This week’s selection: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997) by Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin.
In brief: Murakami’s surrealist epic is a colourful story full of unique interactions between minds and the outside world. Its defiance of storytelling conventions of cause and effect is so extreme as to deny entry to typical reading habits, but it approximates the sense of faded memory better than perhaps any other novel I have read.
(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, keep reading below.)
Fiction is a lie. Not everyone agrees on what the lie is meant to accomplish—to entertain, to perfect the craft of lying, to take us to the truth—but the common consensus is to define fiction as the kind of lie that acknowledges its own constructedness but aims for plausibility nonetheless.
There is something inherently elegant about lying, and often admitting to the lie in the act of telling it, as a way of getting to the truth. It compels us to ask what advantage fiction has over other forms of truth-seeking, be it the empirical disciplines of science and history or the human constructions of philosophy and religion. Fiction seems especially well suited to explore something that we do not often consider part of reality at all: the truth about dreams, and about our experience of dreaming.
Properly speaking, “our experience of dreaming” is a nonsensical phrase. Dreams defy empirical study because the sensory data are available to one and only one direct observer; we may only collect them via testimony that we know to be unreliable. They equally defy constructed systems of explication like Freudian psychoanalysis, schemas that ultimately fail to capture the infinite diversity of human experience. Vladimir Nabokov, who was famous for his virulent hatred of Freud, once had this to say about the thinker most associated with the interpretation of dreams: “I think he’s crude, I think he’s medieval, and I don’t want an elderly gentleman from Vienna with an umbrella inflicting his dreams upon me. I don’t have the dreams that he discusses in his books. I don’t see umbrellas in my dreams. Or balloons.”
What an author can do in fiction, and not in the other schemes, is consciously create new dreams that remind us of what dreaming is like. An author of dreams does this in the same way a historical novelist creates past events that remind us of what history is like.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a 600-page fiction about an unemployed thirty-year-old named Toru Okada who loses his cat and, before long, his wife Kumiko. It openly defies the causal logic we expect from stories and the tangible experience we expect from life. It tells us less about the consensus reality of the lives we lead outside of books than it does about the literary reality of how we connect symbols in our mind. It is a novel of dreams.
I would not hesitate to refer to its author, Haruki Murakami, as a pop Nabokov. The prose is less dense than that of Nabokov’s own 600-page chronicle, Ada, or Ardor, but the two novels cover similar intellectual ground. Murakami draws more attention to stories than sentences, and his novel is the smoother one by far. It is at times a chore to follow, but never a bore to read.
If we go with E.M. Forster’s dictum—that “the king died and then the queen died” is a story, while “the king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot—then The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has very little plot and a heck of a lot of story. No, it’s not just about a missing cat. To describe the novel that way would do injustice to the story of Noboru Wataya, Toru’s brother-in-law, an ascendant politician who is unambiguously evil but for reasons unknown; the story of May Kasahara, the lively teenage girl across the alley who harbours a playful fascination with matters of fate and death; the story of the sisters Malta and Creta Kano, one a psychic obsessed with water, the other a former prostitute with a complicated sensitivity to pain; the story of Nutmeg and her mute son Cinnamon, who perform miracle healing for a rich and powerful clientele; and the one I found most compelling—the story of Lieutenant Mamiya, a veteran of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, captured by the Soviets and left for dead in a well with the foreknowledge that he would live a long and lonely life.
But as is the case with many literary novels that tell many stories at once, it is much easier to talk about recurrent ideas than story events. This is especially true of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where all sorts of things happen for no reason and with no explanation. When he is not listening to others who show up and tell their stories in pieces, Toru Okada spends most of the novel secluding himself in the total darkness of a dried-up well, in a compulsive effort to reenter the mysterious subconscious otherworld into which he once slipped. It is through this dream, he figures, that he will come to know the truth about his wife. Rarely do any of the characters take concrete actions that lead to direct consequences, least of all Toru Okada. Instead, they passively await the spontaneous reappearance of familiar faces and voices, taking no action to bring them back.
Most of the thematic ideas about dreams I already mentioned at the head of this review appear in the novel in some form. As in Nabokov’s Ada, the world of the hungering subconscious is a sea of ostensible metaphors (a baseball bat, a blue-black mark that appears on Toru’s cheek, the titular bird with a cry that sounds like the winding of a spring) that do not symbolize or displace something real and concrete, but form a system of connections amongst themselves. As motifs that do not turn out to mean any specific thing, they serve less as metaphors than as conduits for some stories to remind us of others.
One of the common threads in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the idea of traumatic experience severing a person from his or her former self. This is why Cinnamon stops speaking at the age of six, why Creta Kano goes from feeling excruciating pain in every aspect of life to feeling no pain at all, and why Kumiko’s disappearance makes no sense to Toru in light of what he knows about her from six years of marriage. This is a novel where characters undergo abrupt metamorphosis, not gradual change. But it is in the act of storytelling that the characters endeavour to make sense of nonsense. For May Kasahara, it is the nonsense of death. For Lieutenant Mamiya, it is the nonsense of war.
The heart of the nonsense, it seems, is in how the fatalism embedded in war and death alike are antithetical to the very idea of the imagination. What is fate, after all, than a prohibition against imagining that things might turn out otherwise?
The crucial passage is near the end of the book, when Toru arrives at Cinnamon’s story. As Cinnamon refuses to speak, his story is only available through a series of files on his computer, short pieces belonging to a work entitled—wait for it—”The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”. The story that Toru reads is a retelling of what happened to Cinnamon’s grandfather, a veterinarian in Manchukuo during the war. It is, for all intents and purposes, historical fiction. Why fiction? Because Cinnamon aimed to fill in the blanks of his family history, through which he may come to understand himself:
He inherited from his mother’s stories the fundamental style he used, unaltered, in his own stories: namely, the assumption that fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of a story were factual and which parts were not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon. The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he succeeded in telling the story.
This observation should be nothing new to anyone who has given serious thought to fiction. But the crux of it lies further down the page:
Whether by chance conjunction or not, the “wind-up bird” was a powerful presence in Cinnamon’s story. The cry of this bird was audible only to certain special people, who were guided by it toward inescapable ruin. The will of human beings meant nothing, then, as the veterinarian always seemed to feel. People were no more than dolls set on tabletops, the springs in their backs wound up tight, dolls set to move in ways they could not choose, moving in directions they could not choose. Nearly all within range of the wind-up bird’s cry were ruined, lost. Most of them died, plunging over the edge of the table.
The reason this is critical is because Toru Okada has heard the cry of the wind-up bird. And in his effort to seclude himself in the well, he develops an attachment to the cursed property in which it resides, a lot where every former resident met a tragic end. The central interest in the plot is in how Toru embraces the tried and tested path to self-destruction in order to save Kumiko from god knows what, if indeed she can be saved.
So does he destroy himself or not? That I will not reveal. But my description of the novel hopefully conveys a sense of its oneiric logic, which will delight some readers and rightly frustrate many others. Readers who believe the advantage of fiction lies in dramatic unity, closure, or cause and effect are bound to pull their hair out at Murakami’s insistence on open-endedness and his deliberate resistance to answering a five-alarm fire of burning questions—why characters behave in certain ways, what is fundamentally at work in the sinister supernatural underbelly of Toru Okada’s Tokyo, or even “what happened” on the basic level of plot.
For a book with such a fatalistic air about it, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is suffused with arbitrariness. Why do things happen? Because they do. That is the sort of explanation that tells us next to nothing about reality, but it sure tells us a lot about dreams. Murakami’s trick is to make the conscious world behave like the dream world, then shove the two against each other in a mutual collision of yin and yang. What can symbols do but slip and slide?