Toru, the narrator, teeters between the living and the dead. His life is pervaded first by his best friend, Kizuki’s suicide, and later by Naoko’s (Kizuki’s girlfriend’s) suicide–a girl he came to love. Even the distant characters, like his college acquaintance’s girlfriend Hatsumi, succumb to a similar fate.
The book is told as a memory, from the perspective of a much older Toru, prompted by the older Toru happening upon a song Naoko used to love. In the opening chapter comes the book’s only semi-resolution–the simple fact that Toru didn’t happen to fall into the cycle of love and death that haunted him during his college years. The book actually ends with him lost in the middle of a more metaphorical version of this dilemma, with Toru quietly and desperately trying to climb out of that field well that Naoko mentioned every so often consumes wanderers. Toru ultimately finds himself in some unknown middle ground, having lived so long with the burdens of doubtful half-existences. While we know Toru wasn’t physically consumed by death, it’s still one thing to live life, and another to live as a memory. As Reiko–Naoko’s roommate in the sanatorium–described of herself at the end, “All you’re looking at is the lingering memory of what I used to be. The most important part of me, what used to be inside, died years ago, and I’m just functioning by remote memory.” How Toru chose to live his life is left to the reader’s imagination.
I suppose what really pulls at the heart strings in this story isn’t so much Toru’s perspective, but the lack of Naoko’s perspective. As a girl, she witnessed her much adored older sister hang herself. She grew up with one friend, Kizuki, who she ended up dating, and who ended up killing himself at seventeen. Her mental state fell apart as a college student when she began to hear voices, and not long after, she hangs herself deep in the woods. Those are the facts, but how she felt and what was in her mind remain very much remain up in the air. There should have been hope for such a girl. Nevertheless, during her last conversation with Toru she says, “realize how grateful I am that you came to see me here…I know it’s going to save me if anything will.” She knows her life may very well be beyond help, but just like so much else, she keeps it to herself. What tortured me as a reader was how hard she tried–how hard she tried to make herself “right again,” for Toru. It felt like watching a drowning victim trying to cry out for help, but getting only a mouthful of water each time they tried.
Norwegian Wood tackles death as both a tragedy and a natural occurrence. Each tragedy is individual, and each has its own sorrows and its own lessons. As Toru writes, “Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of life. By living our lives, we nurture death…No truth, no sincerity, no strength, no kindness can cure that sorrow. All we can do is see it through to the end…”
Naoko is contrasted by Midori, juxtaposed in Toru’s own heart. While Naoko portrays an unobtainable perfection, she is full of death and sorrow. While Midori embodies frivolous desires of the living, she is real and alive. As Midori herself puts it, “I’m a real, live girl, with real, live blood gushing through my veins.” A perfect story is impossible for Toru at this point, which adds to the minor key of the entire novel. Toru will never be able to pull Naoko away from her own tortured soul and make everyone happy.
The only other book I’ve read of Murakami’s was Kafka On The Shore. And just like that one, Norwegian Wood left me in desperate need of a moment to catch my thoughts. The characters seemed woven so intimately and sincerely I was inclined to believe Murakami was writing a sort of fictional autobiography. The translator’s notes clarify that this wasn’t the author’s intentions at all. The very fact that the clarification had to be made, nonetheless, is telling of Murakami’s writing style.