Posted on | March 10, 2011 | 9 Comments
This is the fifth book by Murakami that I have read, and excluding What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I have to say it’s the most subtle. The magical realism and bizarreness that I expect from Murakami’s writing is missing, which is almost disappointing. However, this book is strangely reminiscent of Norwegian Wood, in that the title is inspired by a song (Nat King Cole’s South of the Border), and that the middle-aged protagonist still thinks of his first love.
Hajime, thirty-seven years old when this novel starts, is the narrator. An only child in the 1950s, when most families had at least two children, Hajime is often considered to be the stereotypical only child: spoilt and selfish. While for the most part, he does come across as a decent introspective narrator, some of his actions and thoughts lead us to believe he does actually fit the “only child” bill.
Hajime and Shimamoto, a twelve year old girl left lame by Polio, meet when the two are twelve years old, and instantly strike up a friendship. Shimamoto is an only child as well, and the two children feel perfectly at ease with one another, until the inevitable happens: Hajime moves to another town at the end of the school year, and the two lose touch.
Hajime has his first girlfriend, and the first girl he sleeps with is her cousin, hurting his girlfriend at the time beyond repair. He attempts justifying it, saying
From the first time I saw this girl, I knew I wanted to sleep with her. More accurately, I knew I had to sleep with her. And instinctively, I knew she felt the same way. When I was with, my body, as the phrase goes, shook all over. […] The magnetism was that strong. I couldn’t let this girl walk away. If I did, I would regret it for the rest of my life.
He still stumbles through life, till he reaches this point: happily married to a placid loving woman, Yukiko, with kids, running two successful jazz bars. He is content, for the most part, but something is missing. Cue, Shimamoto enters his bar one day, and the two childhood friends are reunited, much to their joy. The attraction is mutual, and he is ready to give up his content happy life to spend time with her. However, her life remains a dark mystery throughout the book – she doesn’t talk about her past, or the troubles she’s undergone. She comes and goes, sometimes disappears for months unending, with no explanations, but that’s enough to make Hajime’s life tumultuous as he obsesses over her, how he can’t live without her and how he’s ready to sacrifice everything for her.
The title itself is indicative of that, with the “West Of The Sun” referring to a madness that affects Siberian farmers which causes them to forget about the bare necessities of life, but just keep walking towards the land west of the sun, till they drop dead out of fatigue, hunger and thirst. It’s this self-destructive streak that made him endearing, and almost stopped me from judging him for his actions, and his susceptibility to infidelity. Also, it did make me ask the question: is this selfishness and obstinacy a result of him being an only child – a point Murakami’s emphasises abundantly in this book? He does ponder the repercussions of his actions, but at the end of the day, he’s predominantly thinking of himself.
Infidelity is never forgivable as per my moral compass. And then, we see the lives of women destroyed – of happy women transforming into unemotional stones, of women full of life feeling compelled to kill themselves, of married women willing to accept infidelity – and that makes me wonder, why on earth is it that women are normally shown to be that weak and fragile, so much so that men can break them so easily?
The one thing that did really annoy me about this book was that as a reader, I have no idea as to what Shimamoto’s story is! What is she hiding and why is she being so secretive? So coy? So precocious?
I enjoyed the flow of this book, specially in the second half, where Murakami describes the imagery and the emotions oh-so-poetically.
Every once in a while, as if remembering its duty, the sun showed its face through a break in the clouds. All we could hear were the screeches of the crows and the rush of water. Someday, somewhere, I will see this scene, I felt. The opposite of deja vu – not the feeling that I had already seen what was around me, but the premonition that I would some day. This premonition reached out its long hand and grabbed my mind tight. I could see myself in its grip. There at its fingertips was me. Me in the future, grown old. Of course, I couldn’t see what I looked like.
but I did crave some of the kooky outlandish writing that I’ve come to know and love Murakami for.
Guess The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is the next Murakami on my list. Will it be bizarre enough?