Water In All Its Elements: Liberal Humanism in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood

April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain./ Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow…”- T. S. Eliot

Jay Rubin, the translator for Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, writes in his postscript that although Murakami insists the novel isn’t autobiographical, many elements in it resonate with young Murakami’s own experiences in the late 60’s. As such, many readers, including Rubin, believe that this novel is an autobiography while some others express disappointment at the great novelist’s writing of “just another love story”. (Rubin 388).

Yet, as John Gardner argues in The Art of Fiction, “self-expression” is but a by-product of an attempt at novelty, the “ingenious genre-crossing or elevation of familiar materials… [Authors] sat down to write this kind of story or that, to mix this form with that form, producing some new effect. Self-expression, whatever its pleasures, comes about incidentally. It also comes about inevitably” (Gardner 20-1) The two schools of thought orbiting Norwegian Wood is the old chicken-and-egg dilemma. Which begot which.

The text abounds richly with symbolism and formal realist elements, two of many tenets I believe fellow Murakami fans would agree characterise most of his works. Of the two, I’m most interested in its symbolism. Perhaps this novel is deliberately or accidentally autobiographical, perhaps it is just another love story. My take is that it is both, as well as a creative experiment on symbolism in its protagonist Toru Watanabe’s experience of love and death. Set in the late 60’s, Norwegian Wood does engage with many issues du jour: student uprisings, free love and sex, psychotherapy and the like. However, for this post, I will be going old-school, and engaging with the theory-before-theory of the time period (60’s and 70’s) Norwegian Wood is set in—liberal humanism. A challenge, as you will, considering the many tempting socio-political threads interwoven into this rich work. A fun experiment.

Norwegian Wood’s protagonist-driven narrative is a constant vacillation between the past and the present, winding the circular, yet forward-moving path of the four seasons. Watanabe writes this story about his youth from memory. In it, he is in love with Naoko, his dead-at-17 best friend, Kizuki’s, ex-girlfriend.  The bulk of the narrative is a slow trudge through the year 1969, in which Naoko falls so sick psychologically she takes refuge in a sanatorium deep in the mountains, living with Reiko, her roommate. Watanabe visits occasionally, but they mostly correspond through letters, although he does most of the writing. In the mean time, he meets Midori, meaning “green” in Japanese, a girl who falls in love with him. The story, despite its memory-warped undulations, is, like critics have pointed out, quite the simple love story. In the end, Naoko commits suicide, and the novel’s final scene features Watanabe calling Midori through a payphone on a rainy day, telling her he wants to start over. The crux of the tale: A boy falls in love with a girl who cannot reciprocate, waiting for her and postponing his future in the mean time, and when things don’t work out, decides to move on with the one he really has a chance with.

Indeed, the narrative acknowledges socio-political issues of its time— the university Watanabe attends has a 60’s-esque student uprising and contrasting nationalist tenets. Murakami also engages with events like geological disasters and deaths of famous figures, many of which were seen as symbolic of ushering in a new era. Yet, Norwegian Wood’s characters stay stubbornly insulated from these things; for instance, Midori describes her father’s accounts of the Great Kanto Earthquake, the young officers’ uprising of 1936 and the Pacific War as matter-of-fact, almost unimportant events. In fact, he did not even notice the earthquake, cycling on towards his home as per normal, only realising what had happened upon reaching it. Similarly, the novel’s main characters’ personal crises stay at the forefront against the backdrop of socio-political events that just-so-happened during that period. These events the earthquake through which Watanabe, Naoko, Reiko and Midori make their nearly oblivious way.

Two particular motifs that pique my interest are that of rain and the seasons. It is raining in many of the key scenes in Norwegian Wood—surely this must signify something. Thomas C. Foster writes in How to Read Literature Like a Professor that rain, hearkening back to Noah’s ark and spring, represents a second chance, a rebirth, a cleansing (Foster 72-3). Murakami’s text features rain and water in abundance, playing with the flexibility with which these symbols can be played.

Indeed, when Midori offers Watanabe a second chance at life and their relationship, it is raining heavily, and upon her insistence, they get thoroughly soaked in this rain, as if a baptism into a new life. When Naoko dies, Watanabe spends a couple of months wandering dazed along the Japanese coast, remembering Naoko. In most of his memories of her, it is raining. He describes these fugue-like states, in which he enters the land of the dead, somehow talking to Kizuki and Naoko. These memories and feelings come in waves, and although not verbatim, these scenes echo Dante’s Inferno—that of a vast body of water bridging the gap between the living and the dead. Watanabe, surrounded by literal and metaphysical water, in these states of in-betweenness, communicates, whether really or otherwise, with the dead. The motif of Watanabe’s forays into strange, otherworlds is repeated every time he visits Naoko and Reiko. The sanatorium is completely insulated from normal society, and he has to traverse large stretches of forests and mountains in order to access them, as if Naoko sat at the bottom of a rabbit hole.

It is also interesting how most of Norwegian Wood’s narrative spans a single year—spring, summer, fall and winter (and spring again at its end). Spring is particularly poignant, it is the season in which the narrative lingers the most. Watanabe meets Midori in the spring, and the next spring when she ignores him, angry that his obsession with Naoko distracts him from herself, he describes as a painful and lonely spring. “Midori” means “green”, another obvious symbol for spring. It is as if Naoko, frozen in time with her dead ex-boyfriend, represents winter, and Midori spring, a chance at new life and a future for Watanabe. Where everything with Naoko is trapped, upside-down and sad in the looking-glass of grief and sickness, Midori rights everything. Watanabe compares the two, and in contrast with Naoko, a half-faded girl, Midori represents vitality, life, reality and hope.

At the end, as Watanabe somewhat makes peace with Naoko’s memory, he calls Midori from a payphone. She asks where he is, to which he has no response, looking through the rain at the countless shapes of people in it. He has this feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. Lastly, rain both renews yet blurs, making reality look different, strange, unrecognisable. Perhaps this is a sad ending, a lack of resolution. However, I see it as a hopeful one. Midori, the lack of place specificity and the rain symbolise choice—to begin again, dissociated from the context in which he has always interacted with her— through the barrier, or lens, of Naoko.

Norwegian Wood is indeed quite the simple love story, but its author’s play with symbol, meaning and intertextuality makes it a rich, enjoyable one.

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