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NAX41812 - MURAKAMI, H.: Wind-up Bird Chronicle (The) (Unabridged)
Writers are continually inventing new styles for the novel, and there are plenty of people who love the experiments, successful and popular or not. But there is some truth in the assertion that words cannot achieve the abstraction that other arts enjoy, especially music.
For Haruki Murakami, the association with music and words is profound. He has a huge collection, he listens avidly, he used to run his own jazz café before he became a writer and he actively laces his works with references to music and musicians, in many cases to those who would only be familiar to aficionados. And he is a kind of jazz novelist. He has deliberately freed himself from some of the standard constraints of the genre, allowing himself to be carried by the narrative rather than plotting it in advance, following the story as it arrives. In doing so, he has differed significantly from Joyce and his many followers by being hugely, internationally popular, rather than purely a literary figure; and he has created works that resonate with readers from London to Sydney to Berlin to Boston to Seoul to his native Tokyo.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is set in Japan, where Toru Okada—a pleasant enough man—is out of work, and interrupted by a strange phone call at home one day. Meanwhile, his wife’s general anxiety seems to be affected by the fact that their cat is missing. After that, the story becomes a little more complicated—not because of the relationship between his wife and a dubious politician; not because of some unspeakable horrors from Japan’s past; and not because of the strange teenager next door. It becomes more complicated because it is peopled by characters who either have experiences of another world or seem to inhabit it, and who arrive in Toru’s life like guides without maps, or signposts without words. What they have are stories. And rather like the reader of the novel, Toru may not understand what the stories mean or how they are relevant to him; but he knows they knit together in some unfathomable fashion that may—just may—make sense eventually. And all the bizarre experiences he has to go through are part of this process, this journey.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is resolutely not a science fiction book, however, even if it could find itself on a Magic Realism shelf. More than any of these labels, it is a contemporary jazz symphony; or perhaps opera.
There is a central theme: Toru Okada finds himself on a kind of quest that begins as a domestic issue but soon blooms into a much larger one. There are sub-themes: Japanese 20th-century history, wartime atrocities, politics, philosophy, art and—unsurprisingly—jazz itself. There are even substantial solos from different players in the piece—Creta Kano, Lieutenant Mamiya, May Kasahara—all touching upon some of the themes and sub-themes in the rest of the book. But here the significance of the jazz metaphor becomes more significant, because the book does not tie all these threads together. It does not answer all the questions. It does not explain everything. It has the freedom and fluidity of improvisation that does not require a conventional resolution. There are characters who appear and then disappear with no explanation at all. Events are described in detail, but seem to have no specific relevance to anything else in the story. There are sequences in which it is impossible to tell what is real and what imagined, while the world in which they are set is as mundane as a high street. There is no sense that these elements will intertwine into a satisfying unity. His characters are rarely sure of what has happened, are frequently uncertain about how they should respond, and equivocal about the significance of their experiences.
This apprehension is at the heart of Murakami’s work, and is its moral centre, too. Here may be one explanation for his popularity. After all, there are books that deal with the contemporary condition of humanity that never reach the bestseller lists, and there are works of imaginative fiction that are greedily swallowed up without ever touching upon the metaphysical. Murakami has managed to fuse the two—a surreal blend of Kafka and Carroll, of Chandler and Kundera, who posits a world where the prosaic is almost incomprehensible and other worlds, dreamlike and mesmerising, are as much a part of reality as the shopping.
Murakami presents this inevitability of uncertainty with a deadpan airiness and lightness of tone, creating stories of huge invention without ceremony or pretension. He is also funny, something that is easy to overlook in the constantly shifting streams of narrative. It is a dream world layered onto the real and concrete one with a beguiling simplicity that belies the anger and complexity underlying it. The anger comes from Murakami’s concern about the way Japan is papering over its horrific wartime past and the complexity from the fact that in Murakami’s world nothing is sure, nothing transparent, nothing is a given.
At the same time, there is keen anxiety underneath the various narrations for something to be finally called out of the whorling mass to make the journey worthwhile. Murakami shows that in books as well as jazz what matters is not some glorious revelation that seamlessly brings it all together, but rather the sense that the journey itself was the point, the end as well as the means.
Notes by Roy McMillan
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