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Norwegian Wood.

In 1989 Kodansha International published Alfred Bimbaum's translation of Murakami's 1982 novel A Wild Sheep Chase (reviewed RCF 10.2). Kodansha followed up on that novel's success with the release of Birnbaum's translation of A Hard-Boiled Wonderland (1985) in 1991 (reviewed RCF 12.2). Although Murakami's own follow-up to that novel, Norwegian Wood (1987), has not yet been released in this country, it is, along with several other books by Murakami, presently available in a Birnbaum translation in Japan as part of Kodansha's "English Library."

Kodansha was wise to introduce Murakami to American readers with A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland as the mix of fantasy, sci-fi, and techno thriller in these two books was immediately engaging, even if this mix did allow some readers to dismiss Murakami as a lightweight purveyor of pop schlock. Regardless of how one felt about these two novels, they decisively established the very western Murakami as worlds apart from the majority of Japanese novelists who preceded him. Indeed, the more vexing question about these first American releases - broached, for instance, by Henry Hughes in his "Letter from Niigata" (Harvard Review, 1992) - was how representative of "the Japanese condition" Murakami's work is. Hughes believes Norwegian Wood Murakami's "most sincerely Japanese novel" and takes this feature as the explanation of why its American release "has been strategically delayed."

Written between Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Dance, Dance, Dance (a sequel to Sheep Chase), Norwegian Wood is, as Hughes notes, a very different sort of novel. Set in Tokyo and in a mountain sanatorium in the late sixties, it is, one suspects, the very autobiographical story of a college student, Toru Watanabe, trying to find himself, to grow up, to make a commitment to someone, and to be true to that commitment. Unlike the speaker in the Beatles song from which the novel takes its title, Watanabe once had (and was had by) two girls, one of whom is sliding slowly into complete mental disintegration, the other - feisty, independent, but as desperately lonely as Watanabe - lodging the claims of love, life, and a warm body against those of past pledges. Murakami's prose is surprisingly gentle (surprising, that is, for those of us becoming habituated to the way Murakami's themes and subjects have recently been treated here by the likes of Bret Easton Ellis) and captures beautifully both Watanabe's buffeted anomie and late-sixties Tokyo, a milder if still recognizably similar version of the American sixties. Indeed, I would say that the novel is no more or less "western" than Sheep Chase or Hard-Boiled Wonderland What makes it seem so different is that beyond the slightly otherworldly sanatorium, Norwegian Wood is exclusively a work of realism. As such, it is a less startling novel than the earlier two, a quieter novel, but no less rewarding. Look for Norwegian Wood if and when Kodansha releases it here, or do what I did: write to a friend in Japan.
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Author:Horvath, Brooke
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Words:487
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