The Wind-up Bird Chronicle Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel
Salutations from My Shady Lunchtime Oasis
My favorite moment of my Postal day is when I park beneath my favorite, albeit only tree on my route, break out whatever voluminous novel I am reading at the time, and disappear for a while into the pretend worlds represented in those pages; lowering myself down deep into a peaceful well. As I munch and read simultaneously, giving lie to the female myth that men are not capable of multi-tasking, I do my best not to spill yogurt or crumbs on the pages. Getting even the tiniest crumb on a book is one of life's little irritants for me. Concealed beneath two or three hundred pages these micro food pebbles turn into buried boulders, speed bumps on the road of one's literary enjoyment, and it becomes a distracting crusade for me to find them and dig them out.
As I blissfully turn pages in my shady oasis I am sometimes regaled with the songs of passing birds. October through April seed eating White-crowned Sparrows bounce by, unaware or indifferent to my presence in the Postal vehicle above. Sometimes I hear the shrill cry of a bug-munching Phoebe, perhaps denouncing my temporary, half hour occupation of what it considers its own lunch spot. Lately I have been hearing more and more of the monotonous three note cooing of the invasive Eurasian Collared Dove that has thoroughly disseminated itself through our Southern California airspace. But thankfully my eardrums have not yet been exposed to the ominous portent of Haruki Murakami's Wind-up bird, the bird that winds the spring of the world, a species that is heard by very few and then only to hearken their impending, unavoidable distress, or perhaps doom. The call of Murakami's Wind-Up bird signals a descent into a strange parallel world; a place where dreams become indistinguishable from reality and where wisdom, truth, and solutions are obtained in dark, inaccessible places, like at the bottom of a well.
If you read my previous review of Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, you already know that my rules for Lunchtime Lit are rigid and without compromise, except when I declare them to be compromised. The book must be read only on my half hour Postal lunch break, never being lugged home to sneak surreptitious reads on the porcelain reading chair or while snuggling in for bed. The integrity of my Lunchtime Lit reading adventure remains intact, and below is a recap of the books I have reviewed thus far under these flexibly rigid criteria:
Lunchtime Lit Recap
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Winding up The Plot
There is not much I can put down in words about this latest edition to my Lunchtime Lit list, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, that will make you want to jump up and buy it right now, or ever. The protagonist, Toru Okada, is superficially a very ordinary man with a very ordinary name according to Japanese standards, who quits his day job to live a very ordinary life as a stay at home husband, although sometimes performing somewhat out of the ordinary errands like cooking spaghetti for breakfast. The plot of the book seems ordinary as well, to the point where I get a little pink in the face explaining it to you while at the same time saying I enjoyed it a lot. But there are also very out of the ordinary things about Mr. Okada, and about this book as well. Toru has an uncommon facility for recharging the energy of people through physical contact with them. He is, in fact, the very wind-up bird he hears in the distant trees; the one that winds the spring of the world. Unknown to our protagonist, however, the Wind-Up bird declares a prophetic call that his life is about to descend into a surreal shadow land in which reality is redefined or, better yet, perhaps defies definition.
Toru is partaking in his unusual Spaghetti breakfast and listening to the cry of the Wind-Up bird in yonder tree when he receives a strange, semi erotic phone call from an unknown woman. Shortly after hanging up from this weird conversation his cat runs away, followed by his wife, after which he receives visits by increasingly bizarre women. Some of these ladies are completely naked, others wear red vinyl hats. Another appointment with an old Japanese soldier who fought the Soviets in the unheralded, largely unknown Nomonhan campaign gives Mr. Wind-Up Bird (the name Toru is given by his perky teenage female neighbor) the insight he needs to rescue his wife, and perhaps humanity, from a villainous politician who also happens to be his brother in law. Mr. Wind-Up bird descends into the dark depths of a dry well on a neighboring vacant lot, where armed only with a baseball bat he takes on the evil forces of the Universe. Yeah I know it sounds stupid, but it is written is such a captivating style that it doesn't give that impression to the reader at all. It kept me turning the pages and wishing that my lunch break was longer than a mere half hour.
Shitty Coconuts - What it Means
Okay, I'll admit that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle sounds rather silly and uninspiring on its face, but it presents several brilliant, often amusing observations on life and the nature of reality. Toru Okada leaves his job to become The Wind-Up bird savior of humanity because he has rejected the intensely masculine, soul-killing ambition embraced by Japanese society and personified by his evil brother in law Noboru Wataya, a popular television talking-head economist turned politician. The difference in personal philosophy between the protagonist and Noboru are fittingly expressed over a combative lunch. During this tense meeting Toru relates to Noboru a metaphor about a distant, fictional island, so "peculiar" it is unworthy of a name, a place so foul it even has a "peculiar" shape. I had to substitute "peculiar" for a rather notorious word beginning with the letter 's' that temporarily got my ads disabled on this article.
On this shitty island grow palm trees that also have shitty shapes. And the palm trees produce coconuts that give off a shitty smell. Shitty monkeys live in the trees, and they love to eat these shitty-smelling coconuts, after which they shit the world's foulest shit. The shit falls on the ground and builds up shitty mounds, making the shitty palm trees that grow on them even shittier. It's an endless cycle.— Haruki Murakami The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Page 202
This quote is probably the best, most succinct summation of our frenzied, ambition driven, dog eat dog, bleeding ulcer and bursting blood pressure modern lives that I have ever read. The shitty coconuts are our superficial, society dictated ambitions that we relentlessly pursue to the peril of our families, friendships, and gentler, more serene, deep and contemplative emotions and thoughts. We willingly sacrifice our humanity and long term peace of mind for the fleeting benefits that becoming these shitty monkeys with their self-perpetuating shitty cycle returns.
There are other meaningful themes in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that center around the visible and invisible sides of reality, the connection between what we see with our physical eyes and what our inward eyes see when we go to sleep and dream. One of Murakami's characters states "There's a kind of gap between what I think is real and what's really real. I get this feeling like some kind of little something-or-other is there, somewhere inside me...like a burglar is in the house, hiding in a closet...and it comes out every once in a while and messes up whatever order or logic I've established for myself." Reality is made up of both seen and unseen layers. "A" does not necessarily cause "B" to happen all of the time, even if they have a generally accepted cause and effect relationship. One can put rice pudding in the microwave and every once in a while come out with macaroni gratin when the bell rings. As individuals we don't even control our own cause and effect. As another of Murakami's very colorful female characters says "I feel as if my every move is being controlled by some kind of incredibly long arm that's reaching out from somewhere far away, and that my life has been nothing more than a convenient passageway for all these things moving through it." There is a "hollow man" that stalks our footsteps asleep or awake, and interrupts the "flow" of our spiritual energy that seems so important to Japanese thought.
Read the Wind-up Bird Chronicle - Cheep
As befits its title, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is replete with motifs of an avian nature. The three sections of the book are entitled "The Thieving Magpie," "Bird as Prophet," and "The Bird Catcher," all referring to works of classical music, of which Mr. Murakami seems to be very well versed. The Thieving Magpie is an operetta by Gioachino Rossini that tells the story of a young girl who is falsely accused of theft after a Magpie steals a silver spoon from an altar. From the bottom of his well, Toru's dreams include a hotel waiter who whistles this opera's overture as he makes his rounds. Bird as Prophet is drawn from composer Robert Schumann's Forest Scenes op. 82, which includes a shy Cuckoo that has a prophetic gift to foretell the future or bring good luck. The Birdcatcher Man hails from the Magic Flute, an opera by Mozart where the land of the night attempts to recapture a princess from the land of the day. As says Nutmeg, another of Murakami's interesting female supporting actresses, "Midway through the opera, the heroes can't tell any longer which side is right-who is being held captive and who is not." Papageno, the bird catcher in the opera, charms birds using magic bells and charms. Noboru Wataya, The Wind-up Bird's villain, charms the unwitting public through the magic of the TV screen, which he dominates.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of bird and anti-bird allusions in the novel is that the cat which serves as catalyst for Toru's downward spiral is named Noboru Wataya, after the antagonist of the story, which the animal superficially resembles. What do cats do best? - they stalk birds. Also revealing is the resemblance of Toru's first name to "Tori," the Japanese word for bird. Birds literally flock to this narrative, but fully interpreting the bird symbolism in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle would require repeated readings and hours of exhausting study which I don't have at my disposal.
One of the things I most loved about the Wind-up Bird is the degree of difficulty it presents, its ultimate meaning wrapped up in a complex nest of symbolism, avian and otherwise. There is a lot more here than a silly semi-supernatural story about an abandoned husband who dreams dreams at the bottom of a well. Woven among the twigs there are plenty of secret messages to give the slumbering chicks weird dreams at night.
About the Author
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle creator Haruki Murakami is one of Japan's best-selling authors, partly because of his rejection of Japan's misogynistic, militaristic samurai culture and his condemnation of Japan's record in World War II; although he retains sympathy for the common foot soldier, whom he portrays as equally victimized by the wartime regime. For this reason, and for his repeated references to Western literature and music he includes in his books, the Japanese literary establishment has criticized him as being un-Japanese. His western-leaning works have instead been classified as into the genres of surrealism, magical realism, and post-modernism.
Murakami's male protagonists may seem rather effeminate to some, particularly to those of the male dominated Japanese culture of the preceding century. They cook dinner, dust the shelves, and do the laundry. Jamie James of the New York Times portrays them as being "soft, irresolute men," but to me this definition misses the mark. They may be soft and and rather metrosexual in their approach to day to day living, but irresolute they are not. Toru Okada pursues the rescue of his wife from the evil Noboru Wataya with a dogged determination that defies the power of Japan's established political culture and society at large. To me this "Wind-up Bird" man is a breath of fresh air, an exhilarating change from the shoot-em up pretty boys that monotonously litter the literary landscape.
Conclusion - Definitely Worth Your Time, But Are You Ready?
If you are going to enjoy The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle you have to prepare yourself to make a clean break from what you are used to in supernatural fiction, then lower yourself down into your own literary well and pray that nobody locks the cover above because you might not come out again. I didn't want to reemerge from this delightful waterhole after weeks of being semi-submerged there. The poetry of Murakami's words alone kept me entranced and enthralled from beginning to end.
During a recent discussion of literary and cinematic symbolism, a friend of mine ranted, perhaps justifiably, "Why don't they just say what they have to say? Why do they have to hide it?" Maybe this is true, maybe he makes a good point. But even if you not the contemplative sort that likes to furrow your brow and ponder the symbolic implications of a story, there is plenty lying plainly on the surface of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to satisfy you. The terrible descriptions of the Nomonhan campaign and the plight of the Japanese prisoners of war who suffered in Soviet prisoner of war camps afterward are alone worth the price of admission into Murakami's multi-layered shadow land. So bring your escape ladder and baseball bat just in case, dig your well, and prepare to be entertained in a very unconventional style.