The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
By Hariko Murakami
Murakami continues to fascinate. His style of straight forward telling of stories that border on the absolute bizarre is addictive. Yet even for someone used to Murakami’s strange mix of fantasy and realism, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is an exercise in eccentricity.
Toru Okada is the hero and as most of Murakami’s heroes tend to be, he is blandly normal and quite a loser as the book starts out. Out of work, Toru Okada sits at home, cooking pasta and listening to music while waiting for his editor-wife to come home. Then strange things begin to happen, disturbing this idyll. First his cat Noboru Wataya, named after his wife’s brother, whom they dislike, disappears (disappearing cats seem to be a big thing with Murakami – there are so many scattered across his various books). Then the parade of strange women starts. Malta Kano and her sister Creta Kano appear in his life; Malta, a woman with some kind of psychic abilities is sent by his wife to find their cat; she in turn introduces him to her sister Creta Kano. Toru ends up having sex with Creta in his head (don’t ask me how, but they do!) and later in real life too. But then his wife disappears…ostensibly with another man, but he has no way of knowing if it is really true. If disappearing cats and wives weren’t enough, there is a teenage neighbor May Kasahara, a school drop-out who earns pocket money by doing a part time job counting bald men in the city for a wig company. May gets close to Toru, calling him the Wind-up man (a reference to a bird whose cry foretells doom), takes him bald-men-counting with her and by the middle of the book she has disappeared from the neighbourhood too. But we know where she goes – to the wig company’s factory in the hills where she is making wigs in an assembly line. We know her story through the letters she writes to Toru from there (letters that the reader gets to read but not Toru himself). In the meantime, there is a neighbourhood house that is lying vacant because bad things happen to its owners. There is a dry well there into whose depths Toru climbs down to think. And in one of those well sorties, he has a strange dream or out of body experience from which he emerges with a bluish mark on his cheek and a power to heal troubled people. Which leads him to Nutmeg and her son Cinnamon (their real names are never revealed to him). The Nutmeg and Cinnamon story is yet another adventure in this surreal Toru world.
For the first time in a Murakami, I find Japan and Japanese history. Normally the only things Japanese in his books are the names of the characters and places and the weirdness of the situations (that somehow feels Japanese!). Japan’s aggressive adventures in Manchuria and Mongolia in WW II form a backdrop to two sub-plots within the book. These sub-plots with Lt. Mamiya in one and Nutmeg’s vet father in another are real war stories, horrific and wrenching; where a man is skinned alive and all the wild animals in a zoo are killed. The juxtaposition of these anguished tales with the fantastical journeys of Toru can be quite ‘messing with your mind’ variety. The connections of these sub plots with Toru’s main story are quite tenuous and it is possible to read these as quite separate from the main one.
At 600 and more pages, this is a massive and ambitious book. And there is no tidy tying of the different threads of the story. Noboru Wataya is the unscrupulous politician and the villain of the piece, messing with Creta and his own sisters… but the full nature of his evil is never explained. We know where Toru’s wife ends up finally, the cat does come back…but Malta and Creta disappear without explanation and we still are no closer to understanding why all these different threads were brought together in the story.
But if you like Murakami and his brand of surreal and fairy-tale like stories, this is a great way to spend a long weekend. In the mundane everydayness, you sometimes need to get into your own personal well to create that strange imaginary world all your own.