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The New Canon: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

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The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

“The Orient,” Edward Said writes at the beginning of his oft-cited study Orientalism, “was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.” Here is a formula, and a very familiar one. Yet one could easily apply these same descriptors in summing up the fictive—and very non-formulaic—world of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most famous novelist and one of the most compelling authors of recent times.

Are these recurring elements imposed by the author’s self-imposed Western notions?—the jazz-loving Murakami, after all, is markedly Americanized, a translator of US books into Japanese who taught at Princeton and Tufts. On the other hand, this writer seems to derive his sense of “otherness”—another favorite Said term there—from the depths of his own psyche rather than from the free-floating ideologies of our time. Indeed, few novelists are less susceptible to reductive sociological frameworks, whether homegrown or imported from afar, than Haruki Murakami. In that great tradition of fiction, he creates his own universe, rather than borrows ours.

Uncanny, haunting, romantic, exotic. These elements were evident in Murakami’s early writings, notably his immensely successful novel Norwegian Wood—which sold four million copies in Japan after its 1987 publication. But his later works add large doses of fantasy and magical realism to the brooding J.D. Salinger-esque narratives and alienated young protagonists that had long been his calling card. Even before Norwegian Wood, he had dipped into the mystical with his Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. But since the publication of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami’s weaving together of urban realism and eerie fantasy has become his trademark style.

We still have the alienated young protagonist at the center of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Toru Okada has left his job as a “gofer” in a law firm, and instead of studying to pass the bar, he settles into a routine of housekeeping, doing laundry, buying groceries, cooking dinner and waiting for his wife Kumiko to come home from her work as editor of a health food magazine. But one day his wife doesn’t come home.

Okada’s passivity in the face of the collapse of his personal life is almost pathological. By nature, he would probably sit things out and let events take charge. But he finds that strange people track him down, and try to shake him out of his reveries.  Puzzling phone calls lead to an encounter with a woman named Malta Kano, who is a mystic and medium. She gives him advice but, clouded as it is in a typical Murakami fog, her guidenace is far from straightforward. “I believe you are entering a phase of your life in which many different things will occur . . . bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seems bad at first.”

And other people—invariably strange ones—also take an interest in our hero. Creta Kano, Malta’s younger sister, has plans for him that might change his life completely. His neighbor’s daughter, the attractive May Kasahara, might be his best ally or his most dangerous adversary—it’s hard to tell. Nutmeg Akasaka is another mystic, with healing powers that draw many influential people into her personal orbit. To some extent, Toru is caught up in the dreams and schemes of each of these women. They are akin to the type of visionary described by Saul Bellow’s Augie March, who are “each in his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role and sustain him in his make-believe.” The only different here is that make-believe and reality are fluid concepts in the universe of Haruki Murakami, and as as Toru Okada tries on the worldviews of his different friends, peculiar things begin to happen to him.

Not everyone who crosses his path is an intriguing woman. A strange old soldier, Lieutenant Mamiya, literally comes to his door to share a long, disturbing story about his activities in Outer Mongolia during the 1930s. This powerful interlude could stand alone as a novella, and its incorporation into the text of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where it shows up roughly one-third of the way into the book, indicates how willing our author is to disrupt traditional concepts of narrative flow. This too is part of Murakami’s typical arsenal of tricks, one more way of imparting a sense of dislocation to his books, a filtering through a dream (or nightmare) landscape that seems both real and unreal.

The other, even more central male character in this novel is Toru’s brother-in-law Noboru Wataya. As the book evolves, this disagreeable figure becomes poised as the antithesis and adversary of Okada. If Toru is indecisive and passive, Wataya is driven and power-hungry. If Toru is a failure in the eyes of the world, Wataya is a prodigious success. He has parlayed his notoriety as an author into fame as a media pundit, and now politics looms as his next arena of dominance.

Is the disappearance of Okada’s wife linked somehow to her brother? If so, how can Okada take on one of the most admired and influential individuals in society? A conflict between the two deepens as the book progresses, but in true Murakami fashion, it is a battle that takes place in a mystical quasi-alternative universe. Our hero finds that his own sense of mastery require a paradoxical increase of his own passivity—almost to the point of complete sensory deprivation. This part of the story is odd, even by Murakami’s loose standards of realism.

In truth, much of this book takes on an almost zen-like opaqueness, a resistance to logical categories and syllogistic thinking. Certain charged incidents and agents—confinement in the bottom of a well, a missing cat, a debonair man who hasn’t spoken since age six, an unlucky house, and the call of the recurring wind-up bird (yes, there is one)—each add to the growing weirdness of the tale. And, as always in Murakami, we have final resolution. But when you add it up, the numbers don’t really compute—not the way readers have come to expect from most novels. In a different age, this might have been Oriental “otherness.” Then again, in the future they might just label it as Murakami-esque.

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