Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ arrived in print in 1987. It was a phenomenal bestseller in his home country, catapulting him into the big time. Impressive international sales also saw his fame and influence burgeon. What is it about his tale of small, intimate, fragile relationships that has captured the imaginations of readers across the world and from different cultures for three and a half decades?
‘Norwegian Wood’ is told from the perspective of Toru Watanabe, who, from his position as an adult, reflects on his time as a student in Tokyo in the late 1960s. Despite the backdrop of political and social unrest and student demonstrations, the story follows the rather more personal development of Watanabe’s friendships and sexual relationships with several women, some of whom become more prominent in his life than others.
The main thread of the book follows the bond between Watanabe and Naoko, who become close, and more so after the suicide of their mutual friend, Kizuki. Watanabe had believed the others to have been lovers, and is surprised to discover that Naoko is still a virgin when they later become intimate. However, Naoko’s delicate mental state ensures that for prolonged periods she is remote from Watanabe’s life whilst she seeks therapy in an asylum. Although they correspond through letters, Watanabe is youthful, restless and ultimately, unfaithful. He hits it off with another young woman, the outgoing yet naive Midori, and also becomes close to Reiko, an older woman who befriends Naoko in the hospital.
It’s easy to see how ‘Norwegian Wood’ was revelatory and perhaps even somewhat controversial when it was first published. The themes of suicide and the delicacy of mental health are prevalent. They weren’t much spoken of in Japanese society at the time, and were similarly taboo in the West. Japanese culture has also traditionally been more patriarchal, and in presenting three very different women, all of whom fall for Watanabe to a greater or lesser extent, Murakami writes with a startling sexual openness and freedom, whilst simultaneously largely remaining within the boundaries of male-dominated custom.
The sexual licentiousness at the heart of the story may present something of a conundrum for modern readers, especially post the “me too” movement. Undoubtedly, back in 1987, these components would have been viewed as liberating. The minutely-detailed descriptions of sexual acts, especially in relation to what is done to Watanabe’s penis by various women, may delight or repulse, to taste. But what may represent more of a challenge to some readers is the nagging feeling that in writing Proustian details of sexual conquests, truth can be found more in the author’s pursuance of a personal fantasy rather than in the actions of the female characters. Midori, for example, is surprised by the male attention generated when she wears a revealing short skirt. Similarly, Naoko and Reiko nod one another along as they signal their shared interest in Watanabe. Their actions feels optimistic rather than realistic on the part of the author. The effect over time might be to create a coolness between the narrator and the reader.
At some distance of time, as well as continents of geographical space, ‘Norwegian Wood’ nevertheless kept me thoroughly engaged throughout, even where the protagonist is unappealing. There is a transcendent power to Murakami’s prose that reaches out to disparate readers. His unapologetically hedonistic protagonist retains the power to provoke, and perhaps even to shock. Although remarkably free of incident, the book is breezy and its developments intriguing. The balance of the story unfolds neatly and satisfyingly. Pleasingly, the title that borrows from the name of a song by The Beatles is explained.
The Folio Society edition of Haruki Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ is translated by Jay Rubin and is illustrated by Daniel Liévano. The scarlet red cloth-bound hard cover and slip case recall the Japanese flag, and the gold-embossed illustration on the cover is a pastoral scene evoking traditional Japanese art. Dedicated readers of Murakami’s work will want to experience this lavish edition for themselves. For readers unfamiliar with Murakami’s canon, the unusually straightforward romance remains one of his most popular titles, ensuring that ‘Norwegian Wood’ is a good book through which to discover the prominent international author. See also our review of The Folio Society’s edition of Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore‘, with which ‘Norwegian Wood’ is stylistically twinned.
Publisher: The Folio Society Publication date: October 2022 Buy ‘Norwegian Wood’