For many readers, Japanese author Haruki Murakami has a status of a literary rock-star, a tag the writer isn’t too fond of. This was indicated by the English translator of ‘Norwegian Wood’, which was originally published in Japanese in 1987. According to the translator’s note at the end, it was this novel that catapulted Murakami to international stardom, bringing in a kind of fame he had not fathomed. And it’s easy to see why the novel was/is such a hit – it’s essentially a love story.
If one ripped off the cover of Norwegian Wood and gave it to a reader without telling them who the author is, they might think it’s an American novel, if not for the the Japanese names and cuisines. Any other Japanese cultural references are too few and scattered. What I am trying to say is – Norwegian Wood could have taken place anywhere in the world; maybe the century would have to be changed, depending on which country it was taking place in. So the book has a universal appeal.
The story is narrated by Toru Watanabe, who remembers his life as a 19-year-old student in Tokyo and his first love – Naoko, his best-friend’s girlfriend. The song ‘Norwegian Wood’ by the Beatles was her favorite track. Toru’s love-life unravels in the late 1960s. He lives in a boys’ dorm, has two part-time jobs, nearly no friends, and yet manages to get girls interested in him. It’s almost explicitly explained that he is not great to look at, not exceptionally smart, not even very rich, doesn’t even has a good sense-of-humor; in-fact, at some points, you feel like he is a door-mat, the kind people walk over all the time, if he gets close to them. Toru’s lack of enthusiasm for life seeps through the pages and makes the novel almost depressing.
So where is the conflict? All great fiction stories thrive on conflict right? Well, Toru and Naoko get closer over the course of long-leisurely walks along the streets of Tokyo, after his best friend kills himself. However, the mentally fragile Naoko warns that she may never love him back. But the two continue to pursue a not-so-platonic relationship. Enter Midori, an outgoing, lively girl, who develops an interest in Toru. So who is he going to go after? The girl he has been in love with for years, or the girl who appeared out of nowhere and made his otherwise dull life a little more exciting?
Murakami’s story-telling skills keeps you hooked to the pages, although there are times when the descriptions get overbearing. Maybe some readers enjoy every little detail, but can’t imagine a whole lot of us relishing the knowledge of what a food-store looks like. Although out of the 386 pages in the novel, I might have skipped 2-3 pages worth of lines, so well, guess there very little that’s unnecessary.
One of the strongest themes of ‘Norwegian Wood’ is mental health, and it’s dealt with in a very philosophical way. Some readers may not like the treatment of the issue, but modern readers need to keep in mind that it’s the 1960s. Since it’s a personal saga of the young Toru, everything is seen through his lens, be it love, friendship, politics, sex or mental heath. Just like most ‘average’ people, Toru imagines that time can heal the scars of the mind and almost lives in a bubble of his own. He is your typical hero, trapped in a web of unrequited love, but has a chance at happiness with someone who desires him. Life flits between tragic and too good to be true for Toru.
Haruki Murakami conjures up a nostalgic romantic tale, where most characters take themselves too seriously and yet are likable in their own unique ways. ‘Norwegian Wood’ will take you deep into the realms of romance, sprinkled with sex, songs, strolls and some sake. It’s a 3.5/5 from me.
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