Haruki Murakami, “Norwegian Wood” (1987) (translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin) – This is me trying to play catch-up and see what this Murakami guy is all about. Alas, I found out later that “Norwegian Wood” is not typical Murakami, lacking as it is in surreal elements. This is a pretty straightforward coming of age story about a college student named Toru Watanabe and his involvements with women in the late 1960s.
The book is fine. Watanabe is a fairly typical young male protagonist, which is to say self-absorbed and hard for anyone not in that place to really relate to, but to the extent that self-awareness can make anything better, it does so in his case. The main women in his life are Naoko, a tragic beauty who spends the novel in a progressive rest home for the mentally ill, her older friend in the hospital Reiko, and Midori, another university student who is impulsive and flighty.
Thinking about it now, most of the ways I have to describe the book make it sound bad, certainly worse than it is. Watanabe reflects on himself through the mirror provided by these women, their emotional problems, their sexuality and/or his fantasies of their sexuality. They, especially Midori, occasionally make comment on his emotional unavailability. But it’s his reserve and self-awareness that separate him from the other students (including those old reliable foils to young bourgeois individualism, student radicals) and make him notable to them and the reader. In the end, all of them are more interesting than he is, something Murakami seems aware of. So we’re back again at self-awareness as absolution… and prose, I guess. I don’t know any Japanese but the translated prose moved well and unobtrusively. All in all, basically pretty ok, good enough to make me curious about more Murakami-ish Murakami books. ***’