I suppose it was inevitable that the choice for the first entry on this part of An Unreliable Witness would end up being between a novel from a Japanese writer or a melancholic song. However, since I’m currently trying to identify the melancholic side of my music collection — and kidding myself that there is a ‘side’ rather than just, well, all of it — the Japanese novel has won out.
Over the last few months, I think it’s become something of a running joke amongst people who know me that I will invariably be seen with my head buried inside a Japanese novel or talking about the latest one I’m reading. It’s true. I’m addicted, and I tell people endlessly about the sheer brilliance of these books until they’re nodding wearily and saying they’ll follow up on one of my recommendations — but probably only so I’ll stop gabbling. Yet I can never clearly explain the reasons for my addiction, without them coming across almost as dreadful racial stereotypes: in particular, it’s the minimalism of the language that most attracts me. See? Japanese. Minimalist. So predictable. Though even I groaned when a friend helpfully enquired as to whether it was like “Feng Shui in written form”. Er, no.
I spent almost two weeks reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle back and forth on my daily commute from work, and for that fortnight I was so immersed in it that, more than just nearly missing my station or wishing that I had a few more minutes on the tube to reach the end of a particular chapter, I actually felt as if I was living the kind of life that the book describes. Three weeks on from finishing it, I still feel that.
To get the Murakami checkboxes out of the way, though: yes, it’s not exactly the most clear-cut plot. More like a labyrinth, in fact. Surreal is an apt description. But you come to expect that with his novels, and too many sensible, linear plots tire me out just as much as too many labyrinths with twists and turns aplenty. Then there are all the mysterious, fascinating yet always strangely beautiful women who suddenly begin to flock round the central Everyman character. It’s taken a fair bit of Murakami reading, but I think I’ve now narrowed down the types of women to the following: those who want to sleep with him; those who want to be his sister; those who want to be his sister and sleep with him; those who want to mother him; those who want to mother him and sleep with him; those who might not actually be real, but probably still want to sleep with him in some sort of mystical union between the earthly and the spiritual; those who write him long, rambling letters from afar; and last but by no means least, those women on the edge of a nervous breakdown who have either attempted suicide or manage to successfully kill themselves during the novel. Well, you get the picture. If I was to hazard a guess, I’d say that Haruki Murakami has been having some kind of permanent mid-life crisis since the day he first started writing. His attitudes to women are certainly a little odd, but I would still prefer him to be writing his novels than growing his thinning hair, buying a motorbike and embarrassing everyone he knows.
Other checkboxes to receive reassuring ticks include the presence of a wise elderly gentlemen — usually a veteran of the Second World War — who can somehow see inside the central character, and a cat. Cats seem to feature heavily in Murakami’s work, and indeed it’s a missing cat that starts off the whole sequence of unravelling events in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I don’t feel I’m revealing any crucial secret of the plot to say that the cat does eventually come back, though by that point you’re so enmeshed in the central character’s search for answers — not least the reason why all these strange things seem to be happening to him — that the prodigal feline’s return isn’t the big event one might have expected it to be. I started the novel by confidently identifying that it would inevitably end with the cat’s return. Wrong, very wrong.
But as I mentioned earlier, it’s the surreal world of the book that most succeeded in completely and utterly enveloping me. It’s a world where the most mundane day imaginable suddenly turns extraordinary through the visit of one person or the sighting of some news headline; through a meeting in the most banal surroundings or the receipt of a letter. Maybe one way to explain The Wind-up Bird Chronicle would be to say that the man to whom all this is happening, Toru Okada, simply thinks too much about … stuff whenever some new life event crosses his path, and that such immersive thinking leads him to areas of his mind that he’d be better off keeping firmly under lock and key. True, that course of action would undoubtedly lead to a much more orderly existence, but it would surely be far less engaging. It would also be a denial of his real personality, one that the reader begins to feel has been hidden away during the everyday life that Okada has been leading prior to the start of the novel.
That was what I recognised in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle — not the same events that the central character experiences (no, please be reassured if you’ve read the book, definitely not the same events), but the kind of mindset that brings them into being. For various reasons, I’m possibly unhealthily obsessed with the stranger corners of my mind, but I could see a reflection of that in the pages of this mammoth novel, and since reading it I’ve stayed in that world, lingering, wanting to see what my own subconscious could bring into focus if I concentrated on it rather than, as I so often do, running away from it. How many books offer that same overwhelming escapism long after you’ve put it back on the shelves?
Indeed, the only downside was that one of the after-effects — one of the aftershocks — of reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was that I went for over a week without picking up another book. I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to break the spell.
When you’ve got a mind like that of Toru Okada — or, as I’ve begun to identify it, like me — you need a place to think. I’ve wasted goodness knows how many years of my life trying to find the right place to be completely alone with my thoughts, without distractions. I’ve never quite achieved it. Hiding under the duvet is good, probably my favourite, but it does have an unfortunate tendency to send me to sleep eventually — usually just at the point where I can feel I’m on the threshold of discovering The Big Answer To Everything. I’ve tried the park, but invariably I get bothered by small yapping dogs, small yapping kids, scarily swaying men knocking back cans of Special Brew or, worst of all, small yapping kids knocking back cans of Special Brew. Far too many distractions. I’ve tried churches — too formal and holy, and definitely a feeling that God is looking over my shoulder and taking a keen interest in everything that I’m thinking. In the days when I had such a luxury as a garden shed — and those times are long gone — I would try and hide in there, but surrounded by so much clutter I would invariably start tidying up. In short, I’ve never found the ideal place to be alone and just think.
Toru Okada, the lucky bastard, has a well: a dry and long-neglected well, complete with a ladder down to the bottom, which becomes his bolthole from the world out there, the world which is proving so very confusing and alien. It’s completely black at the bottom of the well, to the extent that he can barely see his hands in front of his face, and as he sits curled up on the floor there is nothing, absolutely nothing — well, apart from one or two slightly paranormal happenings, but I’m conveniently forgetting about those in pursuit of my obsession — to distract him. It’s perfect.
I’ve started reading again. Other books. I’m beginning to emerge from the world of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, back into the world that I’ve lived in all along, but which is now somehow slightly more reassuring and welcoming than before. At its heart, despite all the surrealism, the tale that Murakami tells is an adventure, a metaphysical detective story. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle of a similar adventure, a similarly inexplicable quest. I’m not entirely sure that I know what I’m looking for and what my goal is supposed to be at the end, but maybe that’s not the point any more.
Most of all, I just want a place to think. I want a well of my own.