Our perception of time is not linear, but logarithmic. It feels as if every new day were shorter than the previous day. Today, at 40, each year passes almost unnoticed and I struggle finding a significant event to stamp on every single year, lest it gets lost in nothingness.
Thus, for many of us, it will feel like the mid point of our story was in our late teens and early twenties. Nostalgia will always take us back to those days.
Norwegian Wood is a story of loss and nostalgia. Toru Watanabe remembers his early college days in Tokyo in the 1960s. He was nineteen or twenty, student of literature, not very social or interested about his studies. Toru has a close relationship with Naoko, whom he met through his late friend Kizuki. Kizuki was Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend in their teenage years until the day he took his own life at age 17. Toru and Naoko’s relationship is more than friendship, it’s platonic love condemned to never bloom due to Kizuki’s death.
Toru and Naoko go on long walks in the city and the meadows, their affection and loyalty for each other growing stronger with each step. They avoid talking about Kizuki though, and perhaps this reticence somehow cripples the relationship. Toru is in love with Naoko, and the more he falls for her, the more distant she becomes. The day of Naoko’s 20th birthday, they make love. It’s Naoko’s first time and, instead of romance, it felt like she drifted further away from Toru that night.
Shortly after her birthday, Naoko drops from college and moves into a sanatorium. They correspond by mail, though Naoko’s letters are infrequent. In the meantime, at the university, Toru meets Midori, an outgoing girl who develops a fancy for him. Toru’s disinterest in the mundane and gregarious attracts Midori. They begin hanging out, even though Midori knows about Naoko and also has a boyfriend.
When not at school or with Midori, Toru spends time with an older student, Nagasawa. They talk about books that they love and the simple-minded majority do not understand, they also go out in the night and chase girls. Nagasawa is a womanizer and perhaps also a psychopath. Incredibly, has a sweet and caring girlfriend: Hatsumi.
Toru and Midori grow inevitably closer to each other. Toru is conflicted with a deep sense of loyalty and responsibility towards Naoko and believes that, even if Naoko doesn’t love him, he must do everything that can be done to protect and take care of her. He loves Naoko.
He manages to visit Naoko at the sanatorium a few times. There he meets Naoko’s roommate: Reiko. The sanatorium reminded me of the one in The Magic Mountain, where patients adopted a life of their own, a new life inside the walls of the sanatorium, and never saw the real world again. Reiko has already spent seven years in it. She used to be a music virtuoso and later a music teacher; both careers cut short due to a mental breakdown. She owns a guitar and plays several songs for the three of them: Naoko, Toru, and herself. Naoko’s favorite song is Norwegian Wood.
In those visits, Naoko oscillates from health to social withdrawal, from distance to closeness to Toru. It’s never clear if she is making progress toward recovery. Toru vows to be patient and to wait for her full recovery so they can start their life together. He learns about Naoko’s older sister, whom she found dead in her bedroom after she hung herself. He also learned about Reiko’s story of losing her family due to slander by a neighbor’s daughter against her.
Back in Tokyo, Midori’s father passes away due to illness. In his last days, he murmurs something to Toru. He doesn’t comprehend but thinks the message is to take care of his daughter. Midori’s mother had passed years earlier and only had one older sister.
Every character in the novel seems so alone. It’s heart-wrenching.
By then, Toru has left the college dorm and moved into a ramshackle cabin in the outskirts of the city. He continues his correspondence with Naoko and Reiko. Sometimes it appears that Naoko is on the mend, other times Reiko writes saying that things are not getting better. It is in one of these letters that Toru writes to Reiko and tells her about the feelings he has developed for Midori. Reiko advises Toru to pursue the girl. “… grab whatever chance you have for happiness where you find it.” “People are going to be hurt when it’s time for them to be hurt.”
Back in the sanatorium, things aren’t any better and Naoko ends her own life.
Toru leaves school, leaves Midori and travels in the country with no particular direction. He sleeps in parks, on the beach, has little to eat. Hallucinates, dreams of Kizuki and Naoko. In his visions, he understands death and it no longer affects him, Naoko talks to him and tells him things are easy for her. Eventually, though, he would come back to the real world and be alone.
Weeks go by and he finally returns to Tokyo. He hasn’t communicated with Midori in all this time away. Maybe she is gone from his life too. Reiko decides to leave the sanatorium and find a new life in a small town north of Tokyo. She visits Toru first and there, in the rundown shack, they make a solemn but not unhappy ceremony in Naoko’s memory, then make love.
They go to the train station and said goodbye to each other. At this moment, Toru realizes Midori is the one he loves. He rushes to a pay phone and dials her number. He tells her that he loves her, that she is everything. After a long silence, she says “where are you now?”
He looks around, lost, trying to know where he is.
The story took me back to my twenties. Reading Norwegian Wood was like being 20 years old and reading Norwegian Wood… or Demian, or Beneath The Wheel, as Toru does in an episode of the novel.
There is a part of us that life never really gets to extinguish. If one is inclined to writing, one may find oneself unearthing old stories, passages, or journal entries. Remembering what captivated our souls back then, and perhaps realizing that the sense of wonder is still intact within us.
Norwegian Wood also put me in front of the inevitable loneliness of life and the understanding of loss. Real loss cannot be undone. Death cannot be undone. How about loves past? Can they be rekindled? Everytime a character committed suicide, I paused. I felt physical pain and I asked aloud, as if Murakami could hear me, why did he keep killing them.
The narrator is almost 40 years old. We don’t know how life played out for him, but the beginning of the story suggests that things went well, at least superficially. He is flying to Frankfurt, it’s not his first time. Things went well, but a song moves him back to a very important time in his life. The time to which nostalgia will always take us back to. Always the middle of our lives, no matter how young or ancient we are.
- Nostalgia will typically take us to our twenties
- Death is inescapable and unerasable loss
- “No truth can cure the sorrow we feel from losing a loved one. No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end and learn something from it, but what we learn will be no help in facing the next sorrow that comes to us without warning.”
- The real struggle in life is our battle against loneliness
- Words always fail us and feel inadequate (“… something prior to words that she could not grasp within herself and which therefore had no hope of ever turning into words.”)
- “Despite your best efforts, people are going to be hurt when it’s time for them to be hurt.”
- We get no more than two or three chances for happiness in a lifetime. I’m not sure I believe this statement.
Could the book be improved or challenged in a fundamental way?
Challenged in a fundamental way, no. The only observations I have:
- Nagasawa is a prescindible character. I think Murakami uses him as an accessory to change the stage and pace, and create some fluidity, but his appearances don’t add much substance to the story of Toru. Perhaps, in the spirit of the hero’s journey, Nagasawa could have been presented as a mentor or helper.
It could be argued that he indeed acts as Toru’s mentor, but I’m not convinced. There is not much relevant wisdom coming out of Nagasawa.
- Excessive name dropping of western pop culture. I, for some reason, associate this with amateur writers. It’s trivial. From the perspective of the writer, it defines and colors the ambience, but chances are the reader is not familiar with the people or songs named. And even if the reader knows the particular song, the meaning he attributes to it does not coincide with the author’s interpretation. To make things more problematic: the song or pop icon in question may have opposite significance between reader and author.