Two posts in one week? What on Earth is going on!? I cannot emphasize enough how much Olga Grushin’s novel, Forty Rooms has inspired me. So much so, that I’ve actually started another blog called, Saving for Japan. One of my dreams is to travel to Japan again for an epic adventure, so I’m doing that, but in the meantime I actually travel quite a bit, so I figured I might as well post my other adventures while I cautiously save and plan for the big one. Another dream is to continue to update this blog as much as possible. Traveling and reading really go hand in hand, especially with all the down time between plane rides and car rides.
So, let’s get cracking! Since my new blog is about saving for an amazing trip to Japan, I want to focus on a classic Haruki Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’ve reviewed two of his other books in this blog already, so why not a third?
Oy, translations. Translations are hard aren’t they? Especially finding a good one. I picked up the First Vintage International Edition from October 1998, but honestly, it doesn’t matter which English version you pick up, because…THE BOOK WAS ABRIDGED. That’s right! The original book was gutted for the American audience and certain chapters and passages were omitted and moved! So what you get instead is a replica of the novel, but not the full novel. Thankfully, the original translator actually translated the entire book, so you can find which sections of the book were omitted, changed or moved in this fantastic link.
But since this is what we have to work with, let’s get started. The book is divided into three books: The Thieving Magpie June and July 1984, Bird as Prophet July to October 1984, and The Birdcatcher October 1984 to December 1985. It gets a little frustrating here, because towards the end of book two and the all of book three, the order just seems all out of whack. Also, while you’re reading, you get a sense that something is missing? At least, I did, which was a little frustrating. If you feel like this, it’s because that’s where the book started to get abridged. The ending of book two was omitted. The big secret in the book is supposed to be revealed at the end of book two, but in the American version the big secret is not revealed until the end of book three, which causes some weird confusion.
Anyway, the book is about Toru Okada a thirty something year old married man who is recently unemployed and is he spending most of his time at home trying to figure out his next move. During this transitional period, a bunch of weird, unexpected events start to occur, the biggest being Toru’s wife randomly leaves him one day. Toru slowly realizes that his wife could not have left of her own volition, and he must save her in order to regain his stable life. I think that sounds a lot more epic than the book actually is…but honestly that’s what the book is about…a married man’s attempt to understand why his wife left him in such bizarre circumstances and then trying to get her back. There are of course, a lot of different characters, animals, alternate realities, empty wells, history lessons and themes that figure through out the story, in true Murakami fashion.
For me, this book reminds me a little of Norwegian Wood, in that, trauma affects not only the person who is traumatized but everyone surrounding that person. In the same fashion that individual trauma has an effect on other people, so does a national trauma on an entire population. In this book, there are characters that are traumatized by mental defilement, which sounds a lot like sexual abuse, but it happens in a different reality and people cannot recover. Kumiko is “defiled” by her brother, Noboru Wataya, in her subconscious and he continues to defile other women who afterwards cannot lead a normal life. Kumiko suppresses this trauma for years after meeting her husband, but after a while she cannot suppress the dirty feeling she has and lashes out by having careless affairs with random men. This eventually leads her to leave her husband and hide part of herself. Other characters are also traumatized by things that have happened to them. Creta Kano was also defiled by Noboru Wataya and is still trying to figure out her own life after such a life changing and damaging event.
In terms of a national trauma, WWII plays a major part in the book as well. There are several characters who are traumatized by the events that played out during the war. There’s Mr. Honda, a clairvoyant who see all of the awful things that happen during the war to the population and also warns Toru of being patient and avoiding water. There’s Lieutenant Mamiya who is saved by Mr. Honda during the war, but is also “defiled” by his experience in the war. He has a horrible event where he watches a comrade get skinned to death, is throw into an empty well, only to be rescued to end up at a Russian concentration camp. There is also another character, Nutmeg, who experiences her own type of trauma during the war, which follows her into her adult post-war life. All of these characters cannot get over the events of the war. They cannot lead normal, satisfying lives after everything they experienced and the only way these characters can feel better is to tell their stories. In the case of Nutmeg, she’s so obsessed with the events during the war she shares them with her son, Cinnamon, who also cannot stop thinking about the war. Everything flows into each other, which is funny because most of the book is about waiting for the moment when you can actually change the flow and make something happen.
Another theme in the book is that of doppelgängers. Kumiko appears in different forms and in a way, Toru Okada also appears in different forms. It could be argued that his awful brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya could be him if he wasn’t power crazed and used his ability to enter the different realities for personal gain. One can argue that the two dislike each other so much, because they hate the things that they could see inside of themselves but suppress.
The most interesting aspect of the book is the idea of secrets and an internal life. Kumiko says to Toru at one point:
“You’ve been living with me all this time,” she said, “but you’ve hardly paid any attention to me. The only one you ever think about is yourself.”
Even during these moments when Toru and Kumiko are together, Toru starts to realize that his wife is something mysterious:
“Or maybe it was just the beginning of something big, and inside lay a world that belonged to Kumiko alone, a vast world that I had never known. I saw it as a big, dark room. I was standing there holding a cigarette lighter, its tiny flame showing me only the smallest part of the room.”
I cannot emphasize enough how that quote above literally describes what the book ultimately is, that people are mysterious and have a hidden world, but we need to try to find our way with the limited resources that we have, which is empathy. And doesn’t that apply to everyone? We all have our own internal lives, no one can know everything one is thinking, but the book really drives the point that trying to communicate is essential to avoid trauma and hurting more people. We need to have empathy with the people surrounding us, or else we’ll all end up like Noboru Wataya who only uses his abilities for personal gain and to hurt others.
The theme about pain and trauma is further emphasized in book two, when Toru goes to a bar after his wife has an abortion while he is out of town. He feels conflicted about what Kumiko has done, but he is also trying to be a supportive husband, which leaves him feeling helpless and alone. It is during his time at the bar, that a folk singer suddenly stops playing and talks about empathy with a candle.
“In the course of life, we experience many kinds of pain. Pains of the body and pains of the heart. I know I have experienced pain in many different forms in my life, and I’m sure you have too. In most cases, thought, I’m sure you’ve found it very difficult to convey the truth of that pain to another person: to explain it in words. People say that only they themselves can understand the pain they are feeling. But is this true? I for one do not believe that it is. If, before our eyes, we see someone who is truly suffering, we do sometimes feel his suffering and pain as our own. This the power of empathy.”
In order to demonstrate the power of empathy, the folk singer then starts to burn his hand with a candle, which makes the crowd react with fear and worry, thus physically proving the power of empathy within a crowd.
“The reason that people sing songs for other people is because they want to have the power to arouse empathy, to break free of the narrow shell of self and share their pain and joy with others.”
This also works with the main story, because in Toru’s search for Kumiko and a stable life, he interacts with other people in an empathetic way. He helps Nutmeg and Cinnamon “heal” traumatized women with his mysterious blue mark in exchange for them helping Toru by buying a plot of haunted land that contains an empty well that he needs in order to save his wife. He helps Malta and Creta Kano with their abilities and allows Creta Kano to overcome her defilement at the hands of Noboru Wataya. And ultimately, Toru helps his wife recover from her trauma and frees her from her dangerous and guilt ridden subconscious.
Toru also is dealing with an empty well. I’m not sure if there is more about wells in Japanese culture, but the well definitely represents how trauma can affect groups and how sometimes sitting in the darkness, whether that be figurative or physical, allows people to find themselves and also heal. There are several scenes with characters sitting in an empty well trying to figure out life and the book is only resolved by Toru going into a dark, empty wall and just thinking. The empty well also shows how after time, patience, and thinking, an event that causes the well to stop flowing will eventually flow. We can heal from the trauma in our lives. Nothing has to stay stagnant forever, but you cannot force something to heal and flow again.
So, would I recommend this book? I would, it’s very dense and long, but it’s definitely worth it. Also, there’s a missing cat that leaves and comes back and also helps the book move along, which is fun. Don’t forget your lucky cat at home. Now we just have to ask for an unabridged version and we’ll be good to go!