Book Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Started: Guilin, China
Finished: Ferry from Korea to Japan

Fucking hell. Where do I even start? This is a book which followed me through three countries; was my sole source of entertainment on trains, planes, busses, and a ferry; felt as much a part of me as my backpack. It will have a special place in my heart for a long time to come.

Previously I had only read the one book by Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (which I implore you all to read). Nonetheless, Murakami sprung to within the top ten of my favourite writers just like that. So I was excited to start the mammoth Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, three books compiled into the one. I knew before starting, though, that this was to be a somewhat different Murakami to that of Norwegian Wood, given the latter is one of only a few realist novels he writes, more known is he for his surrealism.

I guess I don’t think I read much surrealist fiction, so I was a little worried I might find myself lost. Thankfully though, Murakami’s writing seems to be always accessible, and as I had done with Norwegian Wood, I sunk right into this book, with the ease of sinking into your sofa back home.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle follows Toru Okada, out of a job and living out a mundane routine at the home of his wife and he: reading, napping, drinking beer, avoiding the temptation to smoke, and cooking dinner for two. From a first-person narrative (Murakami writes first-person so well you’re in the character’s brain/you are the character, after only a page or two) we find that Toru is relatively non-plussed about changing his routine for the time being. He is happy, more or less, in its simplicity. So long as he has his wife and cat, he thinks.

Unbeknownst to Toru, however, there are a multitude of forces – human, timeless, omnipotent, or otherwise – with a say in how events shall play out for our protagonist. And let’s just say, few of these events are as ordinary as cooking dinner.

Murakami’s epic unfolds through the consistent introduction of new and increasingly exotic characters, each with a role to play in Toru’s story. Some of these characters you’ll come to love (May Kasahara I’m looking at you), others, like Malta Kano, you’ll be wary of but intrigued by, and will feel bereft when they leave the narrative; and others you’ll learn to despise… *cough* Noboru Wataya *cough*. Each though, will have a substantial impact on your experience as a reader.

Side Note: As much as I would love to pretend there isn’t, there is an issue here. Unfortunately there is a distinct lack of properly strong female characters in the book. There are plenty enough contestants for the criteria, sure. The majority of the characters introduced to the plot, and key to Toru’s narrative, are in fact female. A plus, certainly. However, Murakami is often too occupied with the physical appearance, sexual appeal (or history, or future), or simply with their relationship to Toru, to give his female characters an independent, nuanced development.

Compare, for example, the chapters and chapters dedicated to Lieutenant Mamiya’s old war stories, or the interest taken in Cinnamon’s vow of silence and ‘Wind-Up Bird’ stories. Not to say, thankfully, that Murakami writes women as badly as Kerouac or Hemmingway or Steinbeck, etc. I really do love Murakami’s ladies, they’re just not paid enough attention or at least too much attention is wasted on the wrong things. These flaws by no means make Murakami unreadable, and I encourage you to indulge yourself in his fantastical realms regardless of your chosen gender. Just be aware the flaws are there.

Back to the review.

You will, undoubtedly, fall in and out and in and out of love with protagonist Toru Okada. Which is good, I think. It shows nuance, it shows Murakami is unafraid to write his lead into a bit of an asshole. Still you’ll stick with him the whole way through. You’ll stare into the same mirror Toru does as he puzzles at the strange new mark on his cheek. You’ll express frustration and shock at what’s in the parcel he receives at the end of Book One. You’ll throw the book away in horror and despair when Toru does that thing with that baseball bat (no spoilers), and then you’ll pick it straight back up just to see what happens next. You’ll be happy to fly off at tangents, soar with Russian torturers and magical world-wielding birds into the half-moon sky, before plummeting back down below the earth to the bottom of a well, where you’ll imagine you too are reaping the benefits of several days in the pitch black.

A simpler way to put it: this book is a journey, in and of itself. If you’re prepared to give it your time, it will take you to worlds vivid and vibrant.

For me, Murakami was Japan, and Japan was Murakami. And Tokyo was myriad districts and train stations and Toru Okada and missing cats and cicadas in the grass and quiet sunny afternoons and chain-store coffee on bustling plazas. How proper, then, that I should finish this book as I arrived at Fukuoka port, literally minutes away from putting my feet on Japanese soil for the very first time. Even more proper, that Murakami’s Japan and mine should align, should feel so similar.

Without a doubt, this book made my time in Japan all the better, and being in Japan allowed me to see how exquisitely Murakami captures the atmosphere of that country, the history, the people. His setting is perfectly relatable, and thus a solid foundation for him to then weave magic and madness into its fabric quite seamlessly.

So. This book has it flaws, of course, and it would have been sweet as fuck if Murakami had ammended them. And yet, it was only in retrospect that I even really noticed and took time to think about them; during reading, I think I was way too caught up in how the big man can keep me captivated even whilst his narrator is doing nothing but making spaghetti and listening to classical music.

Admittedly, I think I need a second (or fifth) reading to extrapolate all the intricacies and answers from the story (or indeed to work out if there are even supposed to be any answers), but for a first reading, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and for sure it was worth the 6+ weeks it took me to conquer it.

If you haven’t before, get yer teeth round some Murakami. And if you have already, get yer teeth round some more.

If you’ve read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and agree/disagree/wanna chat, please feel free to email me at youngprincepoetry@gmail.com – I will always make time for a fellow Murakamiite.

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