Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My first novel by Murakami and I am blown to pieces. The portrayal of characters, events and the emotions weaving them together is just too fantastic. The main character is Toru Watanabe who remembers his college days in Tokyo after hearing the song "Norwegian Wood" by Beatles. The entire book revolves around suicide and about how Watanabe struggles to overcome his grief.



The beginning of the book:

Even so, my memory has grown increasingly dim, and I have already forgotten any number of things. Writing from memory like this, I often feel a pang of dread. What if I've forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?
Be as it may, it's all I have to work with. Clutching these faded, fading, imperfect memories to my breast, I go on writing this book with all the desperate intensity of a starving man sucking on bones. This is the only way I know to keep my promise to Naoko.
Once, long ago, when I was still young, when the memories were far more vivid than they are now, I often tried to write about her. But I couldn't produce a line. I knew that if the first line would come, the rest would pour itself out on the page, but I could never make it happen. Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to start - the way a map that shows too much can sometimes be useless. Now, though, I realize that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts. The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko knew herself, of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed.
The thoughts fill me with an unbearable sorrow. Because Naoko never loved me.


The beginning of the book throws Naoko right into the center of it. The title of the book arises from Naoko's favorite song. About how the song was played again and again on memorable events that bind Naoko to Watanabe. With characters that border on the surreal, the book brings the bizarre into normal life questioning what is even normal. The characters seem almost to portray different aspects of any given human being's personality - from sheer hedonism to hopeless submissiveness. The worst part is after examining the characters deeply, I begin to see the people around me in a different light. Feels like the dashing cars that we used to drive as children at amusement parks, crashing into each other as if it was the objective of the game. So many different types of people around all of us, and did we ever stop to think how they all affected us? Is there some little event like the song "Norwegian Wood" for each one of us that we could use to unravel our lives like pulling a knitted garment apart? Or maybe to unravel our lives and recreate it the way we want, we need to find those essential threads that bind our lives together? A deep surgery to remove a tumour that had embedded itself deep into one of the inner organs? Such a surgery could kill or could save. Care to undertake one?



Kizuki had left no suicide note, and had no motive that anyone could think of. Because I had been the last one to see him, I was called in for questioning by the police. A small article in the paper brought the affair to a close. Kizuki's parents got rid of his red N-360. For a time, a white flower marked his school desk.
The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been there, 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.
And so I went from 18 to 19. Each day the sun would rise and set, the flag would be raised and lowered. Every Sunday I would have a date with my dead friend's girl. I had no idea what I was doing or what I was going to do. I made no friends at the lectures and hardly knew anyone in the dorm. The others in the dorm thought I wanted to be a writer because I was always alone with a book, but I had no such ambition. There was nothing I wanted to be.


I suppose every one of us has lost someone near and dear to us as we grew up. What marks us differently is the part they had played in our lives. And when that someone took his or her own life, the mildest thought is how could I have stopped it? The worst thought is did he think of me before he died? Watanabe lost his best friend Kizuki on the same day they had skipped classes to play pool in the afternoon. Maybe Kizuki just wanted to spend a last afternoon with his best friend. The best way to say goodbye? Not leaving a suicide note - he had said everything he needed to say, and to whom? Was Watanabe thinking that something that might have been said to him that afternoon would have stopped Kizuki from killing himself? He wanted to get away from the city, from the school, from the memory of white roses on his dead friend's school desk. How many people break away from everyone they grew up with and what must it take to want to achieve that state of detachment? The saying goes that the essence of what we are is decided by what we never chose - the family we were born in, the city we grew up, the streets we played in and the schools we went to. So could someone erase the essence or was the essence something that could be redefined? If it could be redefined, what would it take? A childhood may be a burden but it was offered to us on a platter. To throw away that platter without creating a huge void would be possible if there were a major turning point in one's life at a later stage that created a similar platter. What would that turning point be - one fantastic result in an examination, superstardom, a win in a lottery?



Hey, Kizuki, I thought, you're not missing a damn thing. This world is a piece of shit. The arseholes are getting good marks and helping to create a society in their own disgusting image.
For a while I attended lectures but refused to answer when they took the register. I knew it was a pointless gesture, but I felt so bad I had no choice. All I managed to do was isolate myself more than ever from the other students. By remaining silent when my name was called, I made everyone uncomfortable for a few seconds. None of the other students spoke to me, and I spoke to none of them.


The scene is set following the end of a students' strike at the university and the students who led the strike - the arseholes - were the first to be found attending lectures. So what made them arseholes? Leading the strike or returning to normalcy after the strike was dismantled by the police? Or were they arseholes to have given in to the police in the first place? So what does Watanabe think here? He is disillusioned with the "system" that let Kizuki die. He stopped caring about anything and that included the strike or the university for that matter. But in a way it did matter to him because he refused to answer the attendance call. What was he trying to prove here? He was not in the same boat with the arseholes who were now diligently answering the roll call or that he didn't want to respond to a roll call by a university that took these arseholes back? Begins to make me wonder how one should react in a system that behaved arbitrarily. Go about one's business, get what you wanted, may it be a degree, a contract, piles of money or protest against it? Would it be possible to go against it without becoming a part of it? A perpetrator at a later stage? Maybe that's how the system survives, because the ranks are continuously filled by diligent supporters. Would rebelling against a system do any good? One could always argue that the system would survive anyway so what have I accomplished? What had Watanabe achieved by not answering the roll call? Absolutely nothing. So what would be sensible way to get what we want and at the same time maintain our own identity?



"So why are you trying to join the Foreign Ministry?" (Watanabe)
"All kinds of reasons," said Nagasawa. "I like the idea of working overseas, for one. But mainly I want to test my abilities. If I'm going to test myself, I want to do it in the biggest field there is - the nation. I want to see how high I can climb, how much power I can exercise in this insanely huge bureaucratic system."
"Sounds like a game" (Wanatabe)
"It is a game. I don't give a damn about power and money per se. Really, I don't. I may be a selfish bastard, but I'm incredibly cool about shit like that. I could be a Zen saint. The one thing I do have is curiosity. I want to see what I can do out there in the big, tough world. Don't feel sorry for yourself. Only arseholes do that."


Is Nagasawa a career climber or indeed a Zen saint? Nagasawa lived in the same dorm as Watanabe and a taste in similar books brought them together. Chosen a career based on an essential quality. Sounds like Zen. We need to ask ourselves, what do we desire and take that desire to its most abstract form. Step back and look at the big picture. I like something, but why do I like it, what is in it that makes me like it, what would it be that if I take away it would cease to interest me? Then again could we have everything? Would the path that would appear the most enchanted lead us to happiness or would we have to make sacrifices whatever we chose? So what would be a sensible choice? A worthwhile goal to attain which we would have to give up a few luxuries along the way? So would you have to be like a Zen saint to truly pursue your goal? Not care about sacrifices and just pursue that which interests you? At the end of the day, it was only you to judge yourself. There is no greater honour than in struggling for what you believe in, there is no greater satisfaction than in achieving what you struggled for and no greater pleasure than in celebrating what you achieved. The toughest part is always the part where you have to take decisions.



In the midst of this overwhelming sunset, the image of Hatsumi flashed into my mind, and in that moment I understood what that tremor of the heart had been. It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained - and would ever remain unfulfilled. I had forgotten the existence of such innocent, almost burnt-in longing: forgotten for years that such feelings had ever existed inside me. What Hatsumi had stirred in me was a part of my very self that had long lain dormant. And when the realization struck me, it aroused such sorrow I almost burst into tears. She had been an absolutely special woman. Someone should have done something - anything - to save her.
But neither Nagasawa not I could have managed that. As so many of those I knew had done, Hatsumi reached a certain stage in life and decided - almost on the spur of the moment - to end it. Two years after Nagasawa left for Germany, she married, and two years after that she slashed her wrists with a razor blade.
It was Nagasawa, of course, who told me what had happened . His letter from Bonn said this: "Hatsumi's death has extinguished something. This is unbearably sad and painful even to me." I ripped the letter to shreds and threw it away. I never wrote to him again.


Hatsumi was Nagasawa's girlfriend. Extremely rich, good looking, she seemed to have all the elements of a good life. For some mysterious reason she had chosen Nagasawa and despite the fact that he slept with numerous women, she thought he would come around some day. Ridiculous how some intelligent people make some of the most idiotic decisions in their personal lives. What made her think Nagasawa who would change his self-indulgent ways? Did she want what all those around her wanted or had? Same question again. What is that we want and how do we decide that? Had Nagasawa deceived her? Not really. He had told her right in the beginning that he had no intention to marry. She wanted a married life, and so she chose somebody, just somebody. Finding it wasn't the life she wanted and that she couldn't reverse it, she decided to end it. Seems so understandable when thought out this way, almost vulgar. Do you hate society for forcing a young life to an end? Or was society responsible? Positive thinkers would say, an individual can always persevere and achieve the impossible. But how many would go to that lengths to survive the way they want? How many would buckle and fold? What had Watanabe felt for Hatsumi? He was an only child and she was the elder sister he would have liked to have but never had. He wished her to leave Nagasawa and be happy. "Someone should have done something - anything - to save her." Was he the one that should have done something? If so what would that be? When we remember someone who we admire but quit, could we still admire those qualities in anyone again? What if it were all a sham? What if they were just weak people putting up strong exteriors?


Hey, there, Kizuki, I thought. Unlike you, I've chosen to live - and to live the best I know how. Sure, it was hard for you. What the hell, it's hard for me. Really hard. And all because you killed yourself and left Naoko behind. But that's something I will never do. I will never, ever, turn my back on her. First of all, because I love her, and because I'm stronger than she is. And I'm just going to keep on getting stronger. I'm going to mature. I'm going to be an adult. Because that's what I have to do. I always think I'd like to stay 17 or 18 if I could. But not any more. I'm not a teenager anymore. I've got a sense of responsibility now. I'm not the same person I was when we used to hang out together. I'm 20 now. And I have to pay the price to go on living.

Reminds me of the time I was sitting alone in the bar outside college sipping on my beer. A man sat on the table next to me and was facing me with a drink before him and a lost look on his face. I looked at him and he nodded at me. Asked me if I work at a particular company because I look familiar. I knew what that was. Just an introduction from a guy at a bar who wants to talk. He told me about how his friend just died leaving behind a pregnant wife. "Enjoy life max, man," was what he said that time and it seems like a pearl of wisdom now. The dead depart leaving the living to continue with their memories. What were the living to do? Grieve over their memories for ever and ever? Or "enjoy life max" and celebrate the life as the departed should have done.



"You made your decision long before Naoko died - that you could never leave Midori. Whether Naoko is alive or dead, it has nothing to do with your decision. You chose Midori. Naoko chose to die. You're all grown up now, so you have take responsibility for your choices. If you feel some kind of pain with regard to Naoko's death, I would advise you to keep on feeling that pain for the rest of your life. And if there's something you can learn from it, you should do that, too. But quite aside from that you should be happy with Midori."