Long after the firefly had disappeared, the trail of its light remained inside me, its pale, faint glow hovering on and on in the thick darkness behind my eyelids like a lost soul.
More than once I tried stretching my hand out in that darkness. My fingers touched nothing. The faint glow remained, just beyond their grasp.
— Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood pg. 87
There's something really entrancing about reading Murakami. It's easy to read, but not because it's simple writing. His use of pace and language is rhythmically consistent, creating a dreamy atmosphere that lulls you in. The writing is also beautiful, at times rising to incandescent lyricism.
Even the descriptions of the mundane activities of Murakami's characters aren't boring to me. I think this is because his stories take place in Japan, and the routine aspects of life in Japan are still novel and interesting for Western readers. The things they make for dinner, what they do for fun, the sights and sounds of Tokyo...these elements of Japanese life are an additional aspect that makes Murakami's writing enjoyable.
I've only read 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood so far, but I look forward to reading more of Murakami's work in the future. Norwegian Wood is similar to 1Q84, but it's more grounded in reality. Both stories revolve around lovers who cannot be together. Both are set in Tokyo, and both are marked by themes of loneliness and isolation; apparently this is common in all of Murakami's work. I liked Norwegian Wood more, probably because it was a third of the length.
Lost in the Woods
Norweigan Wood tells a story about love and death and how our understanding of these things change as we grow older. Our protagonist is Toru Watanabe, a young man living in Tokyo, originally from Kobe, who is caught in the midst of a love triangle1. Naoko is one vertex of this triangle; she and Toru are bound by mutual tragedy. Her boyfriend, who is also Toru's best friend, commits suicide when they are 17. Toru and Naoko both move to Tokyo for college and after a short time together there, Naoko leaves to join a sanatorium in order to regain her mental health. Toru is in love with Naoko and despite her leaving, he still feels obligated to her:
And besides, I still loved Naoko. Bent and twisted as that love might be, I did love her. Somewhere inside me, there was still preserved a broad, open space, untouched, for Naoko and no one else.
— Murakami, pg. 485
Toru's commitment to Naoko prevents him from loving someone else, which makes his relationship with Midori complicated. Midori is a lovable, passionate girl who Toru would love to be with, but he feels it would be unfaithful to Naoko. In metaphorical terms, I'd say that Naoko represents death, and Midori represents life. Toru is afraid of death, and this is preventing him from living freely.
I like how Murakami presents the struggle of love. Loving someone else is not always a gift, it can be a burden as well. But the struggle is what makes love genuine and worthwhile. The most poignant thoughts on love come near the end of the book, when Toru receives a letter from Reiko, Naoko's roommate at the sanatorium. It's in response to Toru's letter seeking advice on his torn feelings towards Naoko and Midori. I think Murakami did an amazing job expressing such beautiful and gentle words that go beyond just Toru's situation; I think they are applicable to life itself:
Things like that happen all the time in this great big world of ours. It’s like taking a boat out on a beautiful lake on a beautiful day and thinking both the sky and the lake are beautiful. So stop eating yourself up alive. Things will go where they’re supposed to go if you just let them take their natural course. Despite your best efforts, people are going to be hurt when it’s time for them to be hurt. Life is like that.
— Murakami, pg. 487
I read Reiko's letter several times before moving on to the next chapter—the first sentence of which hits you like a ton of bricks. Immediately after reading this letter, Toru, and the reader, find out that Naoko committed suicide. This letter was meant to be an exoneration for Toru from his self-imposed responsibility to Naoko. Reiko was giving license to Toru to live, and love, in any way that made him happy. I believe Toru would have followed through on this advice, but only under the pretense that Naoko was sill alive and getting better. Her death pulls him right back in and launches him into despair. I don't know if he ever recovered.
Happily Ever After?
The book ends with Toru asking himself a question: Where was he?
At last, Midori’s quiet voice broke the silence: “Where are you now?”
Where was I now?
Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the telephone booth. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.
— Murakami, pg. 531
The broader question implied here, as Toru is phoning Midori to get back together with her, is whether they do in fact stay together. Murakami leaves this open to the reader, partly because I think a clear-cut happy ending would be inappropriate for the story. But I believe there's enough context to suggest Toru doesn't stay with Midori. Toru ends up following a path in life similar to Nagasawa, his friend from college. Toru will become career-obsessed and go off to travel the world, possibly as a writer or journalist, leaving Midori and happiness behind.
Nagasawa sees the similarity between himself and Toru, and he remarks on it during dinner with Hatsumi:
"[...]Toru’s practically the same as me. He may be a nice guy, but deep down in his heart he’s incapable of loving anybody. There’s always some part of him somewhere that’s wide awake and detached. He just has that hunger that won’t go away. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about."
— Murakami, pg. 384
This inability-to-love-somebody is a commonality between the two of them, but their motivations differ beneath the surface. Despite Nagasawa's success and good fortunes, he's cursed by an incurable loneliness—his own "special hell" as Toru describes it. Nagasawa cannot love, or even empathize, with anyone and tries to hide this void through a life of hedonism and promiscuity.
Toru, on the other hand, cannot love because his love has already been spent. He loves Naoko, and is bound to her by tragedy and loss. He wants to be there for her forever, unlike Kizuki:
And all because you killed yourself and left Naoko behind. But that’s something I will never do. I will never, ever turn my back on her. First of all, because I love her, and because I’m stronger than she is. And I’m just going to keep on getting stronger.
— Murakami, pg. 448
During the course of the story, Toru is determined to become the person to save Naoko. After Naoko's death, this determination becomes Toru's tragic fate—her death does not free him as you might expect. Naoko remains with Toru in his heart. Unreachable, but always with him.
In the end, Toru chooses Nagasawa's way of life, a life of isolation, over Midori and a life of passion. Looking at his life 20 years later, in a plane on the way to Germany (not for the first time), the Toru we meet is still haunted by those dreams of Naoko. Furthermore, we know that Germany was at least one destination for Nagasawa in his career as a foreign diplomat2. I believe this is a hint from Murakami alluding to the similar fates of Toru and Nagasawa. The idea of flying away to various parts of the globe is much like running away, or at least always running. Nagasawa will never stop in his conquest to control life. To grab life and laugh in its face. I think Toru follows him into this life of nothingness—a place that is no place.
The irony of this decision is made clear by Toru's statement at the end of the first chapter. After years of reflection and thinking about his love for Naoko, he arrives at a sad conclusion: Naoko didn't love him back.
To Love a Ghost
When finishing this book, I highly recommend re-reading the first chapter. It's more emotional once you know about Toru's relationship with Naoko. The last line of the chapter was particularly illuminating:
The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko herself knew, of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is precisely why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed.
The thought fills me with an almost unbearable sorrow. Because Naoko never loved me.
— Murakami, pg. 16
This is quite a sad realization for Toru to reach, especially if you subscribe to my theory that he was irreparably effected by Naoko's death in such a way that he couldn't love again. As a young man, he completely devotes himself to Naoko and is deeply in love with her. How did he come to the realization that Naoko never loved him back?
It may be an emotional reaction; he devoted his life to her while she responded by killing herself. Toru may feel guilty and upset that he wasn't "enough" to keep her from ending her life, so he concludes that Naoko simply must've not loved him at all. This is easier for Toru to digest rather than the more complicated answer: Naoko did love him, but she was just too depressed and traumatized to continue living.
It's also possible that Naoko actually didn't love Toru. For one thing, she never says or does anything particularly affectionate towards Toru. Between the letters to each other and their conversations when Toru visits her at the sanatorium, Naoko doesn't appear to want to be with Toru very much, now or in the future. She actively tries to convince him that staying with her is foolish:
And that’s why I want you to go on ahead of me if you can. Don’t wait for me. Sleep with other girls if you want to. Don’t let thoughts of me hold you back. Just do what you want to do. Otherwise, I might end up taking you with me, and that is the one thing I don’t want to do. I don’t want to interfere with your life. I don’t want to interfere with anybody’s life. Like I said before, I want you to come to see me every once in a while, and always remember me. That’s all I want
— Murakami, pg. 270
I don't think Naoko even had the capability to love someone else. She had been together with Kizuki since they were kids and his suicide, in addition to her sister's suicide, was too much for Naoko. She was consumed by sadness, often hearing Kizuki and her sister calling out to her from the shadows, wanting her to join them. She was torn by this and it left her without capacity to love someone.
Naoko may also resent Toru for when he took her virginity on her 20th birthday. Reiko relays this information to Toru after Naoko's death, that their sex had deeply troubled Naoko and she never wanted to have sex again after:
I just don’t want anybody going inside me again. I just don’t want to be violated like that again—by anybody.’
— Murakami, pg. 541
Did Toru "violate" Naoko on her birthday? I re-read the scene of that night to see if their sex was consensual; besides a few mentions of physical reciprocation from Naoko, it doesn't sound like Naoko necessarily wanted it. She was in an extremely fragile emotional state after drinking a lot of wine and crying a lot. Maybe Toru took advantage of her in the situation.
It's hard to say for sure whether Naoko ever felt love for Toru. It's clear she appreciated Toru's friendship and cared for his well-being—but she never reciprocated his love towards her. Naoko was consumed by the loss she'd experienced and was not able to reconcile her feelings, although she tried. I think Toru realized this eventually.
Norwegian Wood is about death and the lives of those around death. Some characters, like Naoko, are broken by their tragedy, but others have found ways of living with death. Midori loses both her parents, but she continues living with passion and vitality. Reiko had her family taken from her and her life ruined, but she found a new life in the mountains. Nagasawa...well Nagasawa just seems to be a nihilist but at least he has a lot of fun in life! Hopefully I'm wrong and Toru wasn't permanently broken by Naoko's suicide. Hopefully he learned to live with death and love again.