My father introduced Norwegian Woods to me. Having been an avid reader of Western literature in his teenage year, my father found solace in the surrealist nature of Murakami’s work. While I have heard much about the almost cult-like status of Murakami’s followers, my introduction to his short stories was through The New Yorker. They are — to me at least —much more personable; perhaps I can only enjoy his dream-like stories in short bursts.
Haruki Murakami did not become a writer until 30 years old, when he wrote his first novel Hear the Wind Sing. He owned and operated a small jazz bar for many years, and this is immediately noticeable in most of his works as he makes countless references to music, especially jazz (I share in his love for The Beatles). Though praised as one of the greatest living novelists, Murakami has also encountered criticism in the Japanese literary world for being un-Japanese in his writing. I cannot analyze Murakami’s writing style like a literary critic, but for a high schooler, his works have been at times confusing, strange, humorous but always entertaining and with a touch of profoundness behind every scene. Every one of his stories seemed like a puzzle piece, and I am still trying to decipher the meaning behind the short story “Cream.”
My liking to Murakami did not stop at his writing style, however. Even in his personal life, he appeared enigmatic, someone who did not attend a lot of promotion events, and almost a loner. Like many other novelists, he was a runner, something my father and I related to, and a man of habit, something visible in all his works.
My encounter with Murakami began with Norwegian Woods. I read it first in Chinese, then in English, curious about the difference in translation and if the language difference would lose the meaning of the novel. Interestingly, the two different languages presented two different puzzles, and the ending left me with a feeling of lost.
The main character, Toru, lives in a chaotic world where other students begin revolting against the school. Moreover, one of the central struggles of the novel is Toru's effort to save Naoko, the girlfriend of Toru’s best friend who committed suicide without anyone knowing why. Naoko, though stricken with grief, represents a sense of authenticity that Toru desperately searches for in this world. Looking back, Norwegian Woods seemed an appropriate start to Murakami as the plot remains realistic; it never delves into the more fantastical elements of his writing but still deals with the common themes of love, ideology, and coming-of-age in his other works, notably “Kafka on the Shore.” But the tragic element of Norwegian Wood inevitably shocks and confuses us — death simply appears as an ordinary part of life, something inexplicable, but simple and all too common.
The Camu-like theme of death and search for meaning in Murakami’s character is further reflected in Kafaka on the Shore. To me, though the story of Norwegian Woods revolves heavily around love and growing up is more a story about the meaning of life, and that is one of the reasons why Murakami stand stands out as a writer. He is not just writing about fantasies or death or a lost boy but rather the human experience, the search for meaning, the puzzle that we call life.
When we look at Murakami’s work beyond its literary meaning, we can also enjoy the simple storytelling. It never is too slow, too sorrowful; just like season unfolding itself, the story goes. My interpretation of Murakami may be nowhere near correct, as I continue to understand and reinterpret him over every one of his works. But that is the fun of reading literature. As Murakami says, “in my stories, if you go down to the bottom of a well, there’s another world. And you can’t necessarily tell the difference between this side and the other side.”