You know what it’s like eating Japanese rice bits? Those tiny,
golden, glossy, crispy, curiously shaped snacks — indefinably spicy —
really not anything like their American or European counterparts. The
strangeness of the taste sensation somehow leads you to a desire to keep
crunching them down.

Well, call me peculiar but this is the sensation I get when reading
the novels of Japan’s perhaps most successful novelist of the day,
Haruki Murakami. The novel that made Murakami in 1987 an instant,
overnight best-seller to the tune of over 4 million copies in his native
land, “Norwegian Wood,” has just been published for the first time in
this country (although the author didn’t authorize its translation in
English until recently, despite its quite phenonomenal success elsewhere
in the world).

“Norwegian Wood,” yes, the very same Beatles song, acts rather as
Proust’s madeleine in setting the novel in action. The narrator,
Watanabe, 37, sitting in a plane making its descent on Hamburg suddenly
hears the song come over the speaker system. He bends over, his head in
his hands “to keep his skull from splitting open.” The music switches
to a Billy Joel song. A stewardess asks if he is ill. No, he replies,
“just dizzy.”

In the airport, he thinks back to 18 years ago. To a walk in a
meadow where first all he can bring back is the smell of the grass, the
faint chill of the wind, the hill line, the faint barking of a dog, but
of Naoko, “I can’t even bring back her face.”

“There is no way around it: my memory is growing even more distant
from the spot where Naoko used to stand — even more distant than the
spot where my old self used to stand. And nothing but scenery, that
view of the meadow in October, returns again and again to me like a
symbolic scene in a movie. Each time it appears, it delivers a kick to
some part of my mind. ‘Wake up,’ it says, ‘I’m still here. Wake up and
think about it. Think about why I’m still here.’ The kicking never
hurts me. There’s no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes with
each kick. And even that is bound to fade one day. At the Hamburg
airport though, the kicks were longer and harder than usual. Which is
why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens
to be the way I’m made, I have to write things down to feel I fully
comprehend them.”

And we are back at Watanabe’s first year at a university in Tokyo,
living in a student dormitory, an isolated figure who doesn’t make
friends because he feels out of sync with most of them, and is quite
self-sufficient to plunge himself into his studies without much regret.
Like many of Murakami’s later protagonists, Watanabe experiences anomie.
He has a joke of a roommate, nicknamed with some justice, the Storm

He encounters in Tokyo, a young woman he’d known in high school in
the provincial town from which they both came. Then, his best friend
was a boy named Turo, who was very close to Naoko, they having virtually
grown up together. Watanabe spent a lot of time with the young couple
until one day with no explanation, no note, Turo committed suicide.
When Watanabe found Naoke again, the memory of Turo both drew them
together, yet seemed to keep them apart at the same time.

The novel follows Watanabe as he is falling in love with Naoke, even
while going out with other young women. Murakami quite admirably
captures all the yearning, pain and loneliness of being in love and the
confused conflicts of getting involved with other people. How not to
hurt anyone. Naoke, though, has never recovered from Turo’s suicide —
it has marked her, gravely, seriously. How seriously, we only learn
close to the end of the novel.

Murakami quite wonderfully with what is basically a fairly slight
plot line manages to engage your interest completely. You get the feel
of Japanese university life in the late ’60s, even though his principal
characters experience it only marginally. And yes, you can see the
author is mad for all manifestations of Western, on the whole American
and English, pop culture. The book title is no accident.

There is sex in the book, most definitely, but it is handled rather
like the impression Japanese erotic prints can give — all perfectly
graphic yet somehow calm and cool despite the extremely graphic
depictions. The effect is curious and unusual compared with Western
erotic scenes in contemporary fiction.

“Norwegian Wood” is being published this month by Vintage. The
translation by Jay Rubin is first rate, not reading mercifully anything
like most translations. The book is — be warned — intensely sad, but
deeply moving and well worth your attention. It is sad, but which is
not to say Murakami doesn’t have a light ironic tone and a neat sense of
humor which becomes even more pronounced in some of his later works.
Like those Japanese rice bits, Murakami can grow on you. Happily, you
have six more novels around in print to keep you going: try “The Windup
Bird” or “South of the Border, West of the Sun.”

Check Murakami on
to learn more about this very engaging and genuinely moving author.

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