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NORWEGIAN WOOD A Novel By Haruki Murakami Translated
from the Japanese by Jay Rubin; Vintage International:
320 pp., $13 paper

Knowing She Would

September 03, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

"Haruki Murakami was shocked and depressed to find his normal six-figure readership exploding into the millions when he published 'Norwegian Wood' in 1987," writes Jay Rubin in a translator's note at the end of "the first English translation that Murakami has authorized for publication outside Japan." Readers of Murakami's fiction (most recently "South of the Border, West of the Sun") and nonfiction ("Underground," his account of the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subways) will recognize that this is no hyperbole. Murakami's heroes and heroines have always had an uneasy relationship with the limelight, whether it be the neon of the Shinjuku clubs or the rising sun of Japan and all its traditions. Even more striking than Murakami's reaction is how many of his literary fans have warned against contact with "Norwegian Wood," lest its sentimental mass-market appeal infect the author's standing as Japan's best-selling iconoclast.

They needn't have worried. "Norwegian Wood" may be Murakami's "Love Story," a relatively straightforward coming-of-age tale of a guy who falls in love with a girl who loves Mozart and Bach and the Beatles and, unfortunately, the hero's best friend, who's been dead for two years. Yet the novel retains all the quirky Murakami weltanschauung of "Wild Sheep Chase" and "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" with its fascination for cats and ears and its detached, slightly hovering vision of the world below.

The year is 1968, and Toru Watanabe is wandering, as jaded and jumpy as Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate." An only child from the provinces, Watanabe has opted to live in a dormitory that houses students attending a number of universities. The student unrest that rocks the campuses comes distantly to his ears. Though other dormitory rooms reek of "moldy mandarin orange skins--the floors littered with ramen wrappers and empty beer cans and lids from one thing or another," Watanabe's room "was as sanitary as a morgue," thanks to his clean freak of a roommate, whom he nicknames Storm Trooper. "We didn't even have pinups. No, we had a photo of an Amsterdam canal."

On one of his wanderings, Watanabe runs into the beautiful and delicate Naoko ("her tiny, cold hand; her straight, black hair so smooth and cool to the touch; a soft, rounded earlobe and the microscopic mole just beneath it"). Back in the golden days of high school, Watanabe, Naoko and her boyfriend Kizuki had formed a Jules and Jim kind of menage, ended only by Kizuki's suicide at 17. Two years later, it is clear that Kizuki, or at least his death, still links Naoko and Watanabe. "Death was not the opposite of life," Watanabe ruminates. "It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. When it took the 17-year-old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well."

Watanabe wanders easily into love with the fragile Naoko, only to watch her break and disappear. When she resurfaces, it is inside a sanitarium in the wooded hills north of Kyoto. The place is so attractive, one almost expects Watanabe to turn into a Hans Castorp and put down roots (indeed, he has packed a copy of "The Magic Mountain" in his rucksack). Naoko rooms with a thirtysomething musician named Reiko who is helping Naoko in a synergistic therapy. "Everyone here is equal," she tells Watanabe, "patients, staff and you. . . . You help Naoko and Naoko helps you."

And help each other they do, talking to the backdrop of Reiko playing a Bach gavotte or a medley of Beatles' songs on the guitar or snatching a brief moment alone for Naoko to relieve Watanabe of the more physically painful side effects of his love ("Norwegian Wood" is easily the most erotic of Murakami's novels). But Naoko is not ready to leave the sanitarium for life with Watanabe in Tokyo. And so his lonely days at university are spent either catting in Shinjuku with Nagasawa, a spoiled playboy who shares his passion for "The Great Gatsby," or indulging the equally confused but frighteningly alive and pneumatic Midori. Watanabe turns 20 and begins to retreat from even these two friends. He moves out of the dormitory and into an apartment. Letters get answered less frequently.

Within this simple, sad love story--a story that deserves to garner Murakami as large a readership as he has in Japan--lives a fascinating cultural portrait of the Summer of Love, Japan-style. Watanabe's college scene lives in a parallel quad to our American remembrance of campuses past. As he and Naoko, on one of their walks, wander through a field of abandoned mine shafts, one has the feeling that, if they fell, they'd come out on the other side of the globe, close to Max Yasgur's farm in Woodstock.

And yet the soundtrack to Watanabe's life is nonsectarian, following "Sgt. Pepper" with Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debbie." "Time itself slogged along in rhythm with my faltering steps. The people around me had gone on ahead long before, while my time and I hung back, struggling through the mud. The world around me was on the verge of great transformations. Death had already taken John Coltrane, who was joined now by so many others." This is vintage Murakami, a very personal method of selecting nuggets from the glittering Americana of rock and pop and jazz that descended on Japan a generation after the Occupation. As the millennium turns to find Elvis Costello recording with Burt Bacharach and Madonna with Little Jimmie Scott, we can look back to the helter-skelter culture of Murakami's world and marvel at the prescience of not just a great Japanese writer but a great writer, period.

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