friend Naoko were often together, the three of them spending their free time together.

Naoko is also in Tôkyô now and she and Watanabe spend time wandering across the town in companionable silence. When Naoko turns 19, they celebrate together and one thing leading to the other, they have sex. Naoko leaves town and when Watanabe hears from her again, she’s in a nursing home. Naoko is unbalanced, her fragile mind hesitates on the verge of reason, on the verge of craziness, it depends of the day. Murakami describes Watanabe’s life in his student house and his later encounter with a fellow student Midori. She has her share of misery too: her mother is dead and now her father is dying too. She befriends with Watanabe; she craves for attention and Watanabe is hopelessly in love with Naoko. We also meet Reiko, Naoko’s room mate in the nursing house and Nagasawa, Watanabe’s friend at the university.

That’s basically all what happens, which is not a problem per se. I like contemplative books too. This one opens with melancholy and remains on a minor tone all along but I didn’t like it. Melancholy can be beautiful, here I found it flat and grey. This book is grey. Watanabe is numb, boneless. He winds himself up every morning – except on Sundays, he says – does what he has to do, studies, works in a music store, cleans his room, irons his clothes, eats, goes out with a friend, has flings. He’s on automatic pilot.

I know the main issues in this novel are depression, suicide, mental sickness and the difficulty to become an adult. Murakami succeeded in making me indifferent to his characters, in enveloping me in a cloud of grey thoughts, like Watanabe who tries to recover from Kizuki’s death. I felt as distant from him as he is from his life. I felt no compassion and that’s probably what bothers me. I could say it’s a coming of age novel but I’d rather say it’s a bildungsroman. It’s more appropriate as the whole story starts in Germany, as Watanabe studies German and reads The Magic Mountain. All the characters don’t “fit in”. They don’t feel “normal” and some manage better than others to cope with it.

I have difficulties with wimps, be it in real life or in literature. I wanted to shake Watanabe. In the three last Murakami I’ve tried or read (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, South of the Border, West of the Sun and this one), the men are pathetic. They don’t live their life, they put up with it. Even before Kizuki’s death, I imagined Watanabe as a follower, going where his friend went, playing gooseberry with Kizuki and Naoko, never thinking of refusing this awkward situation. He doesn’t have his own goals, his own wishes, his own hobbies.

On the back cover of my French edition, they compare Murakami to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t see why. Fitzgerald’s prose is like champagne, sparkling, light and heady. Murakami’s style is dull in comparison. 440 pages of book and I have no quote to share, which tells everything. And, as I wrote in my previous post, I have the feeling that Murakami writes some Murakami, which is not fair for this book as it’s among his first ones. It’s the others which are repetitions of this one and not the contrary. How can I say it? There’s a feeling of déjà vu, of literary tricks already used — like the stories in the story — , of an atmosphere I’ve already met. It was novelty when I read his other books, it’s not any more. So yes, I’m disappointed, I expected better from someone who receives so much praise. Definitely not reading the long IQ84.

Bellezza organizes a Japanese Literature challenge, this is my first contribution to her event.

  1. June 26, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    You actually make the novel sound pretty appealing to me. But I could not care less about wimps and never want to shake characters.

    The only Murakami I have read, the one with the unicorn skulls, had some sparky passages. Much more like Pynchon than Fitzgerald, though.


    • June 26, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      I’d like to read your review of this one.
      I haven’t read Pynchon, so I can’t tell. Murakami is Fitzgerald’s translator, it might explain the comparison.


  2. June 26, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Not much appeal here either, Emma. For the first thing, Watanabe has really bad luck when it comes to friends. Too much angst for me and then on top of it, to feel nothing but “indifference” is telling. I predict I would feel the same.


    • June 26, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      Yes he has bad luck with friends and the tendency to be the third part of creepy love triangles. (I’m not fond of love triangles, I think the trick a bit worn out)


  3. June 26, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    I would like to try Murakami, and do own The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I hope is an improvement on this one! Like Tom, I’m not particularly bothered by wimps, but I might struggle with uniform greyness.


    • June 26, 2012 at 9:31 pm

      Hmm, I can’t say I’d recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles since I abandoned it. It has a lot of good reviews though, so don’t follow me on that one.
      I’m sure you’d write a thoughtful post about it, there is a lot to say.

      I would have thought the greyness brilliant if it had been unique and a way to convey the feeling of depression. (very well shown in On Connaît La Chanson by Resnais, with a scenario by Jaoui & Bacri. That’s a nudge for Guy) But actually, I’ve felt this atmosphere in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles so he wasn’t trying to achieve something in connection with the theme of the novel.


  4. June 26, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    I have this a s well and have read a few reviews of people who loved it but the way you write about it doesn’t tempt me at all. It might get moldy on my TBR.


    • June 26, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      Who says I’m right? It’s just my opinion, you know. You may love it too.


      • June 27, 2012 at 7:42 am

        Well, yes, I may but I’m so not tempted to try right now. 🙂


  5. June 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Ah ha, perhaps Murakami is a lot like Fitzgerald in Japanese.


    • June 26, 2012 at 10:00 pm

      Well, yes, who knows? Readers who read it in English translation are lucky: there’s a good chance that Murakami reviewed and approved of the translation.


  6. June 27, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I have to disagree with you on this one – ‘Norwegian Wood’ is a fantastic book, one of my favourites. It’s not about a weak man, it’s about someone who has come to a turning point in his life, that dangerous time when you can go off the rails or come through unscathed (particularly appropriate in a smothering society like Japan’s). I’m surprised that you couldn’t find any quotations because most reviews I see of this book are full of them!

    Perhaps the French translation really wasn’t that good…


    • June 27, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      Ce jeune homme n’est pas faible, il est mou. I don’t know how to say it in English.

      Nothing was outstanding when I was reading, nothing made me pick up a pen and mark passages.

      I also didn’t like that I saw some things coming, especially when Reiko tells her story. I guessed the ending of her tale and I’m frustrated when such things happen. I enjoy surprises.

      Don’t blame the translator. After your post about translation and my exchange with Violet on Twitter, I downloaded the sample of the English version available on Amazon. I compared it to the French. The English might sound a bit less formal than the French but the atmosphere remains the same. So no, it’s not the translator.

      I’ve been reading a few books about teens facing a turning point in their lives (Montana 1948, Une âme perdue, Quand le requin dort) in the last weeks. This one isn’t as good as Une âme perdue by Giovanni Arpino, for example. And as Guy pointed out, Watanabe just comes accross too many broken souls and does not relate well to others and yet attracts them. He didn’t seem real to me. The dialogues sounded fake to me and like I said before, I found myself in a Murakami atmosphere and as much as I loved South of the Border, West of the Sun, I thought this atmosphere déjà vu and not so fresh.


      • June 28, 2012 at 2:43 pm

        Murakami doesn’t do real, so it’s not a surprise that it lacks realism 😉 I think if the Murakami atmosphere doesn’t do it for you, then it’s understandable that you didn’t like it. I can only repeat that I love this book 😉


        • June 28, 2012 at 6:24 pm

          It’s more the repetition of the same Murakami atmosphere that didn’t do it for me. But I understand that you and many others love this book.


  7. June 28, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Emma: you have a problem with characters who are wimps, and I have a problem with characters who are passive. There has to be some crossover point there. Perhaps this is why we often like the same books


    • June 28, 2012 at 10:17 pm

      Mou is somewhere between wimp and passive. So yes, you must be right.


  8. June 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Murakami’s characters are often surprisingly passive, more acted upon than acting.

    My favourite of his has no surreal elements (it sounds like this one lacks them too). South of the Border, West of the Sun. A married man with a successful jazz club has his life disrupted when a woman he was in love with years ago turns up again out of the blue. Her arrival haunts him with a life that could have been, though the life he has is a pretty good one (but then that makes it more powerful).

    I loved it, and indeed I’m pretty fond of Murakami, but this sounds similar in tone so South might not work for you either. I own a copy of Norwegian Wood so I’ll try to read it in a bit and see how I connect with it.

    Hopefully your next book will be a better fit.


    • June 29, 2012 at 3:46 pm

      Actually, I read South of the Border, West of the Sun after you recommended it to me. I loved it.
      This one is similar in tone and that’s what bothered me: I like writers who aren’t repetitive otherwise I chose a book from a crime fiction series. There I’m OK to find a recurring character and/or a similar atmosphere.


  1. June 30, 2012 at 11:20 pm
  2. July 21, 2012 at 11:48 pm
  3. March 3, 2019 at 10:30 am
  4. January 26, 2022 at 12:18 pm

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