Two nights ago, sometime close to 3am, I finally finished Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’. It has been a while since I found a book which could make me stay up against the odds of an alarm clock set to 7:30am, but Murakami’s masterpiece has indeed succeeded. For that I owe him a big, big ‘thank you’: I was wondering if the consequences of an English degree were that you couldn’t just relax with a book any longer; if work and pleasure were conflated to the point of no return. I have discovered that to be untrue!
One of the most exciting features of this book, besides the hugely engrossing narrative (which will always be the primary reason any Harukami book sucks one in so completely, and makes one read like a demon into the dawn), is its inexplicability. I know people like me are far and few between, but… in the hope of finding some kindred spirits, here goes: I actively hunt for spoilers and plot summaries, desperate to know what happens before I even reach the middle of the book sometimes (Wikipedia has been a great friend of mine in this respect). So naturally, with such a thriller as ねじまきどりクロニクル, I did my level best to find a coherent and all-encapsulating plot summary on the net. And for the very first time in my life, I failed to. Almost every review site (inc. Wikipedia & Goodreads.com) told me the same thing: “This book is terribly difficult to write about. I can’t even begin to try and explain what happens in it; I’m not entirely sure myself.”
With that in mind, I guess you’ll forgive me for not going lengthily into the plot details of this book! The basic story is as follows: Toru Okada lives comfortably with his wife, Kumiko. But one day their cat goes missing, and from thereon, Toru Okada’s whole life begins unravelling. ‘Unravelling’ is just another word, in this instance, for the narrative line of (roughly) breaking down; meeting interesting new people; having bizarre adventures; and finally, finding oneself again (sort of). The book is difficult to encapsulate. It spans many different episodes (it is structured as an episodic ‘chronicle’), and many different places (from Tokyo to the historical Manchuria during Japanese occupation; from bars in Sapporo to the Mongolian hinterlands). Characters float (an apt word to describe them, I feel, given that so many of them are surreal mystics, harbingers of unexplained powers) in and out of these pages, weaving their way around the Toru Okada’s life and the reader’s confusion.
“Confusion” often has negative meanings, but I hasten to add that – yes, while Murakami’s book is confusing, while many things are left unexplained, I think this is the great beauty (and perhaps one of the key meanings) behind it. Life is inexplicable. Life is weird. Like Toru, we’re just going to have to float through it and hope we don’t run into any ominous water-related prophecies. Equally, life is alienating: one of the most shocking and stark things about this story is the way it shows the breakdown of domestic ‘normality’. It really forces the reader (or at least, readers like myself) to confront how much value they place on a standardized, stereotypical view of relationships and family. And how often those values or that sense of security can be overturned, even without the artistic license of surrealist tropes.
This sort of urban-tragedy mysticalism isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine, and so I absolutely loved this book. It doesn’t bother me that things are left unexplained (even though it usually does – like in Lost, for example). The brilliant thing about Murakami’s writing is that it’s so intriguing that, after a while, you begin to forget that you ever wanted ‘answers’, and enjoy the story for what it is – an endless stream of occasionally-answered questions. And for an answer-orientated culture like ours, perhaps this is exactly what is needed – an embracing of uncertainty, a realisation that uncertainty can also be beautiful, that beauty isn’t the domain of answers alone.