Haruki Murakami | Translated by Jay Rubin
“I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes. May Kasahara was probably right. This person, this self, this me, was made somewhere else. Everything had come from somewhere else, and it would all go somewhere else. I was nothing but a pathway for the person known as me
Even I know that much, Mr Wind-up Bird. How come you don’t get it.”
This quotation is taken from the end of a chapter in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, at almost half-way through the book. It’s a beautiful segment of an equally beautiful longer passage exploring personal identity and the lives we choose to live. You will have heard that life is a journey, and life is what we make for ourselves, and these clichés are always seen as optimistic. But Murakami would not agree.
In much of his writing, Murakami relentlessly explores the concepts of personal and national identity, wrapped up with themes and motifs of loneliness, isolation, loss, and being lost. The fact that he is so relentless, and the amount of questions he asks, nods to the fact that he has not found an answer.
Find Ourselves in Toru
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle we are lost in the life of Toru Okada, a thirty-year-old suburban husband. Having recently left his job with a positive attitude toward change and a fresh start, it is jarring and contradictory to see that Toru’s attitude towards life is entirely passive and apathetic.
Toru has no plan and has seemingly taken to not caring as a means of coping with what may create in many others a deep and palpable anxiety.
This novel is an enormously abstract journey, taking place in a dry and still world. Toru Okada, our unsuccessful and futureless protagonist, is constantly at odds with his brother-in-law, the obviously psychopathic and hugely successful intellectual, Noboru Wataya.
Okada and his wife, Wataya’s sister, have even taken to naming their cat after this villainous academic, arguing that this is because the cat resembles him, but in fact doubling down on – indeed encouraging – the looming shadow of Wataya that is draped over their lives.
The Search for Identity
The people Okada meets on his journey – or perhaps wanderings is a better word – differ wildly from one another, but all share a common theme which keeps them all opposed to Okada himself: they all, strange and absurd as they may be, maintain a clear sense of personal identity.
Wataya is a man driven by an obsession with success and power; the Kano sisters who help Okada search for his cat, and later his wife, are very sure of their skills and their jobs, and even go to great lengths to tell their own personal backstories to Okada.
Even May Kasahara, the lonely and fractured teenager whom Okada befriends, is lost but always searching for her place in the world. Okada is lost, too, but he sees no need to search. In this way, the shifting and changing of the world around him, in a metaphorical but also metaphysical way, acts as a gullet, forcing Okada through it, indifferent towards the man’s own wishes. He is food that has no interest in being eaten by the world, and so the world swallows him up without his permission.
Murakami once told an interviewer: “You are 27 or 28 right? It is very tough to live at that age. When nothing is sure. I have sympathy with you.”
These sympathies have arguably been extended through the character of Toru Okada. Murakami’s search for identity stretches beyond the personal and into the national, as Okada befriends a survivor of the Japanese occupation of Manchuko (Manchuria), Lieutenant Mamiya, whose tales of war and terror bring into question the concept of will, personal stakes, national direction, and parallels of Okada’s personal theme of being lost.
While the word ‘relatable’ is tossed around too much these days, there may well be a reason for that, and Okada, despite his journey through a labyrinthine hotel and spending half his time at the bottom of a well, is certainly relatable.
If this exploration of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle comes across a tad cold, that’s because the journey this book takes you on is a cold one. Okada’s indifference leaves the reader exhausted, and his tiny size in the face of adversity makes the reader feel weak. But this is no bad thing. Like Dostoevsky and Kafka, Murakami understands the failings of a person, a government, and even a nation. He strips away the nonsense by filling his stories with more of it.
By creating a world that is abstract and seemingly without meaning, he creates a tale which reflects the world that he sees around him. All of this may leave you feeling a little cold, and that’s okay.