Murakami is often touted as the next Nobel Prize winner (for literature) and this is the book that, for me, stands head and shoulders above the rest. It is a masterpiece that is quite as bizarre as it is poly-genred.
At 624 pages, it is a fair commitment in terms of time and concentration, but Murakami’s work is extremely approachable, often lyrical and delightfully engaging from the very first line:
‘When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.’
The story follows our lackadaisical hero Toru Okada on a journey in search of his missing cat and wife, the catalysts for a chain of events that takes the reader from relatively contemporary Japan to the horrors of World War II, and firmly into the spiritualist world of devils, mediums and religious mystics. The story takes in opera, Kafka, astral sex and human-skinning in a Miso of high and low culture, and of established and marginal philosophies.
Yet, this is not a fantasy novel. It nudges up closer to Kafka in its humour and fantastical imagery that begs to be decoded as soon as you encounter it. A repeated image relates to being trapped in a dessicated well. Initially, it is used to punish a Japanese Prisoner of War (he survives) but later is the conduit by which Toru can reach the purgatorial spiritual hotel where his wife is imprisoned. I presume this image is something to do with sexual and perhaps spiritual fertility in the style of The Wasteland. Other images are not so clear. I am still unsure what the Wind-Up-Bird that sings like it is made of clockwork is meant to signify but I think I need to know significantly more about opera.
The text works like The Wasteland: crushing cultures into juxtapositions as unlikely as a tin soldier in a fruitcake: Feng shui works next to sexual abuse, spiritual gurus sit next to blaring televisions and mentally scarred but genius teenagers find solace in the repetitive labour of wig factories.
The text retains a kooky charm that belies its harrowing depiction of historical acts of great moment and horror. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in WWII is expressed beautifully in the image of a Japanese squadron having to shoot a range of zoo animals while they run short of bullets and the living animals smell their imminent demise. The text then moves seamlessly to Japanese prisoners in Siberian salt mines run by the NKVD before returning back to Toru’s search for his missing cat/wife.
Ultimately, Toru finds his wife and the cat returns but not before Toru has a range of sexual experiences and learns to develop his spiritual skills to help those in need. This seems to be the reassuringly liberal aim of the text: to underline the horror of civilization at its worst, its impact on the individual and reclaim the world of the spiritual for the everyman: and ensure cats and people can live in harmony.