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

Back in the main plot, Naoko contacts Watanabe again. The pressure of student life and the death of her boyfriend have proved too much, she reveals, and she is now in a sanitarium. Watanabe goes to visit her, and there he meets her friend and roommate, a formerly married older woman called Reiko. The story Reiko tells him of lesbian approaches made to her by a 13-year-old child, her talented piano student, forms one of the most intriguing sections of the novel.

At one point, Reiko gives Watanabe a piece of advice that could be said to put Murakami's attitude to his characters, and to life itself, in a nutshell. All of us are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world. Let yourself go with life's natural flow, she urges. Things will go the way they're supposed to go it you just let them take their natural course.

One of the assumptions regularly made about Norwegian Wood is that it tells the story of Murakami's own student days, when he first came to Tokyo from Kobe, and there met Yoko, his future wife. Murakami has made the following comment on this hypothesis. "I borrowed the details of the protagonist's college environment and daily life from my own college days. As a result many people think it is an autobiographical novel, but in fact it is not autobiographical at all. My own youth was far less dramatic, far more boring than his. If I had simply written the literal truth of my own life, the novel would have been no more than 15 pages long."

The book's suspense element, of course, lies in which of the girls Watanabe will finally choose, and this isn't resolved until the very last page, if then. But the real interest of the book lies deeper than this. The moods and mental worlds the girls close to Watanabe represent are all elements of existence. Which he finally chooses doesn't really matter -- like the seasons, or the movements in the Mozart piano concertos one of the minor characters in the book is particularly attracted to -- they are all necessary parts of life.

Jay Rubin's translation is fluent and very readable. In a note at the end he states that the novel's earlier translation, by Alfred Birnbaum, was produced only for distribution in Japan, complete with notes for students learning English. Copies of this earlier version have occasionally turned up in Taipei bookstores, but this new one is the first to be easily available, in paperback and reasonably priced.

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