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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicleby Haruki Murakami
Synopses & Reviews
Haruki Murakami is generally considered the greatest Japanese writer of his generation, but at times he seems more in tune with the culture of the West than of his native country. Throughout his work, the food, music, movies, and literature references will generally be familiar to western readers. When one of his characters makes dinner, it is just as likely spaghetti as sushi; when they read a novel it is probably Hemingway or Salinger; when one of his characters puts on an album it is British or American pop (he even named a novel after a Beatles song). This preoccupation with the cultural trappings of the West makes Murakami highly accessible to westerner readers, and accounts, in part, for his tremendous popularity here.
But he is even more successful in Japan (his elegiac Norwegian Wood sold an astounding four million copies). Perhaps Murakami is so popular with the Japanese in part because his characters seek their cultural anchors abroad. A central theme in Murakami's work is the feeling among many Japanese that they have lost the clear sense of self, the firm identity, they had before the war. And nowhere in his impressive body of work has he explored this experience more deeply, or expressed it more powerfully, than in his most ambitious work to date, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.
The story begins with the disappearance of Toru Okada's wife's cat, which is immediately followed by the disappearance of the wife, herself. Mild-mannered Toru sets out to find out where they went and why. He discovers much more than he bargained for: a precocious teenager, a pair of psychic sisters, a haunted veteran of Japan's war in Manchuria, a perfectly corrupt politician, and a strangely appealing well in a neighbor's yard. In his quest, Toru only succeeds in raising more perplexing questions, but his discoveries do shed startling light on the roots of the Japanese malaise. Surreal, insightful, quirky, and surprisingly affecting, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle has further proved Murakami's status as a world-class writer. C. P. Farley, Powells.com
Japan's most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.
In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife's missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan's forgotten campaign in Manchuria.
Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.
"Not merely a big book from the broadly respected Murakami, but a major work bringing signature themes of alienation, dislocation, and nameless fears through the saga of a gentle man forced to trade the familiar for the utterly unknown....On a canvas stretched from Manchuria to Malta, and with sound effects from strange birdcalls to sleigh bells in cyberspace, this is a fully mature, engrossing tale of individual and national destinies entwined. It will be hard to surpass." Kirkus Reviews
"A stunning work of art...that bears no comparisons." New York Observer
"Magnificent....[Murakami] has taken a pre-millennial swing for the fences a la David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo." Newsweek
"Just what kind of book is it? That's the befuddling part. Plot summary is nearly useless....This overwhelming tidal wave of story washes over Toru Okada, who absorbs each new revelation implacably, hoping but usually failing to make sense of it. Murakami is utterly at ease with multiple subjects, genres, and styles surrealism, deadpan comedy, military history, detective fiction, love story. His canvas is as broad as twentieth-century Japan, his brush strokes imbued with the lines and colors of American pop culture. Oddly, it all holds together on the stoic shoulders of Toru Okada and his single-minded determination to reclaim the woman he loves no matter how absurd the world around her becomes. In the scary but never boring vastness of this novel, it's nice to find one buoy on the horizon we recognize." Booklist
"The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a wildly ambitious book that not only recapitulates the themes, motifs, and preoccupations of [Murakami's] earlier work, but also aspires to invest that material with weighty mythic and historical significance. But...he is only intermittently successful. Wind-Up Bird has some powerful scenes of antic comedy and some shattering scenes of historical power, but such moments do not add up to a satisfying, fully fashioned novel. In trying to depict a fragmented, chaotic, and ultimately unknowable world, Murakami has written a fragmentary and chaotic book....Wind-Up Bird often seems so messy that its refusal of closure feels less like an artistic choice than simple laziness, a reluctance on the part of the author to run his manuscript through the typewriter (or computer) one last time." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[A] big, ambitious book clearly intended to establish Murakami as a major figure in world literature....The new book almost self-consciously deals with a wide spectrum of heavy subjects....[It] marks a significant advance in Murakami's art....Murakami has written a bold and generous book, and one that would have lost a great deal by being tidied up." Jamie James, The New York Times Book Review
"Dreamlike and compelling....Murakami is a genius." Chicago Tribune
"This very long journey is much less magical than simply strained. There are detours into the history of Japan's occupation of Manchuria and accounts of Japanese prisoners' lives in Siberian coal mines. Though interesting in parts, taken as a whole, this latest from Murakami labors diligently toward some larger message but fails in the attempt." Library Journal
"Murakami's most ambitious work to date....Ingeniously, Murakami links history to a detective story that uses a mannered realism and metaphysical speculation to catapult the narrator into the surreal place where mysteries are solved and evil is confronted." Publishers Weekly
"Murakami is that unusual creature, a metaphysical novelist with a warm, down-to-earth voice and a knack for creating credible characters and spinning a lively yarn....From the beginning, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has the easy authority of the work of a natural-born storyteller, and each eccentric character and odd development only adds to the anticipation that Murakami will tie it all up in a satisfying resolution....The first 600 pages of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle offer much unadulterated reading pleasure, and it's only as the remaining pages grow ominously sparse that the proverbial sinking feeling sets in....Murakami can't, in the end, gather all his novel's intriguing subplots and mysterious minor characters together convincingly, and he summarily drops whole handfuls of loose ends. Like the mark in a brilliant con game, I closed The Wind-up Bird Chronicle feeling somewhat bereft, but still so dazzled by Murakami's skill that I couldn't quite regret having come along for the ride." Laura Miller, Salon.com
"Murakami lets the narrative lines, so carefully laid, snap; you're suspended midair, your tender attentions scattered to the winds.... Murakami's story ran away with him. Too little too late, his impulse to tidy resolution testifies more to his discomfort with an expanded canvas than to his plug-and-socket skills." Lakshmi Gopalkrishnan, Slate
"Whether his target is Japan or the world, Mr. Murakami's work sums up a bad century and envisions an uncertain future....The novel is a deliberately confusing, illogical image of a confusing, illogical world. It is not easy reading, but it is never less than absorbing." Phoebe-Lou Adams, The Atlantic Monthly
Book One: The Thieving Magpie
June and July 1984
Tuesday's Wind-Up Bird
Six Fingers and Four Breasts
When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini's The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.
I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been somebody with news of a job opening. I lowered the flame, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.
"Ten minutes, please," said a woman on the other end.
I'm good at recognizing people's voices, but this was not one I knew.
"Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?"
"To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. That's all we need to understand each other." Her voice was low and soft but otherwise nondescript.
"Understand each other?"
"Each other's feelings."
I leaned over and peeked through the kitchen door. The spaghetti pot was steaming nicely, and Claudio Abbado was still conducting The Thieving Magpie.
"Sorry, but you caught me in the middle of making spaghetti. Can I ask you to call back later?"
"Spaghetti? What are you doing cooking spaghetti at ten-thirty in the morning?"
"That's none of your business," I said. "I decide what I eat and when I eat it."
"True enough. I'll call back," she said, her voice now flat and expressionless. A little change in mood can do amazing things to the tone of a person's voice.
"Hold on a minute," I said before she could hang up. "If this is some new sales gimmick, you can forget it. I'm out of work. I'm not in the market for anything."
"Don't worry. I know."
"You know? You know what?"
"That you're out of work. I know about that. So go cook your precious spaghetti."
"Who the hell--"
She cut the connection.
With no outlet for my feelings, I stared at the phone in my hand until I remembered the spaghetti. Back in the kitchen, I turned off the gas and poured the contents of the pot into a colander. Thanks to the phone call, the spaghetti was a little softer than al dente, but it had not been dealt a mortal blow. I started eating--and thinking.
Understand each other? Understand each other's feelings in ten minutes? What was she talking about? Maybe it was just a prank call. Or some new sales pitch. In any case, it had nothing to do with me.
After lunch, I went back to my library novel on the living room sofa, glancing every now and then at the telephone.
What were we supposed to understand about each other in ten minutes? What can two people understand about each other in ten minutes? Come to think of it, she seemed awfully sure about those ten minutes: it was the first thing out of her mouth. As if nine minutes would be too short or eleven minutes too long. Like cooking spaghetti al dente.
I couldn't read anymore. I decided to iron shirts instead. Which is what I always do when I'm upset. It's an old habit. I divide the job into twelve precise stages, beginning with the collar (outer surface) and ending with the left-hand cuff. The order is always the same, and I count off each stage to myself. Otherwise, it won't come out right.
I ironed three shirts, checking them over for wrinkles and putting them on hangers. Once I had switched off the iron and put it away with the ironing board in the hall closet, my mind felt a good deal clearer.
I was on my way to the kitchen for a glass of water when the phone rang again. I hesitated for a second but decided to answer it. If it was the same woman, I'd tell her I was ironing and hang up.
This time it was Kumiko. The wall clock said eleven-thirty. "How are you?" she asked.
"Fine," I said, relieved to hear my wife's voice.
"What are you doing?"
"Just finished ironing."
"What's wrong?" There was a note of tension in her voice. She knew what it meant for me to be ironing.
"Nothing. I was just ironing some shirts." I sat down and shifted the receiver from my left hand to my right. "What's up?"
"Can you write poetry?" she asked.
"Poetry!?" Poetry? Did she mean . . . poetry?
"I know the publisher of a story magazine for girls. They're looking for somebody to pick and revise poems submitted by readers. And they want the person to write a short poem every month for the frontispiece. Pay's not bad for an easy job. Of course, it's part-time. But they might add some editorial work if the person--"
"Easy work"? I broke in. "Hey, wait a minute. I'm looking for something in law, not poetry."
"I thought you did some writing in high school."
"Yeah, sure, for the school newspaper: which team won the soccer championship or how the physics teacher fell down the stairs and ended up in the hospital--that kind of stuff. Not poetry. I can't write poetry."
"Sure, but I'm not talking about great poetry, just something for high school girls. It doesn't have to find a place in literary history. You could do it with your eyes closed. Don't you see?"
"Look, I just can't write poetry--eyes open or closed. I've never done it, and I'm not going to start now."
"All right," said Kumiko, with a hint of regret. "But it's hard to find legal work."
"I know. That's why I've got so many feelers out. I should be hearing something this week. If it's no go, I'll think about doing something else."
"Well, I supposed that's that. By the way, what's today? What day of the week?"
I thought a moment and said, "Tuesday."
"Then will you go to the bank and pay the gas and telephone?"
"Sure. I was just about to go shopping for dinner anyway."
"What are you planning to make?"
"I don't know yet. I'll decide when I'm shopping."
She paused. "Come to think of it," she said, with a new seriousness, "there's no great hurry about your finding a job."
This took me off guard. "Why's that?" I asked. Had the women of the world chosen today to surprise me on the telephone? "My unemployment's going to run out sooner or later. I can't keep hanging around forever."
"True, but with my raise and occasional side jobs and our savings, we can get by OK if we're careful. There's no real emergency. Do you hate staying at home like this and doing housework? I mean, is this life so wrong for you?"
"I don't know," I answered honestly. I really didn't know.
"Well, take your time and give it some thought," she said. "Anyhow, has the cat come back?"
The cat. I hadn't thought about the cat all morning. "No," I said. "Not yet."
"Can you please have a look around the neighborhood? It's been gone over a week now."
I gave a noncommittal grunt and shifted the receiver back to my left hand. She went on:
"I'm almost certain it's hanging around the empty house at the other end of the alley. The one with the bird statue in the yard. I've seen it in there several times."
"The alley?" Since when have you been going to the alley? You've never said anything--"
"Oops! Got to run. Lots of work to do. Don't forget about the cat."
She hung up. I found myself staring at the receiver again. Then I set it down in its cradle.
I wondered what had brought Kumiko to the alley. To get there from our house, you had to climb over a cinder-block wall. And once you'd made the effort, there was no point in being there.
I went to the kitchen for a glass of water, then out to the veranda to look at the cat's dish. The mound of sardines was untouched from last night. No, the cat had not come back. I stood there looking at our small garden, with the early-summer sunshine streaming into it. Not that ours was the kind of garden that gives you spiritual solace to look at. The sun managed to find its way in there for the smallest fraction of each day, so the earth was always black and moist, and all we had by way of garden plants were a few drab hydrangeas in one corner--and I don't like hydrangeas. There was a small strand of trees nearby, and from it you could hear the mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring. We called it the wind-up bird. Kumiko gave it the name. We didn't know what it was really called or what it looked like, but that didn't bother the wind-up bird. Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighborhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world.
So now I had to go cat hunting. I had always liked cats. And I liked this particular cat. But cats have their own way of living. They're not stupid. If a cat stopped living where you happened to be, that meant it had decided to go somewhere else. If it got tired and hungry, it would come back. Finally, though, to keep Kumiko happy, I would have to go looking for our cat. I had nothing better to do.
I had quit my job at the beginning of April--the law job I had had since graduation. Not that I had quit for any special reason. I didn't dislike the work. It wasn't thrilling, but the pay was all right and the office atmosphere was friendly.
My role at the firm was--not to put too fine a point on it--that of professional gofer. And I was good at it. I might say I have a real talent for the execution of such practical duties. I'm a quick study, efficient, I never complain, and I'm realistic. Which is why, when I said I wanted to quit, the senior partner (the father in this father-and-son law firm) went so far as to offer me a small raise.
But I quit just the same. Not that quitting would help me realize any particular hopes or prospects. The last thing I wanted to do, for example, was shut myself up in the house and study for the bar exam. I was surer than ever that I didn't want to become a lawyer. I knew, too, that I didn't want to stay where I was and continue with the job I had. If I was going to quit, now was the time to do it. If I stayed with the firm any longer, I'd be there for the rest of my life. I was thirty years old, after all.
I had told Kumiko at the dinner table that I was thinking of quitting my job. Her only response had been, "I see." I didn't know what she meant by that, but for a while she said nothing more.
I kept silent too, until she added, "If you want to quit, you should quit. It's your life, and you should live it the way you want to." Having said this much, she then became involved in picking out fish bones with her chopsticks and moving them to the edge of her plate.
Kumiko earned pretty good pay as editor of a health food magazine, and she would occasionally take on illustration assignments from editor friends at other magazines to earn substantial additional income. (She had studied design in college and had hoped to be a freelance illustrator.) In addition, if I quit I would have my own income for a while from unemployment insurance. Which meant that even if I stayed home and took care of the house, we would still have enough extras such as eating out and paying the cleaning bill, and our lifestyle would hardly change.
And so I had quit my job.
I was loading groceries into the refrigerator when the phone rang. The ringing seemed to have an impatient edge to it this time. I had just ripped open a plastic pack of tofu, which I set down carefully on the kitchen table to keep the water from spilling out. I went to the living room and picked up the phone.
"You must have finished your spaghetti by now," said the woman.
"You're right. But now I have to go look for the cat."
"That can wait for ten minutes, I'm sure. It's not like cooking spaghetti."
For some reason, I couldn't just hang up on her. There was something about her voice that commanded my attention.
"OK, but no more than ten minutes."
"Now we'll be able to understand each other," she said with quiet certainty. I sensed her settling comfortable into a chair and crossing her legs.
"I wonder," I said. "What can you understand in ten minutes?"
"Ten minutes may be longer than you think," she said.
"Are you sure you know me?"
"Of course I do. We've met hundreds of times."
"Somewhere, sometime," she said. "But if I went into that, ten minutes would never be enough. What's important is the time we have now. The present. Don't you agree?"
"Maybe. But I'd like some proof that you know me."
"What kind of proof?"
"My age, say?"
"Thirty," she answered instantaneously.
"Thirty and two months. Good enough?"
That shut me up. She obviously did know me, but I had absolutely no memory of her voice.
"Now it's your turn," she said, her voice seductive. "Try picturing me. From my voice. Imagine what I'm like. My age. Where I am. How I'm dressed. Go ahead."
"I have no idea," I said.
"Oh, come on," she said. "Try."
I looked at my watch. Only a minute and five seconds had gone by. "I have no idea," I said again.
About the Author
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and now lives near Tokyo. The most recent of his many honors is the Yomiuri Literary Prize, whose previous recipients include Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, and Kobo Abe. He is the author of the novels Dance, Dance, Dance; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; A Wild Sheep Chase; South of the Border, West of the Sun; and Sputnik Sweetheart; of The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of stories; and of Underground, a work of non-fiction. His work has been translated into 14 languages.
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