Sun, Jan 07, 2001 - Page 19 News List

Exploring the map of one's inner existence

Haruki Murakami's novel examining the balance between life and death is finally widely available in English

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin
296 Pages
Available from FNAC

The appearance of this book is very good news. Haruki Murakami's best-selling novel in Japan, Norwegian Wood was originally published in Japanese in 1987. It has been translated into English once before, but for complex copyright reasons that edition has never been widely available. The arrival of this new translation effectively launches Murakami's most popular work onto the English-speaking world's mass market for the first time.

Many modern Japanese novels share a distinctive quality that makes them both refreshing and satisfying. Whether you're reading Murakami or Banana Yoshimoto, there is the same openness and honesty in the characters, the same delicate introspection, the same pastel-colored, sweet-sour charm.

None of the characters is truly driven by irrational forces. Instead, almost all of them have an ability to take life between finger and thumb, turn it this way and that, and make sane, rational, but not unfeeling assessments of it. The contrast with novelists of the preceding generation such as Yukio Mishimo, all of whose books are in one way or another the product of an obsession, couldn't be more marked.

These benign characteristics taken together make this school of novelists particularly consoling, fresh, and nourishing. In Murakami's case you can add a marked sexual openness, and a clear consciousness of his predecessors in the craft of writing serious fiction.

Norwegian Wood tells the story of a student in late 1960s Japan called Watanabe. He's a serious and thoughtful young man who takes courses in subjects like German and History of Drama, and for relaxation reads novels by classic authors such as Thomas Mann and William Faulkner. After one of his friends, Kizuki, inexplicably kills himself, Watanabe begins to develop a relationship with the friend's former girlfriend, Naoko.

But when she, also without apparent reason, drops out of his life, he slowly becomes involved with another female classmate, the individualistic and sexually adventurous Midori.

Watanabe's relationship with these two girls forms a kind of map of his inner existence. They stand for two different approaches to the world and to life itself, music in the major and the minor key. Midori, with her short skirts, impulsive behavior and general effervescence, represents the life-affirming bright side. Naoko, with her absorption in her former boyfriend's suicide, plus her own psychological problems, is the dark side, even the imminent presence of death itself, forever waiting in the wings.

This sounds like the common Asian awareness of life as balances between the opposites yin and yang. But the use of two women to symbolize different mental states in their male lover is a common device in classic Western fiction -- Thomas Hardy used it in Jude the Obscure, D.H. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers and John Cooper Powys in Wolf Solent. This doesn't make it hackneyed, however -- instead, it shows how versatile the trick is, and how useful it can prove to an author wanting to explore a narrator's conflicting feelings. It also provides a ready-made story that is likely to have a familiar ring for many readers.

There's also a sub-plot that centers around the rich and versatile Nagasawa, a classmate who habitually sleeps around with girls he meets in bars as a form of escape from his relationship with his regular girlfriend. Watanabe sometimes accompanies Nagasawa on these nights on the town. But one evening the three of them have dinner together, and then, following some heavy drinking on Nagasawa's part, home truths begin to be exchanged.

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