The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
Your first encounter with an author can be a formative experience it is difficult to recover from, whether that's positive or negative. The first book I read by Murakami was Sputnik Sweetheart, which is awful. It put me off for a long time. On my wife's insistence I read his collection of stories, The Elephant Vanishes (which was adapted into a stage show by Complicite), the shorter format making much more sense of his surreal prose. My wife recently read this novel and placed it in her top 10. That, together with the fact that many regard it as his masterwork meant it was time for me to plunge back in and see if I sank or swam.
It was a fairly unsettling start as I read the opening chapter. I had this creeping sense of déjà vu, that I had read this before (a not inappropriate feeling given what follows in the book itself). This turned out to be because I had read it before; the opening story in The Elephant Vanishes and this opening chapter are one and the same, albeit with some alterations. In fact the phrase 'wind-up bird' was coined by the translator of that original story, Alfred Birnbaum.
There was small stand of trees nearby, and from it you could hear the mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring. We called it the wind-up bird. Kumiko gave it the name. We didn't know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn't bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighbourhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world.
Our narrator, Toru Okada, is about to have that world turned upside down. He is a man living in a kind of limbo, having quit his job, and is waiting to find the right thing to move onto next. Whilst his wife, Kumiko, works, he prepares food, does housework and searches for their cat who has recently gone missing. Behind their house runs an alley, sealed off from the street, which allows him to search the yards of his neighbours. An unsettling atmosphere is created early with one house which is abandoned and rumoured to be cursed after the suicides of several of its previous occupants. As he walks down the alley he meets May, a sixteen year old girl and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. She will be just the first of many characters, principally women, who enter Okada's life as his search continues (and not just for his for his cat).
This is a large book and as its title suggests it is made up of several documents; not just the narration of Okada but letters and stories from other characters. Many of these people are reluctant to give their real names to Okada so we have the alienating device of characters named arbitrarily, like Nutmeg and Cinnamon or in the case of Malta Cano and her sister Creta, named after islands of the Mediterranean (which have played an important part in their lives). Our hero is always operating in the dark somewhat (for one large chunk of the book which he spends at the bottom of a well -you'll have to read to understand why- this is literally so), one step behind what is going on around him and this was a frustrating experience at times given the obtuse nature of what Murakami gives us. Okada himself articulated my feelings on a shopping trip with 'Nutmeg'.
She did not offer any explanations and I did not ask for them. I simply did as I was told. This reminded me of several so-called art films I had seen in college. Movies like that never explained what was going on. Explanations were rejected as some kind of evil that could only destroy the films' 'reality'. That was one way of thinking, one way to look at things, no doubt, but it felt strange for me, as a real, live human being, to enter such a world.
Perhaps the most interesting sections of the book are those that deal with Japan's history before, during and after the Second World War. Lieutenant Mamiya relates to us first his experience on an intelligence mission along the borders of the Japanese Empire. It is a harrowing episode, horrific and terrifying, and has a profound impact on Okada, on the storyline and on us the reader. Mamiya's further testimony is intriguing and matched by that of Nutmeg, a woman who guides Okada through later sections of the book. In The Zoo Attack (previously published in The New Yorker) she describes the 'liquidation' of the zoo in Hsin-ching as Soviet troops close in. In this section Murakami shows brilliantly the confusion at the end of conflict, where no clear leadership is in control, and in the same way that these ragged soldiers struggle to deal with wild animals (one man amazed that war should give him the opportunity to shoot a tiger) we will see later the banality of meting out the same fate to human prisoners.
Most of the book however is written with an air of dream-like vagueness (creating an atmosphere similar to some of David Lynch's work) and in the same way that I don't find people recounting their dreams particularly interesting I found the quirkiness, the surreal imagery and the general rootlessness of the writing a bit like trying to catch hold of a balloon which the wind keeps gusting away. It's just this quality which so many of his fans admire, showing the alienation from contemporary life, but for me, as for Okada, it feels strange 'as a real, live human being, to enter such a world.' That said. I'm feeling slightly less dismissive of Murakami as an author. He may not be my cup of tea but there's no denying that with its many different elements this novel is a rich brew.