Friday, March 25, 2011

Norwegian Wood

Once in a while a book comes into your life that seems to change everything. Once in a while a book makes you wonder why you bothered wasting your time reading all the other hundreds of books in your collection. Once in a while, a book delivers you such a monumental lesson in writing that you’re left doubting whether you’re qualified even to copy down a recipe, let alone attempt to write a novel. It has happened before; it will happen again; and it just happened to me this month with Norwegian Wood. (What the hell have I been doing all my life??)

While I was reading the book, we were moving into our first home. Everything changed. I emerged from a wood and life has been thrown wide open; though it feels at the same time calm and startlingly clear.

Critics have said that Norwegian Wood’s two main characters, Naoko and Watanabe, make a fetish of death. To some extent it’s true, but I don’t think it’s a precise enough analysis. Their sexual acts do not seek out death; quite the opposite: all the characters – not only Naoko and Watanabe – use the physical connection of intercourse as a means to hold onto life. For the duration of the act, one body connects to the life inside the other. Arguably, only in sex do we know for sure we are alive. That’s why Naoko can’t have sex. Her death drive is too strong. Her refusal of sex means that if she fetishizes death, then she does so asexually. Watanabe chooses life and so he and Naoko cannot have sex, because death is not a mutual desire. Death is their shared history – the only thing about life and themselves they truly know – and not specifically a sexualised fetish - not a desire pursued through sex.

There were more obvious themes in Norwegian Wood that are frequently found in all kinds of other texts: (this might be presumptuous, as it’s the only book I’ve read of Murakami’s and I’m not familiar enough with Japanese literary traditions to be making such presumptions, but what the hell – here goes): I’m assuming, on some level, indicated largely by the setting of the student uprising and the cusps of both the year 1969 and the characters’ birthdays changing them from teens to twenty-somethings, that Naoko represents an older Japan – melancholic, pure, classical, rural, passive, reflective, inert. Whereas Midori is the burgeoning modern Japan – independent, assured, urban, quirky, sharp, impure, sexual. It also seems safe to assume that the two main female characters represent childhood and adulthood, (as well as death and life). In literary terms, childhood must be severed in order for the present (taking place in a figurative, transitional no-place – the wood, again) to proceed into the future, and the subject into adulthood. The wood (and its random, incongruous coordinates – Norway!) represents the liminal nowhere between the two – the transitional wilderness.

There is also of course, in this ambiguous wood, and referenced throughout the text, the oft-visited dilemma of the impossibility of a shared language, or equal union, between the two sexes, between the self and other, and our life-sentence of solitude – confined to one of two sexes. Literature is, literally, obsessed with this crisis – to the point that it can get boring. But not in Norwegian Wood. Murakami’s writing has a depth that makes this fixation with our incessant and yet inevitably futile attempts to bridge a perceived chasm between the sexes seem an almost shallow concern. In Norwegian Wood the sexual act is only the beginning: sex is a gateway to understanding, a device that keeps our hearts beating, and the release catch that allows us to express ourselves in letters and in words, in looks and in books.

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