The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin
Vintage International/Random Books, 1997
Softcover, 607 pages
Sinking Deep into A Murakami World
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle starts out as a mystery story. Its protagonist, Toru Okada, 30, has just left his job in favour of lounging around the house, performing a few domestic duties and thinking about what he should do with his life. He is roused to action only reluctantly by the disappearance of his cat (which is named after his detested brother-in-law Noboru Wataya), but his investigative initiatives take on more purpose and direction when his wife Kumiko also disappears.
As Kumiko’s absence extends from days to weeks to months, Toru attempts so sift the facts surrounding her departure out of a series of surreal encounters with people who may or may not have information that he needs—including an anonymous siren who attempts to seduce him on the phone; a clairvoyant named Malta Kano who wears a red vinyl hat (and her sister Creta, who was once “defiled” by Wataya); a bright but emotionally detached 16-year-old neighbour, May Kasahara, who is responsible for a recent motorcycle accident that killed her boyfriend and slightly injured her; a henchman of Wataya’s; a man with no face; and a lieutenant named Mamiya who comes to Toru’s house bearing a gift for him from Mr. Honda–an old friend of Kumiko’s family who has just died.
Gradually Toru learns that Kumiko, to whom he has been married for six years but from whom he has been growing more and more estranged for reasons he does not understand, is alive, that she has left him by choice, and that she refuses to return. He resolves to get her back, a decision that requires him to dig deeply—gradually excavating a good deal of her family history—to find out why she left. Toru’s oblique, Zen-like journey to restore his marriage ultimately forces him to learn to recognize himself and Kumiko in a variety of guises, to take on no less a challenge than the wresting of good from evil, and to attempt to learn on an individual basis a few of those lessons of history that seem to elude civilizations as a whole.
The war stories Mr. Honda and Lieutenant Mamiya tell Toru Okada are central to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Toru thinks of them at first as though they were “fairy tales,” but in fact these sections of the book have a realism to them that sets them apart in tone and quality from the frame of the story–the surreal present-time search by Toru for Kumiko. The stories Mr. Honda and Lt. Mamiya relate are vivid, difficult to read, and unforgettable.
During the war, Mr. Honda was a noncommissioned officer with the Kwantung Army. He lost most of his hearing in a battle against the Russians at Nomonhan, on the border between Outer Mongolia and Manchuria. Later in his life, he became a fortune-teller—his talents for prognostication having been apparent even during the war. During several visits to Mr. Honda’s home early in his marriage, visits that occurred at the insistence of Kumiko’s father, Toru not only became steeped in details about a Nomonhan—a battle the Japanese had fought with great bravery and ferocity but had ultimately lost—he also received a personal warning from Mr. Honda to be “careful about water.”
When Mr. Honda dies, he leaves a request that Lt. Mamiya, with whom Honda had worked on a secret mission during the war and subsequently stayed in touch, deliver a wrapped box to Toru Okada. This turns out to have been a pretext (the box is empty) which facilitates Mamiya’s continuing the war story that Mr. Honda has begun. The story reveals truths about Kumiko’s family to Toru that he could not otherwise have learned, and thereby indirectly helps him solve the mystery of Kumiko’s disappearance.
One of the most dramatic incidents Mamiya describes involves his being left for dead at the bottom of a dry well by a Russian soldier during the mission in Manchuria. His description of what it was like to spend 24 hours in that well, and to assume that he would die there, haunts Toru (and the reader) for the remainder of the book.
Now and then, I heard the sound of the wind. As it moved across the surface of the earth, the wind made an uncanny sound at the mouth of the well, a sound like the moan of a woman in tears in a far-off world.
But after a cold, desolate night, suddenly “the light of the sun shot down from the opening of the well like some kind of revelation. […] The well was filled with brilliant light. A flood of light. […] The darkness and cold were swept away in a moment, and warm gentle sunlight enveloped my naked body.”
Toru is, in fact, so overcome by the imagery—in all its spiritual and redemptive, if fleeting, glory—that he climbs down into a dry well at an abandoned house at the end of his own street as part of his search for the truths about himself and Kumiko that he is unable to discover on the surface of the planet.
Haruki Murakami is a brilliant writer. His imagination is apparently both boundless and utterly grounded, giving his fiction layer after layer of meaning and reverberation. His deployment of precise detail creates a realistic atmosphere out of the most bizarre and unlikely circumstances – not only when he is depicting scenes of war in excruciating detail, but also in conveying the bizarre and almost unbelievable minutae of a mundane if ludicrous life: such as the day Toru goes to work with May Kasahara, who is employed by a toupee company, and spends the entire afternoon helping her count the number of men entering and leaving a subway station (A) who are really bald, (B) whose hair is very thin, or (C) who have lost a little hair.
When the Mistukoshi clock across the street signalled four o’clock we ended our survey and went back to the Dairy Queen for a cup of coffee. It had not been strenuous work but I found my neck and shoulders strangely stiff.
With this kind of carefully rendered detail we are able to imagine each scene clearly, so how can we possibly doubt the basic premise of the oddball situations in which Toru becomes involved? On every page of this long and fascinating novel, Murakami uses detail to build a credibility that ultimately sustain a whole world of increasingly improbable circumstances. On both superficial and metaphysical planes, these circumstances lead, gradually–and perhaps surprisingly–to an entirely satisfying conclusion.
In his lassitude at the outset of the novel, Toru begins to notice a bird that makes a wind-up sound in a tree near his house, and connects that bird in his mind to a stone bird near the dry well in the abandoned house at the end of his street. Soon after that he is implicated in the bird imagery himself when May Kasahuri begins to call him “Mr. Wind-Up Bird.” In stellar post-modernist fashion there is a novel within this novel that is also called The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but Murakami avoids the cool ironic distance that characterizes so much post-modernist literature; we are connected emotionally to Toru through his despair over his lost love. He cares about Kumiko, and we care about him.
Like some other great works of literature I can think of—Under the Volcano, Faust and Possession, for example—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is like a deep, mysterious, often-frightening dream. It cries out for some sort of Jungian interpretation, and leaves the reader changed, unable to leave it behind. Like those other books as well, because of the power of this novel’s enchantment, the connections it makes with the darker parts of the reader’s own psyche, and the meaning it casts on the world outside its pages, there is something enticing and even exciting about the inability to shake it off. Like a strangely seductive nightmare that is founded on moments of real terror, the temptation is to pick it up once more–right now—to re-enter the dream again.
(Note: I have just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s newest book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir. If you are a novelist or a runner—or, better yet, both—you will love it.)