By the end of 2021, having accumulated a book count higher than the IQ of the typical Matt Hancock enthusiast, I decided that I was going to start disseminating Haruki Murakami propaganda – starting with my boyfriend Zach. After reading fifteen of his books that year, I was certain that I would become Oxford’s resident Murakami expert and that my boyfriend would know all about it.
The work in question is Norwegian Wood, a nostalgic Japanese novel undoubtedly popularised by the world of BookTok. But I’ve decided that I have bragging rights in claiming that I discovered Murakami long before notorious BookTokker, Jack Edwards, did. It follows the coming of age of Toru Watanabe as he tackles loss, sexuality, and turning twenty, marking the first year of adulthood in Japan.
I was introduced to Norwegian Wood by an old school friend when I was fifteen years old, and we would, of course, giggle stupidly on the bus over any hint of sex. It is safe to say that although I thoroughly enjoyed it, at the time I could not do the novel enough justice, so when I wanted my boyfriend to dip his toes into Murakami’s mastery, I got him his own copy. I take my book-giving very seriously!
Since he was a professional twenty-year-old, I was curious to see what Zach would say, whether he’d like it or resonate with it at all. Is the experience of turning twenty universal? Or is Murakami just weird? Probably. But I wanted him to read it because it was this novel that sparked my interest in the author, and I hoped that Zach could help me answer questions about adulthood that, for me, were blocked by naïvety. Yet, it seemed that above all, the theme of loss that swamps the novel was the most poignant for him.
Zach was struck by the stoicism of Murakami’s writing; Toru loses countless people in his life through suicide yet adopts an almost apathetic stance towards their deaths, as though we simply ‘move on’ from it. Being Japanese myself I had never realised how unhealthy Japan’s view of death is, and whilst Zach may have found the novel to be helplessly awash with it, I was plagued with the normalisation of poor mental health in Japan. The translation may have played a part in shaping this perspective, however. Zach wishes he could have read the novel in its original Japanese. Whilst I had the privilege of being able to do so, I found the faith we place in translators fascinating.
Upon asking my boyfriend what he found most interesting about the novel, surprisingly he mentioned the suicide of Toru’s childhood best friend Kizuki, who dies prior to the beginning of the novel. Zach resonated with the idea of losing touch with friends: Kizuki leaves this world with an outdated perspective of life, unbeknownst to the person that Toru becomes all these years later. He has been left behind, blissfully unaware of the fact that time keeps going, the world keeps moving, and people keep living. This representation of the past is what stuck with Zach the most. People you lose touch with retain an obsolete image of you, and there is something quite freeing that you can no longer do anything about it.
And as I approach twenty myself, I find myself yearning to pick up Norwegian Wood again, to appreciate it not by reducing it to a naughty romance, but to read it as a vignette of the past. As for Zach, he knows that Norwegian Wood is only the beginning and that soon enough he’ll be just as enamoured with Haruki Murakami as I am. If it were up to me, I would make every day International Book Giving Day.