The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: Haruki Murakami's masterpiece

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle  (ねじまき鳥クロニクル Nejimaki-dori Kuronikuru)

  • Author:  Haruki Murakami
  • Rank:  #25
  • Published:  1995; 1997 (English translation)
  • Publisher:  Shinchosha; Random House (English translation)
  • Pages:  607
  • First Line:  “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”
  • Last Line:  “In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Yomiuri Literary Award
  • Film:  none
  • First Read:  Fall 2001

The Novel:  I was at my friend Jill’s apartment.  We had just gone on a long drive to find a Scholtzky’s for lunch and I was killing some time before picking Veronica up from work.  I was looking through her bookshelves because Jill had as good taste in literature as anyone I had ever met.  Looking through her shelves was a great way to find something to read – just being on the shelf was like a recommendation almost in and of itself.  My eyes were drawn to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  Jill and I had a friend, JB, at work, who was a huge Murakami fan, but I had never read him.  So I asked Jill if I could borrow it and I took it with me.  Then, waiting in the parking lot for Veronica I began to read.  Veronica eventually had to tap on the window to let me know she was there.

Two days later, I gave the book back to Jill at work.  “You’re already done,” she asked in amazement?  I told her that not only had I already finished it, but I had gone down to the Burnside store and picked myself up a copy.  Well, that was a decade ago.  And I’ve read it four more times since and before long, Murakami had entered my list of authors who deserve to have their books bought in hardcover without even knowing anything about them.  They are about pure story-telling.  You never know what is going to happen, what dark road (or well) you will find yourself in, what scars might find their way on to your body before your journey’s end.  But they are always worth the journey.  Through a dozen novels and dozens of short stories, he has taken us on a journey through modern Japan that is always unexpected.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle sucks you in from the first line.  It’s not just that someone is standing there making himself an early lunch.  All of the details immediately come to life.  You realize he is out of work, that he is not just making lunch, but is very specific about what he is making and what music he is listening to, and how well the two of them work together.  Those are two details that will often come to life in Murakami’s books – his love of food and music.  He rarely ever mentions background music without being very specific about what the characters are hearing.  It makes the scene jump to life, makes the music pour off the page and the very smell of the food floats into the air.

Then there is the phone call.  Poor Toru Okada’s life will change drastically with the increasing phone calls, with the women who take over his life (yet, Okada does not hate the women in his life – in fact, he comes to very much love too many of them; Murakami’s work can be linked in the men who hate women and the amount of violence they inflict upon them, something Murakami sees in modern Japan; while Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy was originally titled Men Who Hate Women, it exploits that violence in horrific ways while Murakami makes the same men appear crystal clear without the need for the horrific violence that is the standard of genre works – this is why his 1Q84 is a superior alternative to the Larsson books).  Okada will find himself drawn to a wide array of characters, all of whom seem to have their own story to tell (and one of whom will actually reappear in the strange alternative world of 1Q84).  In the manner of their stories, we not only learn much about their characters (like when Creta Kano explains “Powers bestowed by heaven should not be exchanged for wordly goods.”), but we also get drawn into all of their stories.

The most fascinating story is the story told by Lieutenant Mamiya of his time in Manchuria.  On a secret mission that reveals much about the Japanese character, both in modern Japan and during the years leading up to the Second World War, he witnesses horrific acts of violence and represses them, only to draw them forth at the request of Toru Okada.  “Why did we have to risk our lives to fight for this barren piece of earth devoid of military or industrial value, this vast land where nothing lived but wisps of grass and biting insects?” Mamiya asks when he is on his mission across the Mongolian border.  “To protect my homeland, I too would fight and die.  But it made no sense to met at all to sacrifice my one and only life for the sake of this desolate patch of soil from which no shaft of grain would ever spring.”  But what he goes through scars him and he manages to pass on his scars to Toru Okada.

Scars, both physical and emotional, are a major part of the book.  Creta Kano has own problems with adjusting to life: “A life without pain: it was the very thing I had dreamed of for years, but now that I had it, I couldn’t find a place for myself within it.”  And poor Lieutenant Mimaya never really escapes from his captivity in Mongolia: “I feel as if, in the intense light that shone for a mere ten of fifteen seconds a day in the bottom of the well, I burned up the very core of my life, until there was nothing left.”  Toru Okada will make his own descent into a well and be scarred in a much different manner.

I have not said much about the story, but that is deliberate.  Part of what makes Murakami such a wonder to read is that journey through the darkness (even in his non-fiction we get that journey and his fascinating book about the Aum Shirikyo attacks is appropriately titled Underground) takes you places you never expected.  In his best novels, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, it is the journey, not the destination that is the point.  Murakami is first and foremost a storyteller, one of the most gifted at work in the field of literature.  When so many books seem to be telling the same stories over and over again, we can always look to Murakami for a fascinating new story.

This review, these brief words of synopsis, this bare introduction to the characters, to the gift of Murakami’s story-telling it is nothing more than what you might find on the surface.  The rest is underground, in the passages, in the dark.

note:  All quotes are from the translation by Jay Rubin