Hemjt who selected the novel gave his introduction. He told us about a friend who was a book reader obsessed with Murakami, and told him this book could take you to a higher plane, enabling access to other worlds. It feels sad also when you read it. It is moving. Thommo noted ‘there are more suicides than characters’, if you count up those who die off-stage, and are only mentioned in passing. KumKum thought it was depressing, but Joe liked the humour sprinkled throughout; these kids may be in and out of each other, but they are also quite caring and inclined to play off each other’s good sides.
Priya found some scenes quite unreal, like those set in the sanatorium. You have the feeling somebody may creep up on you, clap you in a straitjacket and keep you there permanently. Thommo was struck by the extent to which the music and songs these young ones liked were part of his background too. It was part of a global culture that spread its wings in Japan, after the hard-working, inward-looking, generation that built up Japan from the ashes after the war. Their kids were hedonists rebelling against frugal, saving, parents who worked six days a week, and late into the night on weekdays.
Thommo drew attention to Thelonius Monk, one of only five jazz musicians he said who made the cover of Time magazine (in 1964). He was a big draw on the European circuit. Reiko teaches Monk's jazz piano style to her protégé.
This novel sold a million copies in Japan, when Murakami was only accustomed to a tenth of that as sales prior to Norwegian Wood. Americans who read the novel could easily relate to it, especially in the translation by Jay Rubin, which is the authorised English version for publication outside Japan. Saras noted that the courses students take in Japan are all similar to courses in the United States, e.g. History of Drama, examining not Japanese drama but Euripedes and such.
Thommo said the song The bird has flown was the first song by the Beatles with sitar accompaniment (by George Harrison):
A capsule bio of Murakami by Hemjit encompasses the facts at the wikipedia entry — born 1949, his books and stories have been bestsellers in Japan and internationally, with translations into 50 languages and sales of millions of copies. His numerous awards include the World Fantasy Award (2006) and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (2006). He received the Franz Kafka Prize (2006) and the Jerusalem Prize (2009).
His stories are often surrealistic and tinged by sadness, marked by “recurrent themes of alienation and loneliness.” Steven Poole of The Guardian praised Murakami as “among the world's greatest living novelists.” You can gather more about the author at his own website:
Priya’s opening comment was that a book with so much sex in it was bound to sell well. Thommo’s experience in Ho Chi Minh city was coming across tall long-legged inter-racial girls born of American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers, lounging in streetside restaurants. Joe wondered why the young women of a country devastated ruthlessly by the Americans would have any inclination to imitate their oppressors. Thommo opined the S Vietnamese were American vassals; but there is no such distinction now as the country is unified, and in any case the division was always a colonial one implemented after the French left and before the Americans came in to take their place via their surrogates.
I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.
Thommo thinks these are the sublimated experiences of Murakami himself growing up. Joe, on the contrary, thinks Murakami has only used his intimate knowledge of all the physical scenes: Kobe, Kyoto, Tokyo, the forests of Japan, and the life of students. The characters and the story sound entirely invented. For another thing, Murakami is happily married, a boring monogamist. Priya felt Murakami is in love with complications.
Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life.
You must read the ending of Zakia’s passage, for it is extraordinarily moving and poetic in its description of the firefly’s flight —
It hobbled around the head of a steel bolt, catching its legs on curling scabs of paint … with some effort, it mounted … and crouched there for a while …. Neither I nor it made a move for a very long time. … while the countless leaves of the zelkova tree rustled in the darkness.
… then as if some thought had suddenly occurred to it, the firefly spread its wings, and in a moment it had flown past … traced a swift arc by the side of the water tank … after hovering there for a few seconds … the firefly 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 … stretching my hand out in the dark. My fingers touched nothing. The faint glow remained, just beyond my grasp.
In fact Murakami wrote a short story, Firefly, which was a precursor to this novel.
Here is a situation where the romantically inclined reader dearly wishes that Toru would see the hopelessness of his quest to save Naoko, and instead go for his own salvation with Midori. But the author has other plans. More suicides, more loss. But what a gal Murakami has fashioned, this high-spirited, joyful, Midori!
a film directed with screenplay by Tran Anh Hung
The film can be rented (video on demand) for 2.99 € at
Joe inquired: was the passage he chose relatively ‘safe’ in Hemjit’s sense? The readers’ expectation had been Joe would choose an erotic scene — there were so many to choose from, but Joe confessed they would have taxed other parts of his body besides the lungs and voice-box.
I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me
She showed me her room
Isn't it good Norwegian wood?
She asked me to stay
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn't a chair
I sat on a rug biding my time
Drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said
"It's time for bed"
She told me she worked
In the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn't
And crawled off to sleep in the bath
And when I awoke I was alone
This bird had flown
So I lit a fire
Isn't it good Norwegian wood?
Everyone appreciated Thommo for singing the theme song which is often referred to in the book. KumKum said she asked Alexa (the Amazon box) to play it for her several times when she was reading the book in Arlington, MA.
Thommo also chose a scene with Midori. That surely confirms the vote that Midori, not Naoko, not Toru, or anyone else, is the chief character that draws readers to this novel, and provides its humour and its joyful moments within a tale of depression and woe. She is the balance against all the trauma and unreconciled tragedies. She would be Toru’s redemption, if only he would open his heart.
Not that nudity is excluded. In Japan among family members nudity is open and there is no sense of shame. But Midori is irrepressible, she goes naked before her dead father’s altar at home; the scene is not gross but playful and even prayerful - “Here, Daddy, these are my tits, and this is my cunt.”
The numbers by Ravel and Debussy, both piano pieces, are worth listening to. They strike the mood at this moment in the novel perfectly. Here is Ravel playing his Pavane pour une infante defunte
and Katia Buniatishvili plays Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune
Reiko wants the distraught Toru to only remember this celebration of Naoko, and not the sorrow. And quite unexpectedly it ends by Reiko asking “How about doing it with me, Watanabe?”
As the two go off on their separate ways, perhaps never to meet again, this night remains to illuminate their future. When someone questioned this mid-thirties woman wanting to make out with a young lad, Joe said she is trying to rejuvenate herself, in preparation for the lonely life ahead as a music instructor in a small town Asahikawa “way up in the wilds of Hokkaido.” ‘Tolerant Joe’, said Saras.
Nagasawa tells Toru:
“Look, the world is an inherently unfair place. I didn't write the rules. It's always been that way. I have never once deceived Hatsumi. She knows I'm a shit and that she can leave me whenever she decides she can't take it. I told her that straight from the start.”
But that does not prevent Hatsumi who was hoping to win his heart and make him fall for her, and marry. As it turns out, two years after Nagasawa leaves for Germany, Hatsumi marries someone else, only to commit suicide a few years later. That brings Toru’s friendship with Nagasawa to an end.
Toru, understands Nagasawa, but in the final analysis Toru realises he is of another bent - kinder to girls and alert to commiserate with their mental traumas. He can never be as amoral and self-centred as Nagasawa, and therefore will not achieve great success in the world.