Unfortunately reality tends to differ from the ideal; the lives of young people aren't amazing and carefree, they are imperfect, some less, some more. Toru Watanabe's life certainly belongs to the latter category and Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood is a book about learning to live not only with imperfection, but also with seemingly unbearable tragedy.
The German title of Norwegian Wood is Naokos Lächeln, which means "Naoko's Smile" and the subtitle is "Just a love story". I am really mad at the publisher, because nothing could be less true than reducing this book to a mere love story. Yes, a big part of the novel is devoted to describing the development of Toru's relationships with Naoko and Midori, but the focus lies on another relationship: his relationship with life.
At the beginning of the story in 1969 he is eighteen, he has just moved to Tokyo, but he has no ambitions at all; he is studying, working, moving forward, but he avoids thinking of the future. Toru is barely starting his life and yet he has no dreams left: dreaming has proven too dangerous in a life that can turn against you as quickly as a game of billiards.
The whole book is drenched with bitter-sweet melancholy, but the journey of Toru's growing-up is also very powerful: he is experiencing so much loss for someone so young, not only the loss of beloved persons but also of his convictions and ideals. He has to accept that sometimes there is no explanation why horrible things happen and that he cannot save anyone, because his love alone is simply not enough.
I devoured all 400 pages on the weekend and loved it. What amazed me most was that although it is a sad book dealing with what is perhaps the most tragic subject ever -suicide- there are a lot of very funny parts. Maybe it should not have surprised me so because after all the great challenge Toru faces throughout the book is mastering the art of staying alive and humour plays an essential role in that.
I was also enchanted by Murakami's style of writing, reading it reminded me a little of dreaming. There is a lot of subtext and much weight on little gestures and symboles. It is hard to explain, but every now and then we have dreams during which we know that we're dreaming, but somehow that doesn't make the dream feel less absorbing or less real. Whenever I opened Norwegian Wood I had a similar feeling.
I was intrigued by all characters, but I found the opposites of Naoko and Midori especially fascinating. At first I thought that Midori was simply a lively and a carefree young girl, whereas Naoko had already lived through great pain, making sadness an unescapable part of her life, but that is not true. Midori has had more than her share in pain too; the difference between the girls lies in their characters and in their decisions.
Midori is able to go on despite all tragedy, she has understood that "the dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living", but Naoko is not. She ultimately chooses death to follow the two people she loved most.
And Toru? Toru chooses Midori even before he hears of Naoko's death. With her he chooses life and the moment he chooses it is the moment he decides to grow-up, because "only the dead stay seventeen forever". Of course that does mean that they live happily ever after, but:
"All of us (by which I mean all of us, both normal and not-so-normal) are imperfect human beings living in an imperfect world. We don’t live with the mechanical precision of a bank account or by measuring all our lines and angles with rulers and protractors.”
Without imperfections and irregularities, however painful they may be, there would be no art, no music and no such wonderful books as Norwegian Wood. We all have to come to terms with the fact that the poetry of life sometimes consists of melancholy. Thank God that its other part, like Haruki Murakami's novel, is made up of laughter.