Love, coming of age, existential dread, death, and loneliness are some of the main themes that encapsulate this literary ‘masterpiece’. Yet, after having read the novel, I found myself slightly confused. Indeed, Murakami creates a beautiful, carefully skilled atmospheric piece, by which his readers are absorbed; and through his light-hearted prose relaxes the reader, making them akin to the characters. However, I didn’t really get the whole gist. Why was this book so famous? Just because it was a coming of age story? After some googling around the novel and author, a suggestion box came up with 'People also ask “What is special about Norwegian Wood?”’, so it seems I am not the only one confused with how popular the book still is (even still thirty-three years after publication). Yet, leaving home and moving to college has created a soft spot in my heart for this book and after reading this article (if you aren’t already a fan of the novel) your perspective might change too.
The story itself centers around Toru Wantanabe, a college student, who moves to from his hometown of Kobe to Tokyo to study at Waseda University after loosing his best (and only real) friend Kizuki to suicide. As a result, he withdraws himself from everything; school life, relationships, social commitments...etc. However, he ends up falling for his dead best friend's ex-girlfriend, Naoko, who falls into a sort of madness, landing her in a mental hospital. Toru continues to visit her up until her suicide, after which he is left lost and alone.
Isolation, being one of the central themes in the novel, is something many students can relate to when first embarking on furthering their educational journey into university. Going from being part of school life, in which you are part of a tight-knit community to a huge one with thousands and thousands of students and staff can take a minute to adjust to. Toru’s loneliness comes when he, quite early on, realizes his uchi–soto juxtaposition, which then follows him for the rest of the story. This is evident in how he “felt a kind of loneliness that was new to [him], as if [he] were the only one here who was not truly part of the scene”. Even though he is physically part of the university and attends (some of) his classes, he is still an outsider of that university life culture. This is highlighted when he observes the student activists, as in 1969 (the time period for a good chunk of the book) close to 800 rallies were held across Japan to demand ‘the repeal of a security treaty with the U.S. and the immediate return of Okinawa.’ Hence, the basis for their protests were rooted in a response to anti-government and anti-war sentiments. Additionally, many students proclaimed themselves to be activists as well as going as far as to label themselves as communists. However, Toru views this in indifference bordering on belittlement as he states “The universities were not so easily ‘dismantled’. Massive amounts of capital had been invested in them, and they were not about to dissolve just because a few students had gone wild.”
Relating to this feeling of isolation, going from having such a personable relationship with my school teachers, where I felt they actually cared for my success and are the reasons I gained such a plethora of knowledge and experience, to university where in my first year of my studies which was essentially a selection procedure, was quite the jump. Very early on in one of my class meetings, I had expressed my interest in literature and art, and being part of a law course was met with suspicion – ‘Are you sure this course is for you?’. Additionally, being online for the whole of my first year, due to COVID, I made no real ‘in person’ connections. I had spoken to people online, but would then go on with my day on the other side of the world where I had my own friends and family. So, in that sense it was very alienating, similar to what Toru had felt.
Transitioning from cyberspace to being in person, I had to make many adjustments, but I had never thought about fog. Sure, there would be the occasional few times when it would be so foggy back home so school would start a bit later – our version of a snow day – but never a perpetual fog. Here, it sometimes feels like Maastricht is oriented in some smoke bubble, bursting occasionally to let in some sun. Funnily enough, the bildungsroman captures the essence of such mystic weather perfectly, both literally and emotionally. Toru captures this in his description of his journey towards Naoko’s mental ward:
“Patches of fog remained floating on the path where it skirted the stream, but the breeze carried them over to the steep flanks of a nearby mountain. Every now and then as I walked along I would stop, turn, and heave a deep sigh for no particular reason. I felt as though I had arrived on a planet where the gravity was a little different.”
Being in Maastricht did feel like coming to a different world, as prior, I had never experienced so many different seasons; such as fall where I couldn’t believe that leaves could turn so blood red when just days ago they had been bright green! So, in this sense it seemed like Toru had been to Maastricht and experienced just what I had. I could say the same about emotional fog, as the novel explores the inexpressible, like when Naoko murmurs “I can never say what I want to say,” and, “All I get are the wrong words,” or, when Toru asks himself, “What did I want? And what did others want from me? But I could never find the answers.” The repetition of ‘w’ by using alliteration makes this sentence almost musical, stressing how this feeling continues to be felt, like a song on repeat. Moreover, I was surprised to find how difficult it was to communicate with people in college. I hadn’t thought that being from so many different countries, speaking varying languages, and having dissimilar life experiences could serve as an obstacle to creating meaningful connections. So in that sense, I sometimes can’t ‘say’ what I ‘want to say’.
The novel later concludes with...no conclusion. Toru is left panicking about his future as, now in the present, he calls Midori and she asks “Where are you now?" to which he thinks “Where was I now?”. He begins to look around to find he had “no idea at all”. I’d like to think this literary description of so many dark and ugly feelings comes to a head with the message that, although we may be faced with challenging new situations, life continues to give us new chances, even when one chapter of our life closes; “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” (Seneca). So tread forward, even through the fog and cold.