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Desert Island Novel to Read and Read and Read Again #1: Haruki Murakami's "Norwegian Wood"

[Originally published November 28, 2008]

I once had a girl
Or should I say, she once had me

I was living in Osaka, Japan, teaching at a conversation school in a place called Takarazuka the first time I read "Norwegian Wood." When I reached the last page of the novel, after reading its pitch-perfect last line, due to an utter unwillingness, a near inability, to leave the beautiful world Murakami had created, I proceeded to immediately flip back to the first page and start all over again. That was seven years ago. I've read it again since. More than once. I've also gone on to read and buy every book of Murkakami's translated into English, including his short story collections, and non-fiction.

Why? Because "Norwegian Wood" hit a place in my soul, it became a mate to my soul, a heart to beat along next to mine.

The Beatles song Murakami's 1987 novel is named after is on surface listen a pretty two minute ditty. A pretty, but sad, thing. The tone of Murakami's novel has something similar gently pulling the reader through. It is also equally deceptive to the song in how simple it seems, how easy it reads. Yet, beneath a book that reads like almost pure autobiography, and a song that listens like effortless melody, lie layered artful structure, and things thematically heavier than meet the eye.

The Beatles' song that is so melodically sweet ends with a man taking revenge on a girl who would not sleep with him, by burning down the furniture in her room.

Murakami's narrator does no such thing. But his book too juxtaposes a gentle tone with themes of longing, of loss and of what can and will never be.

To be intentionally vague (no plot spoilage here) and very brief, "Norwegian Wood," set in the Tokyo of the 1960s, is a love story. Basically it is a sad story. Most all the love in the book is of the unrequited variety, and there is more than one suicide. The book has much to lend itself to feeling blue, like Miles Davis on his muted trumpet. But for every lonely moment, you get a scene with a character like Reiko, a friend like Reiko, a woman who should be tragic considering her history but who, by the time we meet her in a sort of sanatorium for sad or screwed up people, turns out to be that rock solid salt-of-the-earth type who seems like the mentally healthiest person in the book. Better still, though no longer the piano virtuoso she once was, she plays a mean guitar, Beatles song included.

The magic of Murakami's "Norwegian Wood," is that a book so focused on sad subject manner manages to have what all books need to be great - a sense of adventure. Not, of course, in the children's literature sense of the word, but in the 'you've gone off to another place' sense.

... the bus plunged into a chilling cedar forest. The trees might have been old growth the way they towered over the road, blocking out the sun and covering everything in gloomy shadows. The breeze flowing into the bus's open windows turned suddenly cold, its dampness sharp against the skin. The valley road hugged the river bank, continuing so long through the trees it began to seem as if the whole world had been buried for ever in cedar forest - at which point the forest ended, and we came to an open basin surrounded by mountain peaks. Broad, green farmland spread out in all directions, and the river by the road looked bright and clear. A single thread of white smoke rose in the distance...

Best of all is the poetry is in the book's balance, as alongside depression and suicide, you also get a character like Midori - one of my favourite in all modern literature.

At 5:30 Midori said she had to go home and make dinner. I said I would take a bus back to my dorm, and saw her as far as the station.
"Know what I want to do now?" Midori asked me as she was leaving.
"I have absolutely no idea what you could be thinking," I said.
"I want you and me to be captured by pirates. Then they strip us and press us together face to face all naked and wind these ropes around us."
"Why would they do a thing like that?"
"Perverted pirates," she said.
"You're the perverted one," I said."

And really, what else do you need to help you cope with death, and the kind of love that will never be, but perverted pirates?

[Click J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye for Desert Island Book to read and read and read again # 2]