The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a strange novel. It’s not the first Haruki Murakami novel I’ve read; a year or so ago I read IQ84, which was also strange, but not extraordinary in the sense that Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is extraordinary. Prior to its translation into English, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was initially published in three volumes in 1994-95, but in Japan. It appeared in English in the US in 1997. In his interview with the Paris Review, Murakami comments on the novel’s strangeness: “During the four years of writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I was living in the U.S. as a stranger. That ‘strangeness’ was always following me like a shadow and it did the same to the protagonist of the novel.” Murakami was also influenced by a number of American writers. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Murakami casts a spell on his readers. He introduces us into the quotidian world of a Tokyo suburb, but what ensues draws us into another world, one that seems familiar but quickly becomes increasingly strange. Perhaps a better way to describe the novel is to say it’s uncanny.
Murakami is an extremely popular writer, with sales in the millions worldwide. As reported by John Wray in the Paris Review, No. 182,
Internationally, Murakami is now the most widely-read Japanese novelist of his generation; he has won virtually every prize Japan has to offer, including its greatest, the Yomiuri Literary Prize. He is also an extremely active translator, having brought writers as diverse as Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, and F. Scott Fitzgerald to Japanese readers, many of them for the first time.
As an experimental writer, Murakami is hard to place. Wray notes that
His greatest novels inhabit the liminal zone between realism and fable, whodunit and science fiction….
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is often referred to as a detective novel, but I think that to say it is also science fiction veers off course. It would be more appropriate to call it magical realism, as Murakami embraces realism and the supernatural.
The novel begins with the disappearance of a cat. The protagonist and narrator, Toru Okada, is a young man who has recently lost his job, so he now spends his days grocery shopping, and cooking and cleaning for his wife, who supports them. Moreover, it’s her cat. After receiving a mysterious phone call with a message instructing Toru on how to find the cat, he climbs over the wall behind his house to search the alley, which is inexplicably blocked at each end. On one side is a vacant house. Apparently bad things have happened to the people who lived there. One could say it’s a haunted house.
While searching the alley, Toru meets a young woman, May Kasahara, a high school dropout who spends her time sunning herself in the backyard across from the abandoned house. She is a Lolita-like figure although Toru does not become sexually obsessed with her; rather she becomes his neighbourhood buddy. Prompted by the mechanical cries of an unseen bird, May calls Toru Mr. Wind-Up Bird. The novel is after all a chronicle of Toru’s uncanny experiences and the bird’s cries ominously call attention to those experiences
Soon Toru’s wife also disappears and naturally, he is determined to find her. More strange messages are received as well as unusual visitors, mostly women, some of whom are psychics.
My protagonist is almost always caught between the spiritual world and the real world. In the spiritual world, the women—or men—are quiet, intelligent, modest. Wise. In the realistic world … the women are very active, comic, positive. They have a sense of humor. The protagonist’s mind is split between these totally different worlds and he cannot choose which to take. I think that’s one of the main motifs in my work. It’s very apparent in Hard-Boiled Wonderland.
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist is advised on when to be active and when to be passive by Mr. Honda, a channeler and acquaintance of Toru’s father-in-law whom the couple are obliged to visit monthly. Mr. Honda also advises Toru on his job search.
“Legal work might be the wrong thing for you, sonny,” said Mr. Honda one day….
“Yep, it might. The law presides over things of this world, finally. The world where shadow is shadow and light is light, yin is yin and yang is yang, I’m me and he’s him. ‘I am me/He is him:/Autumn eve.’ But you don’t belong to that world, sonny. The world you belong to is above that or below that.”
“Which is better?” I asked, out of simple curiosity. “Above or below?”
“It’s not that either one is better,” he said…. “It’s not a question of better or worse. The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness. ‘I am he and/He is me”/Spring nightfall.’ Abandon the self, and there you are.” (51)
Toru tries to follow this advice, but it becomes increasing difficult to distinguish between reality and dreams. Dreams, in fact, become lived experiences. Possibly inspired by Doris Lessing’s Memoir of a Survivor, we find that Murakami’s protagonist is also able to project himself through walls, but into situations that have real consequences.
As I suggested earlier, Murakami is heavily indebted to Hawthorne, in particular his short story entitled “The Birthmark.” After deciding to descend into the dry well behind the abandoned house, Toru undergoes a transformational experience and finds himself left with a mark in the shape of a tiny hand on his cheek. Much later, he discovers that he has become a healer.
Commenting on Murakami’s influences, in his New York Times 1997 book review, Jamie James comments:
Parts of ”The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” have the bluntness of Hemingway, and the characters frequently speak to each other in noirish riddles. Yet the novel’s biggest debt is to Kafka, whose influence may have filtered down to Murakami by way of Kobo Abe, Murakami’s great category-smashing predecessor. The pervasive atmosphere of alienation in Murakami’s work bears a much closer affinity to the waking dreams of the German Jew in Prague than it does to the belligerent angst of the American Gen-Xers.
A Japanese Kafka? Quite possibly as one of his later novels is entitled Kafka on the Shore. Somewhat like Kafka’s K, Toru’s experiences are not all positive. One thread involving his cold-hearted brother-in-law leads to the uncovering of political corruption and tales of brutal rape. A background story of Japan’s involvement in Manchuria during WWII also takes on a prominent role and contains scenes of shocking violence and cruelty. Murakami weaves together all these mysterious and varied threads, creating a strong impression of modern Japan and its buried traumas. Not all is black — as the cat does come back. Rather than include too many spoilers, let’s just say this is postmodern fiction at its best.