The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
After reading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, I really couldn’t wait to read more of his work. Notably, I’d heard the most about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, so I grabbed that (along with, cough, a few others) and read that one first.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an insane book. Both in its genius and in the way it breaks virtually every rule I have been taught about creative writing. On the surface, it is about Toru Okada, a man in his mid-thirties who has quit his job as a lawyer to stay at home and figure out what he wants to do with his life. He’s afforded this luxury because his wife Kumiko has a successful career of her own which adequately pays the bills.
Their cat, named after Kumiko’s brother Noboru Wataya (a rising political star who Toru loathes), disappears and Kumiko is upset about this, hiring a mysterious woman named Malta Kano to assist in the cat’s recovery. Soon after, Kumiko herself disappears, eventually getting word to him that she’s been unfaithful and wants to separate. This leads to a LOT of odd happenings, mostly dark and mystical. They include Toru befriending an amusing, morbid 16-year old neighborhood girl, a Lieutenant from WWII who has witnessed numerous war crimes, a psychic prostitute, wells, baseball bats and a litany of other things.
The titular wind-up bird, a bird whose song sounds like someone winding a spring, appears throughout the book (including most notably as Toru’s self-chosen nickname by May Kasahara, the sixteen-year old girl), as do other things like the song to the Thieving Magpie, a blue-black mark on several people’s faces. The story is essentially of people – Kumiko and Toru, as well as many tertiary characters – coming to grips with the responsibility of themselves, understanding their own darkness and doing what is necessary to move forward in life.
Not all of the pieces of the puzzle make sense initially, and others are never neatly wrapped up at the end of the book. It’s very easy to see how this could (should?) drive some readers mad, and be unsatisfying. And in truth, there are questions I’d love to know the answer to – like Infinite Jest, it seems likely there are online groups to discuss some of these things, but I’m not quite willing to do that, as I’d rather stew on these things myself or let them stay unsolved.
Murakami is indeed a very talented writer, using simple prose to discuss the surreal, and adding an almost palpable level of darkness and menace. I read a review by Laura Miller on Salon.com where she referred to him as “Paul Auster with a heart,” and that feels about right (and is unsurprisingly probably one reason I like his writing so much.) I will continue to read his works, even if I know I won’t always understand everything.
On a related note, while reading this book I was (and as I write this, still am) a bit swept up in a somewhat older CD, Stellastarr*’s Harmonies for the Haunted. The music fits this book beautifully, and the lyrics to “Lost In Time” felt so appropriate that I kept hearing them through my head as I leafed through pages:
I tried to say I miss you tonight
And they claim you've already died
But the truth is that we're lost in time
We're lost in time
We're lost in time
We're losing time
These haunted dreams are brushed aside
We'll meet again
I doubt they are avid Murakami readers, but the themes of their songs made this reading experience even better. I look forward to reading more of his work, and recommend both of those I've read to anyone who enjoys good literature with a surreal element.
It's not a perfect book, but it tries to be, and that's pretty important all on its own.