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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Norwegian Wood: Isn't it Good?

There's always a nagging little problem whenever you read a book in translation. You can never be sure that you're really getting the proper experience. It's especially bad if you're not loving the book. You're forced to ask yourself if you're missing something, is the writing here not as good as people say it is, or is it the translation? Is the dialogue as awkward as it is because of translation issues, or is that just not one of Murakami's strengths?

Unfortunately, I don't feel like learning Japanese just to answer these questions, but I think that some obvious strengths and weaknesses shine through despite any translation problems, and I'll comment on those.

Norwegian Wood is a story narrated in retrospect by Toru Watanabe, set in his college days in Tokyo at the end of the turbulent 1960s. Really though, the novel feels like it could have been set in any time and at any place. This might sound like a strength but it cuts both ways. The story lacks any real sense of place or moment.

This ambiguity of the narrative extends to the soul of its narrator. Watanabe is an unknown quantity throughout the novel. The reader never really arrives at an understanding of what he is about and what he feels and wants. Part of this is a conscious choice on the part of Murakami to make his central character a reserved, lonely person. (Although these traits are somewhat belied by the ease with which he gets women into bed.) Watanabe is a hard person to like from a reader's perspective.

The novel is essentially a love triangle involving Watanabe and two severely-damaged young women. Naoko is a friend from his hometown, whose boyfriend, and Watanabe's best friend, Kizumi, killed himself at seventeen. Naoko and Watanabe sleep together just once, and soon after she disappears, reappearing months later as a patient in a posh mental-health clinic. Midori is a girl with a dead mother and a dying father, and a habit for saying lascivious things. Watanabe wants to wait for Naoko to get better but he struggles to resist Midori.

Murakami too often lets the story drag by inserting lengthy and meaningless conversations that seem to add nothing to the story. This is not a long novel but it still feels a little puffed-up. His prose can be compelling, and he writes about sex in a way that feels realistic and is very powerful, but the reader can't connect with his characters enough to really care about the results of their pairings.

I don't like to spoil the plots of novels, so about the ending suffice to say that it left me cold, and I disliked the lack of resolution on some specific elements of the story.

On the positive side, if you want a half-Japanese girl on the subway to start chatting with you, I can vouch for Norwegian Wood's effectiveness.

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