The Wind-up Bird Chronicle By Haruki Murakami – So Unreal, So Mesmerizing

The paperback version of “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” is more than 600 pages long.  It sat inside my bookshelf for a long time because I was not sure if I have the patience to digest such a mightily thick book (to me that is).  I brought it along anyway for my trip to Hong Kong.  I did not manage to finish reading it because I was distracted by a fantasy book I picked up at the airport.  It took me another week in Singapore to finish it off.  If not for my holiday, it would take mightily long for me to complete.  Now I am looking at his new book “1Q84” that I bought in Hong Kong with deep concern.  That too looks thick, divided into three books like “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle”.

“The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” is surprisingly engaging.  I was glued to the story not wanting to put down.  Not many story books these days have this effect on me.  The book is not quite a page turner in a sense that it takes some effort to digest the content.  But it is worth it.  From start till the very end, I had no idea which way the story is heading.  Book One is titled “The Thieving Magpie” and it documents the events that happened between June to July 1984.  Then we have Book Two titled “Bird as Prophet” for events that happened between July to October 1984.  The last books is “The Birthcatcher” that spans a longer time frame of October 1984 to December 1985.

After reading the first few chapters, I concluded that this book has a very strong “Murakami” feel.  As in we could have wiped out the author’s name and avid readers would immediately identify the author.  While the setup may be as such, the story has evolved into something it is unexpected of.  Each character added into the story carries with him or her an unique story.  Centered to the story is the narrator, a man who is ordinary and laid back, whose wife is becoming more distant as days go by.  And they have recently lost a cat.  It seems like such an ordinary story but it is not.  It get more and more complicated and interconnected as the story unfolds and as the little parts chained together.  At some point, I wished I had drawn out a relationship diagram like some of the fellow readers would have done.

Authors like Murakami write stories that lead to open interpretation.  I am sure some of you may interpret “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” in a completely different way.  But here is mine.  There are a few themes that have emerged.  First is fate versus free will.  The entire story, or at least a good part of it, is driven by fate and prophesies.  Every character seems to exist for a specific reason to fulfill one’s fate and affect others to fulfill theirs.  If it is prophesied that someone is not going to die outside Japanese’s soul in World War II, he or she no matter what will not die.  But that does not mean a happy ending.  And in a morbid way, death may not mean a bad ending either.  It is how fate plays out and people will have to accept the circumstances.  Free will then becomes an illusion.

And then we have our narrator who is surrounded by fate and prophesies of others (and his), by and large goes with the flow, but unafraid of pursuing what he ultimately wants.  That opens up the second theme of this something that exists inside us.  This concept is perhaps the most abstract concept coming from this book.  Most of the time, as a reader, I am unable to pinpoint or even visualize what this something is.  This something could be sinister and evil.  Some use this something to hurt others.  Some possesses this something as an ability to heal others that are bothered by that something inside them.  Like the subject of psychology, it takes time and word to describe that something.  And hence the rather long stories that each character carries.

The good news is that as far as I can remember, there is some kind of closure for each character’s bizarre ‘somethingness’.  Some may demand a bit of open interpretation but it is there.  The third theme I can see is the theme of reality versus the unseen world.  Within the boundary of the story, what is real and what is not?  We are taught that literature that is narrated in first person may not be entirely trustworthy as we are seeing the world through the narrator’s eyes.  But what if those chapters that are outside of this rule may not may not be real within this boundary?  This book has missing chapters that we know should exist within the story’s boundary but are not revealed to us.  And yet some chapters that are revealed to us may not even exist in the eyes of the narrator.  To make matters more intriguing, there seems to be some invisible linkages between certain characters.  Are they the same person or entity?  How do they relate?  Explicitly, this story is divided into a physical reality and a realm that exists only for the soul.  Hence, summing all up, “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” is engaging, but it does take time to digest.

The fourth theme I can think of is more like a metaphor.  A metaphor that depicts politic as secretive and dirty.  It is probably one of the harder concept to grasp in this book.  What does defilement of body and mind mean?  How does one possibly become a ‘prostitute of mind’?  While reading the book, I kept on wondering if some of these concepts are lost in translation, or simply misunderstood due to cultural gap.  That, together with the triviality of hacking into a computer like many Hollywood movies are the only tiny complaints I have with the book.

Similar to some of the recent book summary I have written, below are some of the memorable quotes.  Is knowing your future a blessing?  Or is it a curse?  If you are to know that you cannot die till a certain age, how is it going to change your life?

When the revelation and the grace were life, my life was lost.  Those living things that had once been there inside me, that had been for that reason of some value, were dead now.  Not a single thing was left.  They had all been burned to ashes in that fierce light.  The heat emitted by that revelation or grace had seared away the very core of the life that made me the person I am.  Surely I had lacked the strength to resist that heat.  And so I feel no fear of death.  If anything, my physical death would be, for me, a form of salvation.  It would liberate me for ever from this hopeless prison, this pain of being me.

The next one is on money.  It is a rather long quote.  I like the punch line at the end of the paragraph.

The address – an office building in the wealthy Akasaka district – was the only thing on the card.  There was no name.  I turned it over to check the back, but it was blank.  I brought the card to my nose, but it had no fragrance.  It was just a normal white card.

“No name?” I said.

She smiled for the first time and gently shook her head from side to side, “I believe that what you need is money.  Does money have a name?”

I shook my head as she was doing.  Money had no name, of course.  And if it did have a name, it would no longer be money.  What gave money its true meaning was its dark-night namelessness, its breathtaking interchangeability.

And here is one confession from a girl to a man in the form of a letter.  Often when I think of my personal weakness, I seem not have a straightforward answer.  Perhaps, the answer is as simple as this.

I’m sorry, though.  I know I should never have done that to you (or to anybody).  But I can’t help myself sometimes.  I know exactly what I’m doing, but I just can’t stop.  That’s my greatest weakness.

Finally, there is one quote on work.  It could be something most of us can relate.

Lately, it’s really been bothering me that, I don’t know, the way people work like this every day from morning to night is kind of weird.  Hasn’t it ever struck you as strange?  I mean, all I do here is do the work that my bosses tell me to do the way they tell me to do it.  I don’t have to think at all.  It’s like I just put my brain in a locker before I start work and pick it up on the way home.  I spend seven hours a day at a workbench … then I eat dinner in the cafeteria, take a bath, and of course I have to sleep, like everybody else, so out of a twenty-four-hour day, the amount of free time I have is nothing.  And because I’m so tired from work, the “free time” i have I mostly spend lying around in a fog.  I don’t have any time to sit and think about anything.  Of course, I don’t have to work at weekends, but then I have to catch up on the laundry and cleaning, and sometimes I go into town, and before I know it the weekend is over.  I once made up my mind to keep a diary, but I had nothing to write, so I gave up after a week.  I mean, I just do the same thing over and over again, day in, day out.

4 thoughts on “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle By Haruki Murakami – So Unreal, So Mesmerizing”

  1. You got more out of this than me. Not sure if I’ll read again, it seems a bit much and lots of puzzling bits. I do hate to read about the live skinning scene ever again. So may be not.

    1. JoV – I see where you come from. I thought about it though. It is quite hard to write an experience as vivid and as descriptive as he does on the skinning part. I have read other gruesome stories. Like pouring liquid gold into the mouth of a tortured prisoner (whose flesh was being slowly peeled and roasted and eaten). Also other Chinese novels on torturing. But nothing as realistic as Marakami’s scene on skinning. It is quite a masterpiece in that twisted sense.

  2. I’ve read this book too, and i like your review 🙂

    But i was so spooked out by his description of skinning, i couldn’t eat for many days.

    1. Shn Juay – Woah, really? I agree that the skinning scene is pretty gruesome. And the author has done a good job in vividly describing the … shall we say “process”?


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