The Well, The Girl, His Wife and Her Brother – a review of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle coverDon’t fight the Universe. When it wants you to go down, find the deepest well and descend it. When it wants you to go up, find the highest point and ascend it. When your cats runs away, and a psychic tells you you’ll likely never see it again, be patient and it just might return. Oh, and don’t be afraid of strangely titled books by Japanese authors. Not, at least, if the author’s name rhymes with Schmurakami.

I first encountered Haruki Murakami in the Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is, perhaps, his most overtly fantastic novel. Those who have read more than a couple of his novels know that in general they are set in the modern world (give or take a couple decades) but with a fantastic twist and dollop of surrealism.

Wind-Up is cast in this mold. Toru and Kumiko Okada, married with the grudging consent of her family, are a middle class couple in Tokyo. He is out of work, but they are not hurting for money. Aside from their cat who has gone missing and Toru’s odd and growing assortment of female acquaintances, their middle class lives are unremarkable – or so they think and so it seems to the reader.

However, Toru’s world is turned upside down when his wife inexplicably leaves him. He is about to learn just how unordinary his live can get. Through the help of the (very real) psychic Kumiko’s brother, Noboru Wataya, put Kumiko and Toru in contact with (to help them locate the missing cat), Toru learns that Kumiko met with Noboru shortly before leaving and that he apparently assisted her flight. This is strange to Toru, as both he and his sister dislike Noboru. Thus begins Mr. Okada’s quest to find his wife. Along his journey, he adds to his circle of odd female friends, and makes a couple male ones who are at least as interesting in their own way. All of them assist him in different ways, rarely directly but instead by offering opportunities or oblique advice.

The beauty of Murakami’s writing is that for all the odd situations in which his characters find themselves and the peculiar things that happen to them nothing seems forced or contrived. Indeed, things seem natural, or at least, given the circumstances they to. On top of this, in the case of Wind-Up, while Okada accepts that he cannot fight the universe he does not abdicate responsibility. He works with the hand he’s been dealt and does so in some, shall we say, novel ways. He accepts the consequences of his strange actions, of the particular path he picks. Along the way he blends his intuitive and analytical sides to interpret the snippets of advice and events to navigate this less and less mundane world, which has real psychics and where one can, in a deep enough and dark enough well or dream, slip into a surreal Tokyo sympathetic with the real one.

If there is a lesson in Wind-Up it is indeed that while we are at the mercy of many things we still bear responsibility for ourselves. When you work with the hand the Universe deals you, you still need to work after all.


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