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

Sun, Jan 07, 2001 - Page 19

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.

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.