“In that moment I understood what that tremor of the heart had been. It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained – and would forever remain – unfulfilled.”
If you are going to read (or have read) Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami, I highly suggest you listen to the Beatles’ song it was named after. It is this song, which, at the start of the novel, pushes the narrator into a long recollection of his university days: Tokyo in the late 1960s.
Toru Watanabe moves from his hometown to Tokyo at age 18 to enroll in a small university as a drama student. He is not passionate about drama, but is simply going through the motions of life. Enter Naoko, a ghost from the past, the ex-girlfriend of Toru’s late friend Kizuki, who killed himself in their senior year. The two enter into a strange relationship, troubled by the shadow of a past that still haunts them. Simultaneously, Toru meets Midori, an outgoing, if slightly enigmatic girl, with whom he begins a whirlwind friendship.
The above summary paints Norwegian Wood as a romance, which in a way it is. But in the novel, like in life, romance just one part of the larger theme, life. Summarizing it all is a difficult task. It is a story of love, but also of loss, and friendship, and ideology, and most of all, it is a deep meditation on the human condition. One might place it under the literary category of Bildungsroman. But again, this title hardly seems fitting, as Norwegian Wood goes beyond just depicting the confusing haze of student days. Unlike many Bildungsroman, at the end of the novel, the character does not emerge as what can be described as evolved, or all the wiser about the world.
Norwegian Wood’s wonderfully crafted narrative is paired with the painfully beautiful prose of Murakami, expertly translated for us by Jay Rubin. His translation is the first English translation and only one authorized for sale outside of Japan. Reading Murakami feels more like reading poetry than prose. He achieves this effect by giving special attention to the smallest of details or briefest of encounters, like a firefly on a warm evening, the clothing of a girl, or the music playing in the background. All of these things, when described by Murakami, become suddenly deeply important, and vital to the story. Norwegian Wood, and many of his other novels, is almost an ode to the minutiae of life. After reading it, one starts to cherish such details more in his, or her, own life.
Though set in the past, and in (for most readers of this article) a foreign country, Norwegian Wood preserves a sense of universality that transcends time, culture, and indeed, gender. It is a must-read for any university student, an essential part of sentimental education, a term here not referring to purely romantic sentiment, but like Norwegian Wood itself, all human emotion. I would genuinely defy anyone not to enjoy this book, and not to emerge from it with their view of the world forever altered.