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The Cultural Work of Norwegian Wood

The most important cultural work that Norwegian Wood does is to reconceive politics in terms of romance, which has led critics like Miyoshi to belittle the novel.51 But here is how Murakami’s reconception of the field results in a unique prise de position. He divided Toru’s love interest between Naoko, the girlfriend of his old friend, and the urbane Midori, his classmate at university. Then the old friend commits suicide, leaving Naoko distraught and Toru wondering “what if ...?” Toru and Naoko have an epistolary relationship, and he finally visits her in a mountain sanitarium. But his affections turn to her older companion, Reiko, a transitional and translational character, who can access the darkly imagined depression of Naoko while endorsing Midori (whose name means “green”). Reiko is a variant of the earlier Gatekeeper, setting the field for Toru.

The student protest comes alive through Toru’s friendships with Nagasawa, Storm Trooper, and Itah, but those relationships all disappoint him. Then Naoko commits suicide, leaving Toru, as the novel ends, to call out to Midori, invoking all that is lost in passing youth. Sentimental? Yes. The tone resembles that of Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Girl.” But the novel translates generational conflict from the register of politics to that of romance, where it is marketable.52

Murakami borrowed some of the narrative structure of The Great Gatsby for Norwegian Wood. Both are told in retrospect by first-person narrators who initially lack confidence in their abilities to render events as experienced. Nick Caraway begins Gatsby by remembering his father’s advice ironically but sympathetically, a resort to fundamentals that will rescue the worth of Jay Gatsby from the “swamp” of his sordid murder later. Toru begins by wondering, “What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?”53 This uncertain first-person confidence sharing, recalling Catcher in the Rye, was relatively new to Japanese readers.54 It refracts the romance of the American novel through the lens of dark limbo that Murakami has used since his earliest work.

Gesture is often as significant as speech in Japan, and Murakami makes brilliant use of the famous scene in which Gatsby stretches his arms toward a green light on the dock at Daisy’s house. He replicates this setting in one scene and uses the image of the light in two others. But the point is not the dream that Gatsby pursued; the gesture is rather to create a fetish of the foreign. Toru sees Naoko’s light:

Where the road sloped upwards beyond the trees, I sat and looked towards the building where Naoko lived. It was easy to tell her room. All I had to do was find the one window towards the back where a faint light trembled. I focused on that point of light for a long, long time. It made me think of something like the final pulse of a soul’s dying embers. I wanted to cup my hands over what was left and keep it alive. I went on watching it the way Jay Gatsby watched that tiny light on the opposite shore night after night.55

In fact, Gatsby did not watch Daisy’s dock “night after night,” but when he did, his gesture expressed belief in an “orgastic future” rather than “the soul’s dying embers.”

Toru’s taste positions him as conscious of a stylistic difference between American and Japanese writers that is critically important: the former are vernacular, sometimes lyric, rule-breakers; the latter are classic Japanese formalists. Birnbaum has explained this split as between the jun bungaku (high art) and fuikkushon (fiction) writers.56 Readers are invited to class Toru and his creator with the Americans—as foreign, informal, and new, like the Beatles’ song.

I liked to read my favorite books again and again. At that time, my favorites were Truman Capote, John Updike, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, but it seemed that no one in my lectures or the dorm liked these books. They liked Kazumi Takahashi, Kenzaburo Oe, Yukio Mishima, or contemporary French novelists.57

In the final analysis, Toru is the gatekeeper of student protest, which is a brilliant insight into what Fitzgerald did with Nick Carraway for the “Roaring Twenties.” The instrument of Murakami’s close critique is largely Midori, Toru’s new girlfriend, who is disappointed with her folk-singing club’s superficial involvement in politics: “Everybody would use big words and pretend they knew what was going on. But I would ask questions whenever I didn’t understand something ... nobody was willing to explain anything to me. Far from it, they got really angry. Can you believe it?”58 Midori’s view is conveniently outside Toru. He chooses her against them. Readers are constantly reminded that Midori is “a real, live girl.”59

What the texts actually mean is of no concern to Midori either, but by focusing on their interpretation she questions the authenticity of the other students. This seems to reflect a skeptical and ultimately conservative view of social change, especially as Midori continues: “They all read the same books and they all spout the same slogans, and they love listening to John Coltrane and seeing Pasolini movies.”60 Readers may note the way in which a “real knowledge” of foreign culture is implicitly invoked to distinguish what Murakami calls “commitment” from mere “solidarity.” You can’t have “commitment” without authenticity, which depends on validity of interpretation. For that we must trust Murakami, who knows the doxa, just as we trusted the ultimately conservative vision of Nick Carraway. This is Murakami doing political work under cover of romance.

Murakami may misconstrue the Japanese student movement, but the way that he reframes this history is key in recruiting his readership. His gatekeeper places the “committed” and personal over the political, which was useful at the onset of Japanese consumerism. He reads the student movement and then Midori’s experience in it, shifting the register of authenticity from the former to the later. It is a two-stage reading, not quite a double denial (because, among other things, it is inside a fiction). But in this elaborate pas-de-deux with readers of his generation, Murakami opens a space in which the historic can be re-read as “personal commitment.” And, by the millions, the readers have shrewdly understood that they were shrewdly forgiven.61

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