The first time I read anything by Haruki Murakami, two thoughts came to mind:
- What the f*** did I just read?
- The world feels different and I don’t know why.
I’ve come to understand the first thought as Murakami’s style, one which I look forward to whenever picking up his work. Quite frankly, if he doesn’t leave me wondering what the hell just happened by the end of it, I find myself feeling rather cheated.
The second thought, however, was harder to wrap my head around. After putting his book down I would succumb to a sense of disquiet, like some part of myself had been taken away, burned, remade and replaced without my noticing.
The world wasn’t the same anymore. But why? I couldn’t understand what his work was trying to show me.
That is, until I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle follows Toru Okada, a married man growing accustomed to his laid back lifestyle. He spends his days reading, cooking, listening to jazz and enjoying the casual beer.
Until the day he receives a mysterious call.
And his wife vanishes without a trace.
His peaceful life shattering before him, Okada sets out to find the woman he loves, guided by an array of unusual characters – each with stories to tell, each with secrets to hide.
What did I like about it?
The intricate and surreal characters which Okada meets are the gems of this novel. The seductive woman on the phone, the strange girl with sun-glasses, a pair of strangely named sisters: these are but a few of the characters whose stories stick with me long after reading. Through their journeys and their voices, the story extends into a strange tangle of threads, all leading back to Okada and his wife. There’s a labyrinth lying beneath the pages, laid out masterfully by Murakami’s hand.
In addition, the author’s simple yet introspective prose gives these characters, and the strange happenings of the book, a perplexing tone of total fascination and complete disinterest – it’s interested enough to show you what’s happening, but not enough to explain how or why it’s happening. You can’t help getting sucked in, trying to find the reasons, attempting to figure out what on Earth is going on. (Which, knowing Murakami, you’ll never achieve.)
What didn’t work?
Honestly? The protagonist.
Not to say that he’s annoying or not well-written. Its just that, through much of the book, he allows things to simply happen to him, often choosing the passive route when conflict arises. Which, in fairness, is part of the point; his previous life is gone and he’s thrown into a world he can’t understand, nor does he have control over. However, similar circumstances occured to Kafka in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. And he, unlike Okada, was interesting enough to stand on his own, even amidst the madness of the side-characters.
In lieu of the other colourful characters, Okada was a bit too grey for my liking.
When I finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was met with that familiar disquiet, that sense of the world not being quite right. Only now I understood why.
After being trapped in Murakami’s maze for so long, enraptured by his characters, his strangeness, his world, I’d finally been set free. Back into my living room, back into reality.
Yet reality is not as small as my living room.
Therein lies the beauty of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Though this novel has aspects of “realism,” the world of this book is dripping with a sense of something ‘Other.’ A strange place, where everything seems (or is) connected, even if we cannot understand how or why. Even if, like the protagonist, we never get all the answers we’re looking for.
This feeling carries with us, into our own reality. No matter how routine or systematic our lives may be, we get the sense that we’re connected to something larger, beyond our control – be it other people, other stories, or perhaps something we cannot explain. And this book takes this feeling and dissects it, showing us all its inner workings, before handing it back to you asking: “So, how real is your reality now?”
To anyone who wants to read Murakami, I will say this: starting with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle may not be the best choice. Try his other work, get a feel for his style and his strangeness – dip yourself into the pools of his surreal, before throwing yourself into this ocean. I know I wouldn’t have been as accepting of his absurdist writing if I had read this first.
But if you’re a Murakami veteran (or simply brave enough to try this book) then I say grab a cup, nestle down and get reading. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, for me, is Murakami’s best work – a maze I’m eager to return to, again and again.
Have you read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle? Or any other works by Murakami? Leave a comment down below – I’d love to know what you think!