The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

In which I review The Wind-Up Chronicle, Haruki Murakami’s 1997 novel about a man whose marriage is in crisis, sending him on a surreal journey into his own subconscious and the traumatised soul of post-World War II Japan.

What it’s about: Tokyo, the 1980s. Toru Okada, a meek unemployed clerk in his early 30s, goes in search of his missing cat Noboru Wataya (mockingly named after his brother-in-law, a celebrity intellectual from whom he is estranged). Toru explores an abandoned property in his neighbourhood, which is rumoured to be cursed, and notices a statue of a bird in the garden. A teenage girl in the neighbouring house, May Kasahara, invites him to explore the property, which contains an empty well. Toru hears a bird with a rusty mechanical cry: in response, May playfulls calls him “Mr Wind-Up-Bird”. Kumiko instructs Toru to meet psychic recommended by her family to help locate the cat. Kumiko’s family had previously sent her and Toru to meet a fortune teller, Corporal Honda, before their marriage. The psychic, a woman named Malta Kano, tells Toru that her sister Creta was once violently raped by Noboru, and that the cat has disappeared because the “flow” has been disrupted. Toru recalls Honda’s earlier advice to “not resist the flow” and to “find the deepest well and go down to the bottom“. He is visited by Lieutenant Mamiya, a former comrade of Honda who has recently died. Mamiya describes a nightmarish mission in Manchuria during World War II, in which he was taken prisoner by Russian soldiers and forced to watch a comrade being skinned alive, then left to die in a well before being rescued by Honda. Mamiya warns Toru to beware of water, and gives him a bequest from Honda – an empty box.

Kumiko disappears without explanation. Toru meets Noboru, who tells him that Kumiko has been having an affair and wants a divorce. Confused and disbelieving, Toru distracts himself by loitering in the city with May and watching passersby. He returns to the abandoned property and climbs into the well, reminiscing about meeting Kumiko and her decision to have an abortion. He slowly loses all sense of time, and has a dream-like vision of entering Room 208 of a Tokyo hotel where he meets a mysterious woman. He emerges from the well with a bluish mark on his face, and returns to his city ramblings. One afternoon he spots the guitarist from the bar where he met the Kano sisters, and follows him home: the two men fight, and Toru attacks the guitarist with a baseball bat.

Winter approaches, and Kumiko and the cat are still missing. Toru learns that Noboru has inherited a seat in parliament from his uncle, a high-ranking soldier who was heavily involved in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. While wandering in the city, Toru is approached by a well-dressed woman who invites him to her office: he is blindfolded and an unidentified woman licks his facial mark until he ejaculates. The well-dressed woman, known only by the pseudonym Nutmeg, buys him expensive clothes and offers to pay him for his continued services. Nutmeg buys the abandoned property for Toru using a shadow company and constructs a house for his use, maintained by her mute adult son Cinnamon. Meanwhile, Nutmeg relates scenes from her childhood in Manchuria, where her zookeeper father witnessed the slaughter of wild animals by Japanese soldiers: the zoo’s veterinarian in the story has a bluish facial mark identical to Toru’s. We also learn that Cinnamon stopped speaking as a child after hearing the wind-up bird and witnessing a murder.

Toru spends increasing amounts of time in the well, keeping the baseball bat he used in the attack on hand. He attempts unsuccessfully to transport himself back to Room 208, but his sense that “things had started to move” is confirmed when the cat returns, nearly a year after its disappearance. Noboru’s henchman Ushikawa visits Toru, trying to bully him into a divorce, and later persuades him to break into Cinnamon’s computer and communicate with Kumiko via a closed messaging system. Kumiko types that she has transformed into something “bad” and asks Toru to forget her. Refusing to accept this, Toru tells her that he is getting closer to “that place where the core of things is located”. Later, he finds a series of files in Cinnamon’s computer called “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”, and reads one, a story of the zoo veterinarian witnessing the execution of Chinese prisoners with a baseball bat, while one of the soldiers carrying out the murders hears the cry of the wind-up bird. Toru is denied access to the other files; soon after, Nutmeg and Cinnamon disappear. Toru receives a long letter from Mamiya, describing his internment in a Russian prison camp, and his re-encounter with Boris the Manskinner, the sadistic soldier who ordered his torture in Manchuria.

Toru re-enters the well, but the baseball bat has disappeared. He succeeds in transporting himself back to the hotel, where he learns that Noboru has been attacked by a man with a baseball bat. Toru gains access to Room 208 and concludes that the mysterious woman must be Kumiko. The woman gives him the baseball bat, covered with hair and blood. He tries to leave the hotel but is attacked by a knife-wielding faceless man, defending himself with the bat. He wakes up again in the well, which is filling with water, and closes his eyes preparing for his death. He wakes up again, having being rescued from the well by Cinnamon. He learns that Noboru has suffered a stroke and is in hospital. His own face has been by a knife but his bluish mark has vanished. He is given access to Cinnamon’s computer and reads the last of the “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” files – a letter from Kumiko, who reveals her plans to visit Noburu in hospital and kill him. The story ends with Toru visiting May at a wig factory where she now works. Kumiko has pleaded guilty to murdering Noboru, and Toru waits for her release from prison so they can be reunited.

Why it’s a classic: In the world of Japanese literature, it doesn’t get much bigger – or stranger – than Murakami. The publication of his fifth novel, Norwegian Wood, in 1987 made him a national celebrity, an experience so disturbing that he moved to America to find some anonymity. He took up writing fellowships at Princeton and Harvard, which much of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was written. Published in Japan in three volumes between 1994-5, it was rapturously received, winning the Yomiuri Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Booker or the Pulitzer.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published in English in 1987 by Murakami’s regular translator Jay Rubin, who trimmed around 25,000 words and shifted a few chapters around to make its structure slightly more coherent. It became a break-out international success, one of very few novels not written in English to become a bestseller in the Anglo-American publishing world. Critics praised Murakami’s uncanny ability to blend psychological realism with surrealist and magic realist influences, drawing comparisons with the work of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Pynchon and Vonnegut. The novel was also viewed as a turning point in Murakami’s work, becoming less introspective and more outward-facing and “political”, particularly in his anti-imperialist critique of Japan’s treatment of China during WWII, and in his interest in big existential questions about freewill, fate, the liminal nature of identity and the return of the repressed.

For many of his fans, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is considered Murakami’s masterpiece. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly one of his most accessible works. Though hardly a short novel, it’s definitely an easier read than some of his later works, including 1Q84 which clocks in at 900 pages, and provides a good point of entry into his meandering narrative style and deeply strange world view. By the early 2000s, he’d become an essential hipster accessory (or whatever hipsters were called in the 2000s), coinciding with a millennial-era interest in Asian culture, like the films of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet in the shape and colour of Creta Kano’s red hat (and not, as a friend suggested, a nice wall hanging made of human skin). Towards the end of the novel, Toru ponders the crazy occurrences in his life: “Everything was intertwined, with the complexity of a three-dimensional puzzle,” he muses, “a puzzle in which truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth.” I fell on these words with some relief, as if Murakami had taken pity on his readers and decided to throw them a bone. “Confused as fuck?” he seemed to be saying. “Don’t worry! You’re meant to be! Just go with the flow!” Having read it twice now, I also wonder whether those lines are something of a cop-out, as the author desperately tries to knit together the fraying strands of an increasingly labyrinthine narrative before his readers give up or commit ritual suicide.

Part of the great pleasure and the immense frustration of reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the way in which Murakami shifts between banal everyday realism – Toru’s day-to-day routine of eating, drinking, picking up Kumiko’s drycleaning and cat-hunting – and bizarre unexpected plunges into the fantastic. It’s striking how passive Toru is – less an Everyman than the faceless man from the dream hotel, a man with no apparent ego or desire who is continually acted upon by the other characters to further their (largely unknown) agendas. It’s also made clear that this is a world where fortune-telling and the supernatural still count for something, rendering Toru even more powerless.

So why then are we interested in a character who has so little agency? Because of the crystalline prose and dazzling insights that Murakami puts in his mouth. Toru is, we learn, a man with a rich inner life and keen perceptions. “Every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness,” he writes, not long after Kumiko disappears. “The very water I drink, the very air I breathe, would feel like long, sharp needles. The pages of a book in my hands would take on the threatening metallic gleam of razor blades. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o’clock in the morning.” His tragedy is that there’s no one in his life who particularly cares about him or what he has to say, not even May, who seems to be his only friend. It’s the clarity of Toru’s vision, his matter-of-fact forensic examination of everything that comes across his path, that buoys our reading experience, as the story slips further and further into surrealism and violence.

On the downside, Toru’s lack of knowledge about the events that comprise the story require a lot of patience from his reader. As he’s unable to discriminate between what is or isn’t significant, everything must be paid attention to because everything is potentially important. Reading becomes an exhausting experience as we try to hold everything in our minds, bracing ourselves as yet another character is introduced or we fall down yet another narrative rabbit-hole, and hoping that it’ll all make sense in the end. The trick to reading the book, it seems, is to be like Toru – go with the flow, accept that you are in the grip of sinister forces beyond your control and allow things to reveal themselves. Even when we reach the finale, in which Toru finally achieves a degree of emancipation, much is still left unexplained – we never find out precisely what the women do to Toru in the fitting room, exactly what Nutmeg’s or Noboru’s powers are, or what Cinnamon sees being buried in the garden. Far from tying up his loose ends, Murakami is happy to leave us no clearer as to the rules of this strange and violent world we’ve inhabited – all that we know is that we’ve survived.

Like Japan’s last great literary celebrity, Yukio Mishima, Murakami’s writing counterbalances an obsessive interest in orderliness and control with episodes of horrendous violence. There are graphic descriptions of rape, a man being skinned alive, a skull being crushed with a baseball bat, animals being shot by a firing squad, and an explanation of “the proper way” to kill a man with a bayonet (“First you thrust it in under the ribs… Then you drag the point in a big, deep circle inside him, to scramble the organs. Then you thrust upward to puncture the heart“), all rendered in precise, clinical detail and a chilling lack of affect, like an instruction manual for serial killers. Murakami doesn’t strike me as a sadist, though he realises that the violent scenes will be more horrifying when related so matter-of-factly.

While many readers and reviewers found the violence gratuitous, I’m prepared to defend it as a fundamental part of Murakami’s poetics and politics – violence as a means of social control, and the hidden electricity crackling beneath the veneer of civilised life. Murakami is also interested in how violence regenerates itself. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria is the great elephant in the room, a collective act of evil that leeches into the atmosphere, polluting everything with as much force as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Noboru inherits not only his uncle’s seat in government but his tendency to cruelty and domination. For other characters, violence has a dynamic, even galvanising energy that could almost be described as positive. Creta’s rape brings an end to her years of pain; the trauma of Nutmeg’s husband’s violent deaths seems to trigger her extra-sensory powers; and Toru’s suffering, both physical and emotional, snaps him out of his waking coma and allows him some insight into his life.

The characters’ willingness (or not) to confront uncomfortable truths, and the selective and self-serving role of memory in human consciousness is another key theme. Toru and the others talk continuously about not being able to remember, and the desirability of forgetting unpleasant things. “Forget me”, Kumiko (and nearly everyone else) says to Toru about his marriage, but still he insists on the truth of his relationship. Accordingly, the ugly truths of Japanese military history insist on belching to the surface, demanding to be heard. These days, we’re fairly fluent in pop-psychology ideas of a “the cycle of violence” and inherited trauma, this was pretty radical stuff in the 1990s, and Murakami drew some criticism in certain quarters for his unflattering depiction of Japan’s role in WWII.

What’s perhaps most satisfying about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is that Murakami doesn’t offer simple solutions for the personal and systemic horrors on display. It’s not simply a matter of speaking one’s ugly truth, Oprah style, and then having your epiphany arrive in the mail. Knowledge doesn’t necessarily bring absolution – Mamiya is forced to carry his ugly knowledge to his grave, cursed to live a long life in which his is loved by no one. The novel breaks off just before we know whether Toru will have a similar fate, or whether he and Kumiko will be reconciled. The world we leave is a violent and frightening place, in which the barriers between the real and unreal are blurred and where logic and reason offer little protection. The only thing to do, it seems, is to go on and endure.

Ultimately, though, all of this trauma and violence and existential searching and shamanic time transportation doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying read. I admire Murakami for his seriousness and ambition, but I’m with Michiko Kakutani, who wrote in her New York Times book review: “In trying to depict a fragmented, chaotic and ultimately unknowable world, Murakami has written a fragmentary and chaotic book…. for most of us, art is supposed to do something more than simply mirror the confusions of the world.”

The book’s sexual politics also feel a bit dated, even for the 1990s. Every female character, even May, is sexualised, especially the trio of femme fatales Creta, Malta and Nutmeg, who are buffered to an unattainable level of conventional feminine beauty, and used to offering sex as another form of currency. While there is something vaguely subversive about Toru becoming a passive sexual partner and prostituting himself, there’s very little space available in the book for women except as another of Toru’s sexual fantasies.

Despite my qualms, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle deserves its place as a modern classic – one that I’ll be happy to return to my bookshelf and re-read in another 15 years or so.

Quotable Quote: “Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?”

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