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The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

by Haruki Murakami

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The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
© Knopf
I discovered Haruki Murakami in the late 1990s while studying Japanese. My sensei recommended a handful of novels by Japanese authors, among them A Wild Sheep Chase, and I just couldn't pass up the title. Murakami's dreamlike prose, lightly surreal plot and enigmatic characters mesmerized me instantly, and I followed soon with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, an even more Kafkaesque novel in which the story is split into two parallel narratives that combined to utterly captivate me.

I've revisited Murakami a few times since then. In 2005, Kafka on the Shore, following the intersecting trajectories of a teenager saddled with knowledge of his own destiny and an old man with the curious ability to converse with cats, further endeared me to Murakami's magical realism, an element that I found lacking when I cracked one of Murakami's earlier novels, Norwegian Wood.

In 2011, with the impending English translation release of 1Q84, I finally picked up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, considered by some to be Murakami's magnum opus.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the story of Toru Okada, an unremarkable 30-year-old who in a short span of time loses his cat, his job, and his wife. As one might expect in a Murakami novel, things quickly go from bad to weird for Toru, and he is soon visited by a number of woman - and men, but mostly young, attractive women - with more than a hint of the occult about them.
There is the nameless woman who telephones Toru with lewd intent, the clairvoyant Kano sisters, Malta and her younger sister Creta, who visits the young man carnally both in reality and in his dreams, and Toru's death-obsessed, teenage neighbor May Kasahara, with whom he strikes up a friendship while searching for his lost cat in the alley. It is from May Kasahara that Toru learns of the Miyawaki house, the curse upon it, and the dried-up well that becomes central to the novel's story.

Add to the parade of bizarre visitations an aging veteran of the second Sino-Japanese War who plies Toru with stories of violent campaigns in Manchuria, stories which, combined with Malta Kano's cryptic advice - "when it is time to wait, you must wait," inform Toru's decision to isolate himself at the bottom of the cursed Miyawaki well. There, in a dreamlike state, Toru somehow passes through the stone wall of the well and into an ethereal hotel room where the sultry telephone woman lies in wait for him.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a metaphysical roller coaster ride that involves both Toru's search for his estranged wife and his battle with his polar opposite, an evil brother-in-law named Noboru Wataya. This is signature Haruki Murakami - a delicate balance of mystery, surrealism and erotic departure delivered through an increasingly complex structure comprising dreams, letters, magazine articles, and wartime reminisces. The novel proceeds with the arrival and departure of so many mysterious characters and subplots, it becomes unlikely that the author will ever tie the ever-increasing threads into a cohesive unit. And ultimately, he doesn't.

Despite its faults, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an intriguing ride and a must-read for Murakami fans - themes of the ultimate unknowability of another person and the duality of human existence play against scenes depicting the violence of Japan's wartime past, which, though gruesome, comprises some of the best writing in the novel. It's hard to recommnend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle outright as it is Murakami's longest to-date and unevenly compelling at times. Newcomers might be better advised to dip their toes in the books mentioned above to gauge their own inclinations towards the author's unique blend of detective fiction, pop culture, and fantastic surrealism.
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