I have been meaning to read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for years, and I finally, finally did! It was well worth the 607 pages of dense text and subject matter. I have to admit that this novel was not a particularly uplifting read, but then again I’m not sure Murakami’s works ever are. Truth be told, the only other one I’ve read is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and I found some striking similarities between the two books: an interest in shadows and other selves, the idea of another world that’s connected to our world (and can be accessed through underground places such as dry wells and abandoned subway tubes), and the notion that there is something very dark and dangerous lurking beneath the surface of humanity.
That being said, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle deserves its own recognition. It’s a force to be reckoned with, and Murakami has done such an incredible job of creating a compelling mystery that I couldn’t put it down (even in my current reading-slump). The main character, Toru Okada, is an odd fellow. Another character describes him as thoroughly “ordinary” — to such an extent that his ordinariness becomes unordinary — which is part of his likability. You just want the guy to succeed, if for no other reason than his life is dull enough without all the problems he’s been faced with (a cat gone missing, then his wife leaving him) and you’d like to see him get something good for once. In fact, the cast of characters is entirely unusual, and yet strangely likable or creepy, depending on whether they’re on the side of light or dark. May Kasahara is perhaps the most lovable character — a morbid young girl who’s constantly coming to Okada’s rescue while trying to leave him and his world behind.
So this idea of worlds. It’s everywhere in the novel! Everyone’s always talking about being part of another world, feeling like they don’t belong in their world, thinking that their world seems suddenly unrecognizable — and Okada gets caught up in this by literally crossing back and forth between his world and another (parallel?) world that closely resembles his. (I wonder if this is an early indicator of the ideas that led Murakami to write 1Q84? Hard to say, since I haven’t had the chance to read that one just yet.) The constant questioning of realities makes the reader question how we humans define our realities: with our senses, by our feelings, through others’ perceptions of us, according to what the media would like us to believe, etc. This thread underlies much of the novel, just like the thread about how the past continues to inform the present. Murakami is especially interested in a few specific histories surrounding WWII — most notably Japan’s involvement in Manchuria and Nomonhan, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and the ways these histories continue to effect their survivors as well as the younger generations whose parents’ lives were changed as a result of these conflicts. Alongside these two threads is the concept of inter-connectedness. Murakami is constantly creating unexpected and obscure connections between the characters (a baseball bat here, a mark on the cheek there) that suggests some larger connection between past and present. Perhaps it’s the kind of connection that renders individuals insignificant, and emphasizes the recurrence of archetypes (which is echoed by this underlying idea that there are some evils that cannot be killed, no matter how true our aim or how pure our intentions).
Frankly, there’s so much going on in this novel that I’m at a bit of a loss here. I feel like I could write for days about the book, which of course is the mark of a good read. It’s complex, it’s interesting, it’s compelling, and it makes you think. Murakami’s use of magical realism gets your wheels turning about some of the darker sides of our own world. There is a deep creepiness that lurks beneath the surface of much of the novel, and its constant presence is unsettling; it causes your mind to linger on some of the unpleasant and troubling aspects of our own reality that it’s so much easier to ignore or leave unexamined. I think that’s part of Murakami’s intent: to make you think about the things we don’t like to think about in order to really consider the past so it doesn’t continue to play out in the present and future. This is a serious read and a definite time commitment, but it’s well worth it.
GOOD FOR: Readers who want a book that’ll really make ’em think about the world; people interested in the idea of dual realities (or even dualism in our own reality); anyone who enjoys a good, complex mystery or puzzler.
BAD FOR: Those interested in a quick or light read; readers looking for a clean ending (or a happily-ever-after, for that matter); anyone who’s easily disturbed (there’s one especially vivid torture scene that is going to stick with me for longer than I’d like).