Murakami is a name I've seen and heard floating around for a while. Until recently though all I knew was that he was a Japanese writer who wrote books which everybody loved, be it critics or a bloke I met down the pub and there was one novel of his which kept being mentioned. "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle."
Hype is often a cruel force. You hear so much about how good a book is, how the style is so well polished, how interesting the concept is, the comparisons with other writers you love only to have it turn into a hideous disappointment. It's tough for any novel to live up to that kind of expectation.
Happily I get to say that this time the Hype-Machine got to trundle on its merry way, completely oblivious to the hundreds of hidden pitfalls it could have plunged into. "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" is a brilliant novel which sketches in stark language the crushing isolation which lurks beneath the surface of contemporary Japanese culture. It really does deserve the praise it's been getting since it was first published in 1994.
So, what is it about then? As with a lot of novels it is fairly difficult to explain and the blurb just confuses the matter but I'll do my best. It is a magical realist novel in a similar sort of vein as "One Hundred Years of Solitude" where the magical aspects remain below the surface for the majority of its six hundred odd pages but contribute to a sense of dislocation from reality which seems to be the story's soul.
The central character, Toru Okada, is a man who has just quit an unfulfilling job in order to take stock of his life and give it new direction and purpose but he finds that his wife is growing distant and that family issues which he believed to be dealt with have started to re-emerge. What follows is an exploration of the worlds and people forced to the margins of Japanese society as Okada acts as a conduit for a host of other stories told by a bizarre mix of characters, all with their own dark and sometimes eccentric pasts. These characters range from a psychic investigator who refuses to be paid for her work to a teenage girl who has an obsession with the morbid and their stories encompass subjects as diverse as spirituality, war guilt and the world of fashion. This has the potential to turn them into "quirky" characters, a phrase loved by publicists but often meaning shallow empty people who have one weird characteristic which makes an otherwise uninteresting person supposedly fascinating, but nothing feels forced and all the oddities are tied cleverly into the Murakami's main themes.
As you would expect from its wide scope this is a novel which jumps around a fair bit between stories but the narrative has a natural flow which carries you along. Murakami is not a stylist so his prose is often stark and bleak (but not Cormac MacCarthy stark and bleak). He does a wonderful job of creating a world which you feel entirely immersed in through an accumulation of quiet, reflective moments.
There is one thing which as a potential reader you should be aware of though. Though surrounded by strong personalities Okada himself is a very passive character for the most part and as such you are unlikely to engage him as you would a more forceful protagonist. This is, I think, deliberate on Murakami's part as this passivity is directly linked to the isolation which pervades the novel but it inevitably means that as a reader you are less emotionally invested in his struggle than you might otherwise be.
That small potential issue aside though "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" is well worth your time, particularly for fans of writers like Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Taken from my blog: http://lit-fix.blogspot.co.uk/