In the midst of death, we are in life

Norwegian Wood

Three friends, Toru, Naoko and Kizuki, have all reached seventeen years of age; Kizuki will never grow older. He commits suicide, inexplicably, after a companionable evening playing pool with Toru. Naoko, Kizuki's girlfriend, appears normal but harbours an inconsolable inertia, dragging her towards death and Kizuki. Toru and Naoko find themselves drawn together as survivors of the tragedy, but after consummating their relationship they head off to different universities in 1960s Japan.

Naoko soon finds herself in a summer-of-love sanatorium, a half-way house between reality and mental institutions, that eventually proves to be an insufficient substitute for either of those environments. Meanwhile, Toru finds himself on the voyage of largely undisturbed studenthood: coasting past the rocky cliffs of unsuccessful student revolutions; idling on the tantalising, sunkissed beaches of his friend Nagasawa's hedonistic sex-filled lifestyle; always returning to the safe, regimented harbours of his vaguely sinister dormitory life; and eventually pursuing the treasures of fellow traveller Midori. She, a confusing, confused, lively fellow student, quickens troubled waters much as Naoko seems to calm them down. Toru finds himself pulled between the two conflicting goals of Midori and Naoko, two possible waystations in his young life: but which can really lead him to his final destination, his true self?

In capturing the spirit of the decade, Norwegian Wood finds an authentic voice which nonetheless acts to distance itself from the modern-day reader. While its original release in 1987 might have swept up thirty- to fifty-somethings who could have related almost immediately to its weird atmosphere of free love, spirituality and politics, its English translation in 2003 seems a little too far away to leave so much of its assumptions unexplained. The sheer amount of sex that Toru indulges in, with friends and the friends of his girlfriends, frequently reaches Carry-On proportions. Naoko's sanatorium is frankly ridiculous in its lack of rules, its self-declared equalization of doctor and patient, the openness of house it operates. It's the sort of social experiment that, were it to actually have existed, would be famous or infamous, depending on its ultimate fate.

But while these details do occasionally jar---sometimes quite strongly---the central story is nonetheless strong and supple. When Toru is quiet and contemplative, and his contemplations are not specifically detailed in his narration or in somewhat formalized correspondence, then his unspoken inner self commands profound sympathy from the reader. Toru's suppressed pain, his consternation, and his lack of awareness of the loss and lack of direction he is suffering from, waft intoxicatingly off the pages like the smell of patchouli; or, more appropriately, myrrh.

The novel ironically really comes alive as Toru sits at the bedside of Midori's dying father: Toru's own unashamed capacity for action leads him to eat and chat in front of the taciturn, fasting old man. The invalid is in turn encouraged to eat, and begins to talk in the urgent, cryptic monosyllables that are all his recent brain surgery will permit. From here Toru's life with Midori gathers a speed that contrasts with Naoko's (which is gradually slowing to a crawl) and Kizuki's (long since stalled in his fume-filled car). Indeed, Toru is surrounded on all sides by suicides, fatalities and mysterious, permanent disappearances, yet he himself is always flung forward under these pressures like soap squeezed in the hands, cutting across in defiance of the narrative currents that threaten to pull him back to those dangerous seventeen years of age, where Kizuki continues to wait for all this novel's players, arms extended in a terrible, bleak welcome.