Book review: 『ノルウェイの森』by Haruki Murakami

ノルウェイの森 (のるうぇいのもり)
Title: ノルウェイの森 (のるうぇいのもり)
First published: 1987
Published: 2004
Format: Bunko (two volumes)
Page Count: 600
Translation: Norwegian Wood, by Jay Rubin
限りない喪失と再生を描く究極の恋愛小説!暗く重たい雨雲をくぐり抜け、飛行機がハンブルク空港に着陸すると、天井のスピーカーから小さな音でビートルズの『ノルウェイの森』が流れ出した。僕は1969年、もうすぐ20歳になろうとする秋のできごとを思い出し、激しく混乱し、動揺していた。限りない喪失と再生を描き新境地を拓いた長編小説。

I don’t know much about Haruki Murakami’s books and this is the first of his novels that I read. Before that I had only read short stories in translation. I know that Norwegian Wood is the novel that made Murakami so popular, so I thought it would be a good idea to start with it.

Review

To be honest, I don’t think that 『ノルウェイの森』was a book for me. Reading it allowed me to understand why Haruki Murakami is so popular, and I understand why so many people love this novel. But it is just not the kind of books that I enjoy reading.

I think that there are different ways to read this novel. It is a love story, a coming of age novel, a story on depression, the picture of Japanese youth in the late 1960s… and because it allows different interpretations, Norwegian Wood is a great book. My own vision of the story and the characters kept changing during a single read. To me, this is the kind of book that is worth re-reading at different periods of one’s life.

The problem is that I was not particularly drawn to the story, and I could not feel enough sympathy for the female characters who surround our protagonist Watanabe. Because neither the plot nor the characters succeeded in really triggering my interest, I ended up focusing on Watanabe, our narrator, and read Norwegian Wood as a kind of character study.

The story is told from the first person perspective. With a first-person narration, I would expect to have some introspection, to have a privileged relation with the character/narrator and have a direct access to his thoughts and emotions.

But our narrator Watanabe never tells us what he thinks or how he feels. Even when unsettling things happen, he does not confide in the reader. It is as if the narrator was talking about another character, whose thoughts he could not access and had to deduce from his behaviour. It bothered me a lot in the beginning, and then I realised that it was maybe intended, that the adult Watanabe, whom we meet briefly at the beginning of the novel, was indeed looking at his younger self as an outsider.

The more I studied Watanabe’s character, the more obvious it became to me that he has a conflicting personality. There is a “spoiler” section at the end of this book review where I develop on Watanabe’s personality. You can read it if you have already read the book and are interested in knowing my interpretation of the novel.

Japanese level

『ノルウェイの森』is very easy to read. I used to think that Keigo Higashino was the easiest author I had read in Japanese, but I must say that Haruki Murakami is easier. I talk a little more about this is my reading journal of February.

In any case, I would definitely say that 『ノルウェイの森』is a good reading material for any N3-N2 learners or even aspiring N2 if you are motivated and like Murakami. As I said in my reading journal, I also think that you can tackle this novel sooner if you work with the translation.

Reading Challenge

One of my reading challenges is now completed!

My goal in reading 『ノルウェイの森』was to determine whether I like Haruki Murakami or not. I have only read some of his short stories before, and I have always felt a little anxious to not be able to grasp what makes his writings so special for many.

After reading 『ノルウェイの森』, I still don’t know whether I like Haruki Murakami or not. On the one hand, I didn’t really like the story nor the characters, but on the the other hand, I found the conflicting personality of Watanabe very interesting.

I heard people say that 『ノルウェイの森』was not the most representative work of Murakami, so maybe I will try another one of his works later…

Spoilers – Watanabe’s personality

To me, Watanabe has a conflicting personality, struggling between what he wants to be and what he really is.

The aspiring Jay Gatsby – Naoko

Naoko: どうしてだかはわからないけど、自分が深い森の中で迷っているような気になるの(…)一人ぼっちで寒くて、そして暗くって、誰も助けに来てくれなくて。

Watanabe aspires to be a new Jay Gatsby and pictures himself consumed by his love for Naoko (Daisy), while unconsciously taking pleasure in their impossibility to be together because it feeds his fiction. I think that this is the reason why he never tells Midori about Naoko and lets her believe that he is in love with a rich married woman. This makes him closer to Jay Gatsby and suits his fantasy better than the real depressive Naoko in her mental institution.

Watanabe is so wrapped up in his narcissistic identification with Gatsby that he is incapable to see the others for who they are. Either they serve the image he wants to have of himself (Naoko), or they don’t (Midori). In any case, he never tries to understand the other characters’ pain or distress, he just does not seem to care about others’ feelings.

As a result, he fails to understand that Naoko is a real character already deep into depression. He is strangely detached every time she breaks down in tears, and when Reiko sends him alarming news of Naoko’s state, he hardly reacts. Even though Naoko tells him how exclusive her relation with Kizuki was, he just does not understand (or does not care about) Naoko’s distress now that Kizuki is dead. Maybe he sees Kizuki as a Tom Buchanan?

As a result of his self-centered fiction and indifference to others, he tells Naoko about Midori in his letters. At that point, Naoko has already confided in him and committed herself to him. Isolated and far from solid social bounds, struggling to recover from Kizuki’s loss, knowing that Watanabe is hanging out with another girl must have been unsettling.

When Watanabe leaves his dormitory and moves in an apartment, his identification with Gatsby must have been strong and, similarly to Gatsby trying to attract Daisy in his newly purchased mansion, he repeatedly asks Naoko to come and live with him in his apartment, thus showing that he does not understand her at all. Once again, he does not see Naoko for herself, but as the female protagonist of his self-centered story.

After Naoko’s death, Watanabe’s fiction finally explodes when Reiko tells him about Naoko’s last days. Watanabe must have been shocked to learn that Naoko was planning to move in with Reiko, not him, and that she has burned his letters. For the first time, he is forced to see the real Naoko and realise that it does not fit the image he had built of her. If he had known this earlier, he would maybe have spared himself his one-month solitary travel.

The lonely Watanabe – Midori

Midori: でも私、淋しいのよ。ものすごく淋しいの。(…)これまでの二十年間の人生で、私ただの一度もわがままきいてもらったことないのよ。

Under his identification with Gatsby and his aspiring self, there is the real Watanabe, and these two personalities (the real one and the fictional one) are in conflict.

The real Watanabe is a dull, passive character, who has nothing interesting to say apart from making fun of his roommate, never takes any initiative and just follows others. But most of all, he cannot bear the solitude and has to use Midori to fill the emptiness of his spare time.

His attitude towards Midori follows the fluctuations of his two personalities: the aspiring Gatsby and the real Watanabe. First he longs for the inaccessible Naoko, but soon, waiting becomes too long and boring for him, and he hangs out with Midori. When he moves in his apartment, he becomes Jay Gatsby again, asks Naoko to come live with him and completely shuts Midori out of his life. When it becomes clear that Naoko is not responding to his letters, he tries to make up with Midori because he cannot bear to spend the beautiful days of Spring alone. When Naoko dies, he abandons Midori once again to wallow in his pain, doing what heroes of literature do.

It looks like Naoko has seen through Watanabe and given up on him in the end, but Midori does not seem able to do so. She might be outgoing and lively, but she desperately needs someone to take care of her. So much, that she clings to Watanabe, even though he only half commits himself to her.

While Watanabe constantly follows Midori in all her fantasies, thus encouraging her to want more from him, he appears surprised or reproachful when she asks for it and always feigns to not understand when she expresses her love for him.

I find the night he spends at her home to be representative of their relationship: reluctantly agreed to, but only half given. Midori states very clearly what she wants: for just once in her life, she wants to be spoiled by someone. She wants to fall asleep with a Watanabe whispering sweet things to her, wake up with him, have breakfast with him and go to school together. Watanabe reluctantly accepts, fulfills half of Midori’s request and leaves at dawn, before she wakes up. Of course, it does not cross his mind that Midori might have felt miserable to wake up alone.

The passive Watanabe – Nagasawa

Nagasawa: ワタナベも俺と同じように本質的には自分のことにしか興味が持てない人間なんだよ。(…) ただこの男の場合自分でそれがまだきちんと認識されていないものだから、迷ったり傷ついたりするんだ。

It is hard to understand what the ambitious Nagasawa finds in the indolent Watanabe, but because they share the same love for literature, it seems that Nagasawa is the character who understands Watanabe the best.

Watanabe’s real personality is desperately far away from his aspiring literary counterpart. He pictures himself looking at the “green light” like Jay Gatsby, but he really has nothing special, he does not have dreams or goals of his own, he only borrows others’. He has achieved nothing, he has not succeeded in changing his condition, and is and remains just the dull and passive boy following others.

One of Watanabe’s characteristics is his incapacity to refuse anything. No matter what is asked of him, he always says いいよ or いいですよ. He is okay to listen to Reiko’s story of her mental breakdown even though he has just met her. He is okay to watch porno films with Midori as well as nursing her dying father, whom he never met before, and spend the whole day at the hospital.

One day, when Watanabe spends the evening with his friend Nagasawa and Nagasawa’s girlfriend Hatsumi, Watanabe says that he does not particularly enjoy sleeping with girls in love hotels. When Hatsumi asks him why he does it anyway, Nagasawa answers for his friend 俺が誘うからだよ, thus stating what I think is the most profound truth about Watanabe.

But far from acknowledging the truth of this statement, Watanabe eventually betrays his friend by encouraging Hatsumi to leave him. He criticises Nagasawa for constantly cheating on Hatsumi and thinks that she deserves better. He does not seem to realise that he is doing the same thing to Naoko and that his condemning his friend is only laughable.

Sincere love – Reiko

Reiko: 私自身の中にあったいちばん大事なものはもうとっくの昔に死んでしまっていて、私はただその記憶に従って行動しているにすぎないのよ。

Watanabe’s love for Naoko and Midori were just different ways to fulfill his egoistic needs: his love for Naoko served his identification with Jay Gatsby while his love for Midori relieved him from his loneliness.

In the end, his relation with Reiko may be the less narcissistic, and the more sincere one, even though he ignores her for a long time because she does not fit in any pattern.

When he visits Naoko in the institution, he becomes the confident of Reiko’s story. When he leaves, Reiko asks if she could receive letters from him from time to time. His answer? いいですよ。書きます、喜んで. But we know that he didn’t write to her after that: in his letters to Naoko, he asks her to greet Reiko for him, implying that he never writes to her directly.

Reiko said several times how much Naoko and herself enjoy Watanabe’s letters, so I think she meant it when she asked for his letters. Later, she asks explicitly and several times if he can write her letters. He complies eventually, but only at a time when Naoko does not write back anymore and Reiko becomes his only interlocutor anyway.

When Naoko dies, he never bothers to ask Reiko how she is, even though she was much closer to Naoko that he ever was and must have a hard time coping with her death.

But during their last meeting, Watanabe seems to finally get closer to Reiko. At the end, when Reiko suggests that they sleep together, I half expected him to say いいですよ, but he surprised me by answering 僕も同じこと考えてたんです, which tends to convince me that Reiko is the only female character he actually pays attention to.

A coming of age novel? – Storm Trooper

Watanabe: 僕は僕なりに誠実に生きてきたつもりだし、誰に対しても嘘はつきませんでした。誰かを傷つけたりしないようにずっと注意してきました。

Watanabe writes this to Reiko towards the end of the novel.

One of the first things we learn about Watanabe is how he makes fun of his roommate 突撃隊, or Storm Trooper, in the English translation by Jay Rubin. While it is obvious that Storm Trooper has problems of his own (it’s enough to look at his obsessive behaviour), Watanabe makes jokes about him, and he soon becomes the laughing stock of the whole dormitory. This attitude is all the more disgusting because Storm Trooper trusts Watanabe.

Watanabe says that he does not feel good about mocking his roommate “正直言って彼を笑い話のたねにするのはあまり気持の良いものではなかった。”, but he still continues to make fun of him, never really wondering how Storm Trooper felt about it. When he disappears, Watanabe does not express concern that it may be linked to the atmosphere in the dormitory. He only misses him because, without Storm Trooper, he does not have anything funny to tell the girls anymore.

And at the end of the novel, we see Watanabe writing to Reiko that he has always been careful not to hurt anyone…

Norwegian Wood is often classified as a “Bildungsroman”, but the more I think of it, the more I find that it is the opposite. Watanabe didn’t grow, he didn’t change, and he is still lying to himself at the end.

When he turns 20 and thinks of himself as an adult, he asks for Reiko’s advice because he loves two girls at the same time and does not know what to do about it.

By wanting too much to be the hero of another novel, Watanabe has missed the opportunity to grow in his own story. He failed in passing from youth to adulthood, to become mature and to achieve his “coming of age”. He does not evolve during this 600 pages novel, just following others, lacking a path of his own to follow. He is like an empty page that others can fill with their own stories. When they all are gone, he finds himself completely lost: 僕は今どこにいるのだ?The end echoes the very beginning of the novel when our 37-year-old Watanabe says in English “I only felt lonely, you know”.

This is my interpretation of Norwegian Wood‘s ambiguous narrator, and I am sure that other readers have other interpretations or have read the book completely differently. As I said before, I think that Murakami’s novel can be read in different ways, and maybe I will see things differently if I were to re-read it!