The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

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“Only the real wind-up bird could make the sound. Only the wind-up bird could wind the world’s spring the way it was supposed to be wound.”

I doubt I would make a very good protagonist in a Haruki Murakami novel. I am too much the skeptic, too much grounded in “the real world.” Adherence to the real, physical laws of the world is “optional” for the characters in his books – at least in the ones I’ve read anyway. The splendid novel, “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” is no different. I’d guess also that Murakami is a firm believer in the concept of fate, and that concept is one of the things he explores in this book, which will be very hard for me to describe or summarize. Here’s a feeble effort, though…

What is the wind-up bird in the title? Well, it’s an unseen (but not unheard) bird that sings a strange song outside the house of Toru Okada every morning – a sound that resembles the winding of a spring. There is a mystical quality to the bird’s call, almost as if it is winding a watch that becomes the day ahead for Okada and the other characters in the book. When he stops hearing the bird, the real-ness of the world he knows begins to unravel.

He begins to encounter changes and difficulties in his life. His cat disappears, his wife, Kumiko, leaves him, he meets a strange teen-aged girl who lives in a house down the street. He discovers a dried-up well on an abandoned property down the alley. He likes to go down into the well to think about things. (These episodes are explorations in the art of sensory deprivation, I think). He is visited by an old man, a veteran who is delivering an inheritance from an old acquaintance, Mr. Honda, who has passed away. After one interlude in the well, Okada emerges with a strange blue-black mark on his face that is not a bruise and won’t go away. Perhaps it is this mark which leads the mysterious woman, “Nutmeg,” to befriend him and look after him to some degree.

The novel becomes a surreal detective story, as Okada searches for his wife, even though her “goodbye letter” says she doesn’t want to see him again. There is also the influence of a nefarious and powerful brother in-law (with seemingly supernatural powers) who must have something to do with Kumiko’s disappearance and might be preventing her from contacting Okada (the brother in-law never really approved of the marriage). How do all these things tie together? Murakami leaves most of the heavy lifting on that count to the reader. I was a little disappointed that there were so many loose ends at the book’s conclusion. Somehow this didn’t make me like it less, however. Murakami seems to have a knack for writing things that, written by anyone else, would likely seem ridiculous and contrived. In this novel, the thin-ness of reality is explored, and a sense of intertwining fate is prevalent.

Oh well, i don’t feel like i did a particularly good job of describing this one, but if you find yourself looking for a little reading to escape the hum-drum reality of your day to day world, you should consider taking a sojourn with one of Murakami’s novels. The Japanese title of this book is “Nejimakidori kuronikuru.” I would struggle to pronounce that myself, but I like to imagine it sounds beautiful if spoken by a native Japanese speaker. I also learned that a couple chapters of the book were published in the New Yorker magazine as short stories.

(author Haruki Murakami; yes, he has this cat obsession thing going on…)

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(Below: Vassily Ivanchuk <foreground>, the brilliant and erratic genius & chess grandmaster from Ukraine. He’s long been one of my favorite chess players. What does he have to do with this post? That’s a fair question. Last year, while being interviewed at the annual tournament in Gibraltar he was asked what he liked to read. In his rich, thick Ukrainian accent he said “I particularly enjoy the novels of… Murakami.” That made me smile, and somehow I was not surprised.)

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Now Reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

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An isolated alley. A strange, teenaged neighbor girl who fakes a limp. A mysterious bird that (though never seen), rooster-like, heralds each new day. A mysterious woman with a red-vinyl hat. A despicable brother-in-law. A missing cat named after a despicable brother in law. I can almost imagine author Haruki Murakami having a hat full of little strips of paper on which things like this are written, and pulling a dozen or so from them when it’s time to write a new story or novel. Well, maybe two hats. Since it’s Murakami, one would have only strips of paper that somehow relate to a cat or cats. The items above are some of those he drew from the hat in order to write the novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I’m about two-hundred pages into this novel so far. It hasn’t been my favorite Murakami by any stretch, but as usual it has just the right mixture of hints of the supernatural and prosaic daily activity (I’m sure I’ve read about his characters preparing more meals than any other writer’s) . The main character, Toru Okada, is low-key and relatively unambitious personally, but since he’s “the same character” I’ve found in all of the Murakami novels I’ve read thus far (well, at least he has the same “voice” anyway), I’m finding the fictional landscape comfortable and the reading easy. I should wrap this up by the end of the month and will report back on my thoughts.

Have you read this one? It will be my fourth Murakami, after 1Q84, Norwegian Wood, and Sputnik Sweetheart. Which Murakami work should I tackle next after this one?