South of the Border, West of the Sun
This is a great read for those who need a quick introduction to Murakami’s work. South of the Border, West of the Sun portrays the life of Hajime, a boy born as an only child in a middle-class Japanese family in the post-war period. The book follows the boy’s relationships with the people who surround him, and his own struggles and contemplations on his existence.
“Sometimes when I look at you, I feel I’m gazing at a distant star.
It’s dazzling, but the light is from tens of thousands of years ago.
Maybe the star doesn’t even exist any more. Yet sometimes that light seems more real to me than anything.”
Fast forward into the future, Hajime is 37 years old, and content with the life he has created for himself, his wife, and his two little girls. But still, his greatest burden is finding the right person with whom he can bond on a different, more profound level. This leads him to re-connecting with one of his old childhood friends, and usurps the calm nature of his life. Thus, Hajime is moved to make a new beginning. Even his name (Hajime meaning Beginning in Japanese) symbolizes his restlessness for a new beginning. All of his relationships hold a certain unavoidable sense of distance, which perfectly depicts the exact reason for his constant urge to find intense and meaningful emotions.
“Have you heard of the illness hysteria siberiana? Try to imagine this: You’re a farmer, living all alone on the Siberian tundra. Day after day you plow your fields. As far as the eye can see, nothing. To the north, the horizon, to the east, the horizon, to the south, to the west, more of the same. Every morning, when the sun rises in the east, you go out to work in your fields. When it’s directly overhead, you take a break for lunch. When it sinks in the west, you go home to sleep. And then one day, something inside you dies. Day after day you watch the sun rise in the east, pass across the sky, then sink in the west, and something breaks inside you and dies. You toss your plow aside and, with your head completely empty of thought, you begin walking toward the west. Heading toward a land that lies west of the sun. Like someone, possessed, you walk on, day after day, not eating or drinking, until you collapse on the ground and die. That’s hysteria siberiana.”
No matter how usual the book may seem, the Murakamish vibe is quite vivid in this passage. The feeling behind this short hysteria siberiana narrative can be perceived as an excellent metaphor. It presents the situation in which Hajime, like many of Murakami’s characters, dies on the inside in the search for that ‘something’ which seems so close and visible. With every step his characters take, the thing seems further and further away.
Norwegian Wood is a story set in Tokyo. It is about Toru, a quiet and mature college student who devotes himself to an intellectually provocative young lady named Naoko.
The book follows Toru’s maturing, his ways of coping with Naoko’s strictly introverted nature, and his understanding of his own sexual liberation.
“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
This is one of the Murakami’s most read novels, and is often regarded as an autobiographical work although the author doesn’t fully agree with that statement. The book tells a story filled with the thoughts of a young man who is led by his emotions, by erotic confusion, by a feeling of alienation, and by rebellion.
“But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have for happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.”
Truly inspirational, Murakami makes the reader experience a full understanding of having and losing a chance, of following rules, and of what comes after we stop following them. It sums up the sensational inspiration of the seize-the-day notion, creating our lives as we want them, and not getting too involved into what society tells us is wrong or right.
Wind-up Bird Chronicle
If you’re interested in stories which seemingly do not entirely make sense, or make you more confused with every single page you turn, and at the end leave you staring at the ceiling trying to catch your own thoughts – this one’s surely written just for you. It is at least 800 pages long (depends on the edition) and it consumes the reader from the beginning to the end.
“But even so, every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness. The very water I drink, the very air I breathe, would feel like long, sharp needles. The pages of a book in my hands would take on the threatening metallic gleam of razor blades. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o’clock in the morning.”
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, just like Norwegian Wood, is set in Tokyo. It is focused on a young man called Toru Okada who starts his mystery journey by searching for his wife’s cat, which has been missing for a couple of days. Soon, he also finds out that his wife’s sudden get-away from their home is accompanied by bizarre stories. The book is filled with characters such as psychic prostitutes, aging and almost-mad war veterans, and erotic and morbid girls who are only sixteen years old. It is has three parts: The Thieving Magpie, The Bird as Prophet, and The Birdcatcher. Each and every one of these is rich in sensibility, symbolism and sexuality in a classic Murakami style – leaving the reader on the edge.
“It’s like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you’ve got rice pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can’t tell what’s going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni au gratin in the darkness when nobody’s looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it’s only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me, that is just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni au gratin. I suppose I’d be shocked, of course, but I don’t know, I think I’d be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn’t be so upset, because that would feel, in some ways, a whole lot more real.”
It is easy to get sucked into Murakami’s world. Sometimes it even gets hard to acknowledge the environment in your own reality, the one you’re actually a part of. Long after finishing a Murakami book, many details (from banal, to overwrought) will haunt you.
It is hard to conclude whether Murakami’s characters are suffering as victims of their own destiny, or are personally making beds they have to lie in. What is for sure is that all of them are thinkers and philosophers, questioning the traditional norms they were born into, and contemplating their own sense of morality and existence in relations created with the other human beings around them.