The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
This was a reread for me and I was initially a bit disappointed. I’d been saying it’s my favorite Murakami but when I finished it I was unsatisfied with the ending. The issue in this book seems to me how you read the “fantastic” bits: how can Creta Kano have sex with Toru in their imagination so that they both remember it but it didn’t actually happen? how can Toru think himself from the well to a hotel room where he must do battle with a beast and then back into the well? How do you account for the “other worlds” ? If you assume it’s all Toru’s imagination, then the ending of the novel falls flat and you feel let down.
The story is both simple and complex. It’s about a young man, a lawyer, Toru Okada, who hasn’t yet passed the bar and doesn’t think he wants to, who quits his job and drifts, trying to discover where he fits in the world. Then the cat disappears and then his wife disappears. He doesn’t believe his wife just found another man, as he’s told by her brother, Norobu Waytaya, a brilliant academic turned increasingly influential politician, whom neither Toru nor Kumiko likes or trusts. He interacts with a number of other characters, some of whom seem to belong or have access to other worlds, all of whom have mysterious connections to Kumiko’s family in some way. Some of his greatest insights come after hours and days of deprivation at the bottom of a well. In the end Kumiko comes back.
I've heard readers tentatively call Murakami’s works "magical realism" though most feel somewhat self-conscious about the label because it doesn't really fit. A recent review of the novel and of a book on the Japanese psyche as seen in traditional Japanese tales explains why. Murakami is coming from a very different cultural background. There's no Christianity overlaid on natural gods, for example, as we associate with Latin American magical realists. In fact, far from borrowing from more "primitive" peoples, Murakami's is a fairly sophisticated intellectual tradition: you can think yourself into another world if you're willing to endure the deprivation and anxiety it takes to do so. And in that “other world” you may find answers you can’t find in the “real” world. That I see as the meaning of Toru Okada's sojourns in the well.
I also feel more comfortable with the ending of the novel in the light of what this article says about traditional Japanese tales. The "point" here is that Toru understands Kumiko in the end, which makes it possible for their relationship to continue, though that understanding is never spelled out neatly for the reader who only understands because she has traveled with Toru on the journey. The point is not that the tension in the plot is resolved (i.e., Toru finds his wife) which seems anti-climactic after all he's been through. The point is the journey, the process of understanding. And understanding Kumiko involves understanding the family dynamics which caused her to be "in thrall" to Norobu Waytaya as well as the possibility that her family is responsible (and wants to cover up) its involvement in Japanese atrocities in Manchuria. On another level it's about contemporary Japan discovering its own past, including a past it has wanted to forget. So every bit of what Toru goes through is "necessary" to that understanding he craves—and fears early in the novel that he doesn't have—of this person he loves and wants to spend his life with. One assumes that “understanding Kumiko” also means understanding himself and will help him find his place in the world, but that “conclusion” is not necessary and would indeed seem to simplify the novel.
Something which puzzled me in the book the first time and this time too is why Toru and Kumiko would name the cat Norobu Waytaya in the first place, given that neither of them liked her brother and that both were, frankly, afraid of him. I'm thinking now that it's an attempt to "tame the beast", make a dangerous man into a pussy cat and therefore take him out of the equation of their lives. Unfortunately, it's not that easy and the disappearance of the cat named Norbu Waytaya is the first sign of "trouble". I also think the first sign of resolution is the return of the cat and Toru's unhesitating decision to rename it. Mackerel is just a cat, not an untamed beast.