The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami translated by Jay Rubin – A Review
Rating : 4.5/5
Date of Publishing : August 25, 1995
Due to an ever-increasing review list comprising of author requests and NetGalley, I noticed my personal TBR pile getting neglected. So, I came up with a rotation system of reading one book each from my TBR pile – Author requests, NetGalley and Personal. So, I picked up Murakami’s Wind up Bird Chronicle from my personal list. I still have not been able to decide whether this was a good decision or not. No doubt the book was excellent with all the characteristic weirdness that I have come to associate with Murakami, but it proved to be a bit too much for me at times due to the sheer number of pages to be covered. This book is definitely an epic undertaking by Murakami not only because of the political messages conveyed through it but also due to the number of characters that appear and disappear along the pages, their intricate connection with each other which spans over decades and the detailed subplots that are essential in pushing the main story forward. This book is a tribute to Murakami’s intellectual and physical prowess as a writer of the modern times.
“Writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” – Haruki Murakami
Character Names :
- Toru Okada – Protagonist
- Kumiko Okada – Wife of Toru
- Noboru Wataya – Kumiko’s brother
- May Kasahara
- Kano sisters – Creta and Malta
- Lieutenant Mamiya
- Boris the Manskinner
- Nutmeg Akasaka and her son Cinnamon Akasaka
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle comprises of three books in one volume.
Book I – The Thieving Magpie (June and July of 1984):
The story revolves around Toru Okada, a young man in his late twenties, who is between jobs as the novel opens. Toru’s wife Kumiko is upset about their missing cat Noboru Wataya (named after Kumiko’s brother) and enlists his help in searching for it. The real Noboru Wataya, a popular academician and a rising star in Japanese politics with an intense dislike for Toru, is no stranger to occult practices and involves the Kano sisters, expert psychics, in the search for the cat. Toru, during his day time wanderings in the pretense of searching for the missing cat, is introduced to May Kasahara, a teenage truant who has a love of the macabre. Toru receives a call from Lieutenant Mamiya who is executing the will of Honda, a spiritual instructor of the Wataya family, to receive what has been bequeathed to him by Honda. Mamiya narrates to Toru his suffering at the hands of Boris the Manskinner, a Russian army officer, while on a secret mission to Manchuko during his time in the Japanese army.
Book II – The Bird as a Prophet (July to October 1984):
Toru Okada’s world soon starts collapsing around him as his wife Kumiko leaves him. From this point onwards, his journey of self –discovery and introspection begins after stepping into a dry well in a neighbor’s abandoned house. Along with this, his search for Kumiko intensifies and he spends time reminiscing their life together to see any signs of things being amiss. A particularly stressful episode after venturing into his consciousness leaves Toru with a bluish-black stain on his face. Throughout this book, various characters reappear from Book I including May Kasahara who decides to stop playing a truant and go back to school, Creta Kano, who follows Toru’s actions and ventures into the well, and also Malta Kano, who acts as a mediator between Noboru and Toru.
Book III – The Bird Catcher (October 1984 to December 1985)
Toru Okada decides to purchase the cursed land and house, nicknamed the Hanging Hosue, on which the dry well stands. He is helped by Nutmeg Akasaka and her son Cinnamon Akasaka in this deed by providing financial support. In exchange, Toru takes up the position of the healer which was previously done by Nutmeg. The past of Nutmeg and Cinnamon is explored in depth in this book with emphasis on Nutmeg’s childhood in Manchuria and the experiences of her father as a veterinarian in Machuria Zoo. Also, Mamiya’s experience now as a war prisoner in a Siberian camp and his encounter with Boris the Manskinner is also chronicled in detail. Soon, Toru has to encounter Noboru Wataya in his quest to free Kumiko. Is Toru ready to defeat Noboru Wataya at his game or will he retreat like a coward?
In this post, I am sticking solely to the review of the book without any analysis of the complexities lying hidden in this novel as I will be publishing a separate blog for it (to be titled as “Unwinding the Wind-Up Bird”). As I mentioned earlier, this book is a huge undertaking for Murakami and that translates to the readers as well. It is a challenging read especially due to it being split into different “books” and the interconnection between them. Books I and II are very interesting and are definitely a fast read. Book III has lots of new characters and plot lines introduced such that it might frustrate the readers and distract them from the main theme. However, in retrospect, Book III is also an essential part in concluding the story. The story line is complicated and throws at us a lot of curveballs which leaves us to ponder over each and every occurrence in the book.
The book addresses the message of good battling evil, raises the questions of identities and responsibilities of one’s actions and also various social issues. Murakami describes the acts of Soviet and Japanese governments at the Nomohan Incident (link) where the Japanese army was defeated by the Soviets and their soldiers were mercilessly fed as fodder for the Soviet tanks. The stories of Captain Honda and Lieutenant Mamiya give an insight into the Japanese side of the war. From Nutmeg’s and Mamiya’s tales we are given the perspective of the soldiers and civilians struggling to find semblance of normal life in a Japan that has been razed to ground.
Through the portrayal of Noboru Wataya, Murakami expresses his criticism of the politicians and the media frenzy. Noboru is a place-holder for the pseudo-intelligentsia who do not hesitate to exchange their ideologies and philosophies as per convenience. The society has degraded to such an extent that the focus is on proving your opponent wrong rather than getting your principles right. The battle of good versus evil is depicted between Toru, an unconventional hero and an outcast on one side and Noboru, a successful politician as per the standards of the society on the other. Although interspersed with multiple narratives spanning various timelines and filled with diverse characters and incidents, Murakami has seamlessly integrated these sub plots into the story of Toru Okada. This is indeed a tribute to his talent as a master story teller.
This book is like a whirlpool to any Murakami fan – it callously draws you in and mercilessly thrashes you around in the complicated world of the characters. You might either drown in the imaginary world Murakami has created for you taking it all in and being completely consumed by it in every waking moment. Else it spits you out exhausted and disillusioned by the author’s style. Hence, the book is to be read at your own risk and I would never recommend it to a Murakami beginner or a Murakami newbie. This must be read towards the end of your Murakami sojourn so that you can bask in the brilliance of this mastermind. Overall, a must read only for hard-core and experienced Murakami fans!