If someone had described Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to me I don’t think I would have read it. I picked it up blindly, mostly because I wanted to read more magical realism (I have pretty much only read Rushdie, Marquez, and Borges). Even so, the first hundred pages should have turned me off – Toru Okada, the protagonist, spends most of it emotionally detached, halfheartedly looking for a missing cat while flirting detachedly from a teenager who lives in the neighborhood, all the while hanging around his apartment all day. The narrative doesn’t exactly careen forward from this point, but events get increasingly weird and increasingly intense, until Okada starts flipping relatively easily between parallel universes. Even the wrap-up felt unsettling and odd, as it was unexpected but also unexpectedly not a denouement as I think of them.
- The wind-up bird is the link between a whole bunch of wild stories. I guess it’s mostly noted for its annoying screech.
- Everyone who Okada meets comes back to play a part in the novel. Everyone.
- His wife (Kumiko) leaves him but we’re never sure why, and she reappears at a couple of points, one of which convinces Okada that he must save her. Despite beating someone to death in her hotel room, he can’t.
- His brother-in-law gets beaten into a coma (a man who hates Okada and who Okada hates back), but he doesn’t really, at least in the plane of existence that we are all on.
- Wells figure prominently, as Okada spends several days in the bottom of one, and Lt. Miyami, who was captured by Soviets in Manchuria during WWII, was left in one to die (he escaped).
- Okada is marked with a blue stain on his cheek that marks him as someone who can relieve people of inner turmoil and anxiety by touching them. Nutmeg (a rich woman who befriends him) has the same mark, and has been performing this task. In trying to get Kumiko back, he somehow becomes unable to do this anymore. What they were doing felt a bit like what sin-eaters in the middle ages did, especially in Ireland.
- Okada and Nutmeg have a conversation about meta-fiction at one point that is fascinating and I think either shows Murakami’s sense of humor or his willingness to stare right at the fourth wall and say “I see you.”
- I know that folks often say that they read to learn about other cultures. I always feel that this is an impossible task – in my mind knowing other cultures intimately is impossible (hell, I don’t think I know my own), and assuming that we pick up a book and are immediately experts in Japan is sort of foolish.
- That said, this book seems determined to be as anti-stereotypical Japanese as possible. Big lumps of it describe Japanese war crimes in Manchuria, for instance. It talks specifically about the military codes of Japanese soldiers and how stupid they were. Okada is dreamy, unemployed, more worried about cats than people, and not all that worried about cats – all characteristics that go against stereotypes of the Japanese as hard-working sarariman who will die at their desks rather than disappoint their company (and thus their country). I enjoyed this defiance, but it also made me realize how completely I had bought into the stereotype.
- Everyone will be happy to know that the cat is okay.