THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE

FICTION BY HARUKI MURAKAMI

The Harvill Press, 1998
ISBN: 1-86046-581-1
When we speak of the “surreal” we tend to mean a watered-down version, not the directly unconstructed version of the French Surrealists. Perhaps “influenced by surrealism” is a more precise expression; however, this derivative of original surrealism and its widespread influence on literature can also be called modern surrealism and left at that. Modern surrealism classifies books (or any other works) that while rooted in the rational, extend branches into the world of the surreal. “Surreal” as a term is often misapplied as meaning something unusual, or non-rational, but there is also a sizable amount of literature that can truly be described as modern surreal, that owes a debt to the original un-realists. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is this kind of book. It is an excellent book, clean and clever and full of interest. It is a sturdily crafted story that contains a labyrinth of realities Haruki Murakami creates by combining the modern surreal with a matter-of-fact style and approach.
         In the beginning of the book our protagonist, Toru Okadu, receives a phone call. This phone call is an initiation for the reader—and Toru—into the way things are going to happen in the chronicle. The caller is woman with an unknown voice who seems to know Toru. She calls again and again, in fact, and behaves intriguingly and sexually on the phone with politely uncomprehending Toru. Toru is at home to answer all these calls because he has quit his not particularly interesting job for no especial reason. Although he is thinking of looking for work, he is increasingly content to stay at home and cook and clean while his wife Kumiko spends long hours at work. Toru’s calm life is not left untroubled, however, as the chronicle unfolds. For one thing, his cat—Noboru Wataya—has disappeared. Noboru Wataya is also the name of Kumiko’s brother, and it is Kumiko who tells Toru to talk to the strange, precise woman in the red vinyl hat about how to find the cat. Soon it is more than the cat that Toru is looking for. The story of the Wind-up Bird Chronicle progresses through the appearance, disappearance and reappearance of numerous characters. The plot advances using Toru’s dreams, the lengthy war tale of a lieutenant, and the absence of Toru and Kumiko’s cat. The players in this chronicle are not simply a “gallery of eccentrics,” however, and the plot—however surreal in incident—defines a real story.
         The first sentence of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle encapsulates two important aspects of the book, one on the general level and one specific. “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.” This pleasant, compact sentence gives a picture of the cultural atmosphere of Toru (and the book), as well as showing Toru’s temperament—his laid-back nature is a major element of the novel. Mr. Murakami is known for saturating his works with references to non-Japanese culture, and Wind-up Bird is no exception. Not only are Toru’s references often outside of Japan, he himself is outside of his culture in a way: he doesn’t work, and doesn’t particularly want to. This is strange, and Toru knows it. Yet it is impossible to say that this book is “un-Japanese.” Rather, Murakami, an admitted pop culture junkie, shows us that subtle thing, how someone can see his own culture even more clearly when his views are tempered with “otherness”—when he has an outside perspective. Mr. Murakami wrote The Wind-up Bird Chronicle while living in the US. In a Salon interview, Mr. Murakami framed the way he combined his viewpoints. “When I was writing my other books, in Japan, I just wanted to escape. Once I got out of my country, I was wondering: What am I? What am I as a writer? I'm writing books in Japanese, so that means I'm a Japanese writer, so what is my identity?”
         Although this inside-outside view (in terms of culture) permeates the book, it is not the driving force. What takes us through the chronicle is the chain of successive events that happen to Toru. These events are far from ordinary—or, more specifically, more than ordinary. This is a book where (just as an example) no less than three characters spend more than a little time at the bottoms of wells. Toru is a thoughtful, often passive hero who takes things as they come, rather than charging from event to event. There are many active characters as well; there even seems to be some rule that the more active a character, the more impenetrable his or her motives. They come and go, speak and fall silent, while the plot envelops Toru.
         The shape of the book is so clean even in its intricacy that it gives the impression of effortless simplicity—but the fact that the book doesn’t fall apart should be regarded as a great feat of writing by Mr. Murakami. The possibility of flimsiness is there, its potential can be felt, but Mr. Murakami holds it at bay. Things like the red vinyl hat of Malta Kano are never used as mere embellishments, little flourishes of weirdness. This self-discipline is one of the reasons the book hangs together as well as it does. Wind-up Bird was translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin, and to him must also go some of the credit for the comfortable language. The work, at 607 pages, reads like a short book; the touch is light throughout.
         The title of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in the beginning half of the book seems more decorative than explanatory, a device to link different elements. But by the end of the book the title is perfect, the spine of the work. (This is really quite impossible to imagine without having read the novel.) This is the kind of writer Mr. Murakami is: a writer with a sense for the simple and the surreal, and one with a gift for putting these two things together.