Author : Haruki Murakami
Published By : Knopf, Vintage International
Year Published : 1994
Genre / Tags : Japanese Literature, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism, Adult Fiction
Mood : Everything
Formats : Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook
# of Pages : 607 pages (Paperback)
Japan’s most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.
In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria.
Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.
Three books in one volume: The Thieving Magpie, Bird as Prophet, The Birdcatcher. This translation by Jay Rubin is in collaboration with the author
Tw : Violence during WW2, quite gruesome in description.
“Read something by Haruki Murakami” has been a reading-related bucket list entry of mine for years. I’d heard that this is his best work. Also have been interested in magical realism so this was an obvious must-read. Also an easy recommend to people who are fine with quirky, flawed characters and storyline(s) that are open to interpretation and not persistently explained. If you’re into that sort of thing, those are some of this book’s best qualities.
But some important things to get out of the way first-
1. He doesn’t really seem to have a “best” work, there are multiple books of his that are equally well received and they vary greatly.
2. From what I’ve heard since reading, this book is probably NOT a good entry point to his works. It’s slow and meandering and some parts are awkward or puzzling, which is usually not an ideal situation when reading a translated work.
Especially when the two languages being translated are as different to each other as Japanese and English are. This translation is a valiant effort but it still has that “this is translated and I might be missing something” feeling that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and might be easier to swallow in a different novel. For people who’ve never read a Japanese book, it’s probably better to choose something shorter, simpler, more direct. For everyone else and for people who’ve read Murakami before, this is a must-read. (I’ll likely update this review sometime this year or next to offer more helpful information about where to start.)
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is technically three books merged in one. Some small and early portions of book 2 and 3 might feel almost like a re-treading, but that would be expected from reading a book and its two sequels back-to-back. Sequels usually contain some form of a refresher in regards to the previous books after all.
It took about 15 hours across the span of 2-3 weeks for me to finish this one even though I’d been on a reading frenzy at the time and briskly reading other titles. There are 39 chapters and a few of them put me off from immediately continuing and I would be left wondering “Will I get through this??”
So why the perfect rating?
There were moments where this book slowed too much for my liking but other moments when it was a hectic page turner. When the ending arrived I felt a keen sense of loss. Just spent almost a month with these characters, and would never hear from them again. In that moment, the positive feelings crushed whatever negative ones that lingered. If I was in the business of highlighting interesting passages this book would be FULL of highlights despite the sluggish moments. The characters are well-realized, enough to create such a different mood depending on who is centered in a chapter. May and Lieutenant Mamiya, for example, might as well be from different books for how distinct they are from each other.
The descriptions of World War 2 (which are approximately 8-9 out of the 39 chapters if I remember correctly) are expressed from different angles that add poignancy. The details are gut-wrenching but alive with vivid detail of shared suffering, and connected in a moving way that I continue to ponder.
I continue to think about this little chapter with Lt. Mamiya in the well waiting for sunlight, weeks after reading about it. The passages in that section continue to be some of the best writing I’ve ever encountered. They accomplish more than could be capably describe here. Mild Spoilers // There is a latter point where Lt. Mamiya is imprisoned and determined to kill a man who he believes will be the cause of endless harm, Boris. He is unable to do so. These scenes are dreamily open to interpretation. I interpreted these sequences and earlier sequences (the horrendous massacre of a zoo) as a sort of allegory for the senseless destruction that was carried out during WW2, with Boris being a figurehead representing the machinations of the war and who benefits from and propagates it. I imagine Lt. Mamiya as representing a pawn of sorts. His inability to destroy Boris is very much like his inability to go back in time and undo his involvement in the war, the patterns that naturally lead to it, his life’s trajectory being in service to his government, and the many soldiers who eventually realized many things but can do nothing but live long and remember, and regret. // End Mild Spoilers.
But these portions of the story probably would not be as effective in isolation. They become special moments when interspersed between the larger chapters detailing the main character’s more quiet life, and became perhaps more precious due to my elongated reading style for this book.
The final sections take place in another world. A magical one that is almost scary in its unpredictability. When thinking back to those moments, they’re like a movie- vividly realized and clear. I could feel my heart pumping with fear for the protagonist. Given the no-holds-barred nature of earlier sections, I really could not guess what extremes might occur.
So about the main character, Toru Okada. He is conveyed as normal and plain to an exaggerated point, as if masking that he is anything but. I connected to him after a while, as would be hoped for over such a long journey.
About the magical realism- After reading for a while, the normal parts and magical parts blend into a strange and effective surrealness. Every moment is questionable and yet logical explanations became irrelevant and unnecessary. Magical Realism is definitely going to be a genre of interest in the future.
Overall Rating – 10/10
Why You Should Try It – This is one of those books that has so many nooks and crannies, you could go search for discussions about it on Google and be swept into a rabbit hole of theories and thoughts and interpretations of this or that. The story, while not super hard to understand, is a puzzle with a lot hiding beneath the surface. The characters are delightfully odd, if you can stomach the extent of their pointed oddness. Many parts profoundly moved me and I was sad to see it all end.
Why You Might Not Like It / Content Warnings – Actively avoid if you’re not one for magical realism and not one for odd, unconventional, straight up weird characterization. There are some heavily detailed scenes of violence of many types in this novel, not senseless in nature, but gruesome for sure. There are pauses in action and dips in pacing that can be monotonous to read.The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel (Amazon Affiliate Link)
Are you interested in reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or have you read it before? Have you read anything else by Haruki Murakami or other Japanese literature? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts at any time. Thanks for reading! ~ Kitty