Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (trans. Jay Rubin) turned out to be a great post-semester read. Somber and reflective even while leading me on with mystery, it helped clear my mind of everything that had been cluttering it. The novel follows Toru Okada, whose cat and then wife disappear, as he gropes forward with nothing but the opaque clues offered by psychics and other people imbued with mystical attributes.
These clues frequently lead him to stories half-fabricated about Japan’s past in China and Russia during World War II, and the book walks an interesting line in evoking this past as partly responsible for the series of events involved without clearly revealing how this is so. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the various English and U.S. novels of contemporary families whose pasts, tied into major historical events, catch up with them—-novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But Murakami’s novel predates all of these and those like them, and it takes the narrative of history catching up with the present in a different direction in large part due to its embrace of fantasy and mysticism (or magic realism). Those other novels are written much more in a tradition of realism: full of descriptive details that reveal class and milieu, but also dealing with the histories more concretely in order to connect them to the present of the novel. History’s finally unraveled connection to the present in these novels pushes them towards realism’s comedic side: the past events may be full of trauma and danger, and their consequences for the present are not always happy, but they are finally fully recognized to humorous effect (White Teeth ends with the novelistic equivalent of the screen freeze you might see at the end of a sitcom when a final joke has just been uttered and has begun to invoke the ire of its target).
Murakami’s magic realism, on the other hand, invokes the past as a source of contemporary traumas but never fully explains the connection to current events, and the lingering mystery keeps unease in the air even when the novel’s plotlines resolve themselves. At one point, Toru Okada’s teenage neighbor May Kasahara writes him a letter that criticizes causal explanations of the world. It isn’t one of my favorite passages precisely because May Kasahara comes across as an annoying kids-say-the-darnedest-things character mostly meant to speak the author’s mind in a cutesy voice (not to mention she is somewhat creepily sexualized). However, it does speak to a key difference between this novel and those later novels that have become somewhat common, and as much as I like those other novels I think Murakami’s approach is more successful because it makes more demands of the reader by leaving you grasping for the connections between past and present—inventing some of them for yourself. Magic realism isn’t necessarily the only way to go about this, but it is fundamental to the way Murakami approaches the task.
As usual, when everyone else is reading the new release I’m reading an older book by the same writer. I’ve got a copy of 1Q84 on my shelf: I’m not sure if I’ll get to it very soon, but I’m looking forward to it after The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle despite the mixed reaction it has gotten.