“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami – A wind-up in all senses?

This is my review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.

Encouraged by his wife Kumiko’s willingness to support him, Toru Okada gives up his mundane job as a legal assistant to work out what he really wants to do. The quiet life of a “house husband” is punctuated with bizarre phone calls from strange women and encounters which lead to the spinning of some odd tales against the surreal background call of the wind-up bird. Toru’s most obvious trait is a remarkable passivity – possibly the author’s indictment of Japanese men in general. When Kumiko expresses her detestation of beef stir-fried with green peppers, Toru dumps the offending mixture in the garbage, not out of pique but pragmatically because it is not required. Yet the incident leads him to wonder if it is possible “for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another”. If he will die without ever really knowing her, what is the point of a life confined to living together? His job-free existence gives him the freedom to philosophise in this way for the first time – a comment on the pressurised Japanese society of the 1990s.

Kumiko seems withdrawn, and may be unhappy or concealing something from Toru, as he admits he is doing in turn. Is he depressed, going a little mad, or utterly sane in stepping off the Japanese treadmill of hard work, conformity, keeping face, and pursuing a veneer of westernised culture underlain by oriental traditions. Before Kumiko was allowed to marry, for instance, she and Kumiko had to pay regular visits to a medium, to gain a favourable assessment from him. Similarly, Kumiko’s obnoxious brother consulted a clairvoyant on the whereabouts of her missing cat, named Noboru Wataya after him.

At first I was carried me along effortlessly, sucked in by Murakami’s plain, very readable style with a touch of wry humour which has been retained in Jay Rubin’s skilful translation. Then I began to sense that the interweaving of mundane daily life, unlikely events and implausible tales might simply trail away or prove to have no meaning, rather as one might define life in which one cannot be sure of reality, or of achieving outcomes which, if not satisfactory, are at least certain.

The repetition of domestic tasks, and recurrence of erotic dreams, began to bore me. I believe the translator has omitted some chapters and reordered others, which suggests a lack of editing, even self-indulgence on the part of the writer. Without knowing about the translator’s changes at the time, I had an increasing desire to skip pages, even reading the end to see if the book justified the effort of slogging through the 607 pages of the paperback version – both a bad sign.

I am ambivalent about this book. It has clearly become a “cult classic”, prompting widespread praise for its originality, surreal brilliance and philosophical insights. Yet, I cannot help suspecting it is simply an over-ambitious shambles which Murakami wrote for his own pleasure, with, of course, the added bonus of profit guaranteed by his fame.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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