I just finished reading Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami. It is not an easy book to encapsulate, nor to recommend. It is at times depressing, and at other times quite graphic.
The story revolves around Toru Watanabe, whose best friend committed suicide while they were both 17 years old. A deathly pallor hangs over everything, and each character seems to confront reality in his or her own unique way. Just like Kundera’s Immortality presents a group of characters struggling with their identity in the face of their own mortality, Norwegian Wood likewise delves into the meaning of self when faced with life in a meaningless void. The novel is gripping in the way it portrays these tortured individuals who are never entirely comfortable in their own realities, and is certainly thought provoking, but it is not an easy read.
Sanity is an issue for several of the characters. Two have been voluntarily admitted to a kind of psychiatric retreat, and they repeatedly say the only difference between the people inside and the people outside is that the people inside know that they are crazy. Indeed, Toru’s friends on the outside are just as peculiar and maladjusted to society as his friends inside, maybe even more so. Toru himself feels isolated, and has few companions at his university, and struggles with the direction his life should take. He battles deep bouts of depression, and often retreats into complete solitude. He finds no comfort in the people around him, who are continually exposed as hypocrites. The one friend he regularly spends time with has overcome hypocrisy by living live as selfishly as he can, a kind of Nietzschean superman who feels nothing but contempt for most of the people around him, and in the end is revealed to have a pointless, empty life.
The ending offers little in the way of hope either. Life is lived until death, and their is no magical plan for happiness. The only sanctuary may be to find love, but love is fleeting and tortuous and convuluted and our own need to be wanted and understood too often gets in the way of our ability to return that love.
Gripping the reciever, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the phone box. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again I called out for Midori from the dead centre of this place that was no place.
It is easy to get lost when we have no idea where we are or what direction we are headed, and when the road map presented to us directs us to keep moving forward but gives us no answer as to why we should go there or what to expect when we arrive. But for Toru, and all the characters in Norwegian Wood, that is the type of journey they are on. They can only hope they have a nice cold cucumber to enjoy along the way.
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