Book Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

“I’m going to take you out of here … I’m going to take you home, to the world where you belong, where cats with bent tails live, and there are little backyards, and alarm clocks ring in the morning.”

This is a book about a missing cat. It is also about the properties, magical and otherwise, of water. It’s about the dangerous, violent nature of Japan’s military history. It’s about the modern battle for Japan’s soul. It’s about a normal man and the many weird women that he meets. It’s about depression and the act of story telling. It’s about all these things, and it is about them in the most interesting way. I’ve read two other books by Haruki Murakami, both of which used the same magical realism devices that this book uses. I may end up liking Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World better than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I think this book is probably the greater achievement. It’s a powerful, whimsical, terrifying, and supremely odd book that is about practically everything you can write a book about.

Toru Okada is married to Kumiko. They have a happy life, but their cat is missing and Toru is out of work. And he’s getting these weird calls from a mysterious woman who claims to know him. When an enigmatic young woman named Malta Kano contacts Toru and tells him that she’s on the case of the missing cat, Toru suspects something else is on her mind. He’s right. It turns out that Malta’s sister, Creta once worked as a prostitute and was raped, metaphysically, by Toru’s brother-in-law, and up and coming economist and politician. And that’s the first hundred pages. Later, he meets a neighbor girl who counts bald people for a wig company and might be developing a crush on him. And then there’s a fashion designer turned psychic healer and her mute son. And an old military man who spent some time in a Mongolian well. The cast is diverse and they all have interesting stories to tell. In fact, Murakami often takes time away from the main plot of the book to relate a story from one or another of these people’s lives. It gives the story room to breathe and grow, and we get to know the side characters more intimately. There are letters and computer chats and newspaper articles. Murakami spares no expense and it shows. It’s all there on the page.

“The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness.”

The book is about all those things that I listed up there in the first paragraph, but it’s not really about them. The book is, I think, about depression. Several characters describe having some dark thing inside of them, or a feeling of having nothing inside of them. There’s an abandoned house that has a history of violence. The house is Japan in a nutshell. You can live there for a few years but there will always be some kind of tragedy in the end. It’s called ‘The Hanging House’ in the newspapers and it serves as the location for much of the second half of the book. It’s a haunted house and its dark history echoes Japan’s mid-century attempts at military expansionism. I had no idea that Japan tried to invade Russia from a stronghold in Mongolia, a plan that failed miserably. It forms the historical backbone of the story and supplies much of the horror. There are three memorable vignettes from this dark time in Japan’s history that will stick with me for a long time. And Murakami deftly mixes them in with the modern day story so they echo and reflect on each other. He makes the case that Japan’s previous moral lapses have long shadows. Shadows that are deep and unyielding. You get the sense that these characters are trying to raise themselves out of the muck and the mire but they can’t. It takes going down into a dry well to separate Toru’s mind from his body and going on a dream-quest to destroy the blackness. The climax of the book is a wonderfully surreal scene played out entirely in darkness. Things happen, but you really don’t know what they are or to whom they happen. It’s a visual idea that works wonderfully on the page thanks to Murakami’s fantastic prose.

I’ll end on a bit of a down note, though it’s nothing that should keep you from reading this marvelous book. The translation by Jay Rubin is really good throughout the book except for one repeated word that doesn’t work at all. Rubin uses “finally” instead of “ultimately” or “in the end” often. It ruins the flow every time, and it’s an unfortunate mar on the otherwise excellent translation.

“Of course, they’re not clowning around trying to make me laugh. They’re doing their best to live very serious lives, and they just happen to fall down sometimes. I think that’s cool.”

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