Norweigan Wood

Norweigan Wood by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin9780375704024

publication date: 1987 (translation: 2000)
pages: 296
ISBN: 296-0-375-70402-7

In this coming-of-age story, university student Toru Watanabe attempted to maintain a recent relationship with Naoko, his best friend’s ex-girlfriend, while meeting unusual new people, including a talkative and unconventional young woman, Midori. Watanabe navigated these relationships against a backdrop of 1960s student protests and a rash of suicides among young people.

Norweigan Wood was incredibly popular in Japan after it was published in 1989. Young people were drawn to Murakami’s western-centric language — the title comes from the name of a Beatles song — and his grappling with heady themes while writing from the point of view of a young protagonist. The book was also well-received in America, especially after it was translated into English.

Murakami used what may have seemed like a straightforward love story to explore numerous weighty themes. Murakami examined the circular and repetitive nature of time, which never quite moves the way we want it to. He also discussed sex, and the myriad forms it uses to manifest itself. Probably the most pervasive theme, however, was the specter of death. Murakami suggested that death was mainly experienced by the living:

The shadow of death slowly, slowly eats away at the region of life, and before you know it everything is dark and you can’t see, and the people around you think of you as more dead than alive.

Murakami also imbued his love story with a tension throughout the book. The tension was often a vague feeling of dread, as in this passage, where Watanabe was taking public transportation to visit Naoko:

The bus would enter cedar forest, come out to a village, then go back into forest. It would stop at a village to let people off, but no one ever got on. Forty minutes after leaving the city, the bus reached a mountain pass with a wide-open view. The driver stopped the bus and announced that we would be waiting there for five or six minutes . . . Eventually another bus came climbing up from the other side of the pass and stopped next to ours . . .
It was not immediately clear to me why our bus had had to wait for the other one, but a short way down the other side of the mountain the road narrowed suddenly. Two big buses could never have passed each other on the road, and in fact passing ordinary cars coming in the other direction required a good deal of maneuvering with one or the other vehicle having to back up and squeeze into the overhang of a curve.

Beyond setting an effective tone, there were so many times that something in the narrative was pleasingly relatable. I was often reminded of something a friend had recently said, or something I’d thought while drifting off to sleep. This introspective passage, for example:

At five-thirty I closed my book, went outside, and ate a light supper. How many Sundays — how many hundreds of Sundays like this — lay ahead of me? “Quiet, peaceful, and lonely,” I said aloud to myself. On Sundays, I didn’t wind my spring.

Although there was a lot I liked about the book, I often found it tiresome or maddening. It was sometimes repetitive, and the prose could be dull or inconsistent — although that might be the fault of the translator.

Perhaps most importantly, I don’t gain a lot of satisfaction anymore from coming-of-age stories with a man who is finding his way in the world with the help of lessons learned from the women around him. I’m tired of reading sentences like this:

The power she exerted was a subtle thing, but it called forth deep resonances . . . It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained — and would forever remain — unfulfilled.

Or:

I felt as drawn to her as ever, perhaps more than before, but the thought of what she had lost in the meantime also gave me cause for regret. Never again would she have that self-centered beauty that seems to take its own, independent course in adolescent girls and no one else.

Or, my favorite:

[Falling in love with two women happens] all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and lake are beautiful.

I suppose it wasn’t Murakami’s fault I’ve read variations on those lines dozens of times. Doesn’t make it less annoying or less inaccurate, though. Although the book was inconsistent, there were enough potent passages to make it:

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian 
The Ooh Tray blog

Roots

Roots by Alex Haley9780440174646

publication date: 1976
pages: 688

Roots is a classic and for good reason.

The book followed an entire family’s ancestral line, from 17-year-old Kunta Kinte being snatched from a Gambian forest by slave traders in the late 1700s, to the author, Alex Haley, who was born into freedom in 1921. The first half of the book was devoted to Kunta Kinte’s life, as a young man in Africa and then in adulthood as a slave in America. The second half of the book focused on the descendants of Kinte, from Kinte’s daughter Kizzy, through several generations down to Haley.

My favorite part of the book was the first 150 pages, which described Kinte’s life as a member of the Mandinka tribe in Africa. Haley’s text captured the specific details of a culture very different from our modern-day Western culture, but he always considered the shared humanness that existed between Kinte’s Mandinka culture and our American one. For example, here was a passage describing when Kinte graduated from school:

One by one now, the arafang asked each graduate to stand. Finally came Kunta’s turn. “Kunta Kinte!” With all eyes upon him, Kunta felt the great pride of his family in the front row, even of his ancestors in the burying ground beyond the village – most especially of his beloved Grandma Yaisa. Standing up, he read aloud a verse from the Koran’s last page; finishing, he pressed it to his forehead and said, “Amen!” When the readings were done, the teacher shook each boy’s hand and announced loudly that as their eduction was complete, these boys were now of the third kafo, and everyone broke out into a loud cheering.

Although I loved reading about Kinte’s life in Africa, the most powerful part of the book was after his capture, when he was shackled in the slave transport ship from the African coast to America. In very concrete terms, Haley portrayed the horrific conditions of the months-long forced voyage that Kinte, and thousands of other Africans, took during the transatlantic crossing to slavery. Here was a passage:

Occasionally, down in the hold, Kunta would hear a little murmuring here and there, and he wondered what they could find to talk about. And what was the point? His Wolof shacklemate was gone, and death had taken some of those who had translated for the others. Besides, it took too much strength to talk any more. Each day Kunta felt a little worse, and it didn’t help to see what was happening to some of the other men. Their bowels had begun to drain out a mixture of clotted blood and thick, grayish-yellow, horribly foul-smelling mucus.

The ending of the book, with Haley investigating Kinte’s life in Africa, was also very emotionally moving, although I discovered in my research that there was controversy surrounding the truthfulness of Haley’s story.

Throughout the book, there was nothing very special or interesting about Haley’s writing. He didn’t create many memorable phrases or passages and there were timing and pace issues in the second half of the book. What made the book so memorable was Haley’s subject matter and his intricate characters.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews of this book

Good Books and Good Wine
An Improbable Life
goodreads