First Encounter: Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

I don’t know why I resisted reading Haruki Murakami for so long. I have some friends who are big fans of his work, but I always thought his fiction would be a bit too odd for me. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994), which I just finished last night, is certainly bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements in the way that dreams do. This is the story of a young man who’s become lost in his own life and is looking for the way back. It’s a hero’s quest through a baffling, mystical underworld.

It all starts with a missing cat and a dirty phone call. It’s 1984. Thirty-year-old Toru Okada recently left his job as a law clerk and has been aimlessly spending days at home while his wife, Kumiko, goes out to her magazine editor job. A week ago the cat – named Noboru Wataya, after Toru’s hateful brother-in-law – disappeared, so he’s cooking himself some spaghetti and pondering his cat hunting strategy when he gets a call from what seems to be a phone sex hotline, except that the female speaker claims to know him well. And unexpected phone calls just keep coming, including from Malta Kano, a clairvoyant who foretells that he will experience “Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.”

The cover on my library paperback. Yuck!

There’s a narrow alleyway behind their suburban Tokyo house that cuts between two rows of back gardens. On these hot June days, it’s an almost preternaturally still place, with the quiet broken only by the mechanical-sounding call of a creature Toru thinks of as the wind-up bird. He heads down the alley to look for the cat, but all he finds is the deserted (haunted?) Miyawaki house with a bird sculpture and an old, dry well in its yard. He also meets May Kasahara, a blunt sixteen-year-old who’s taking a year off school after a motorcycle accident.

So far, so realist (mostly). But things keep getting weirder, mainly through a series of further appearances and disappearances. The first to go is Kumiko, who says she’s been having an affair. Toru doesn’t believe, her, though. Or, rather, he doesn’t think a pattern of cheating is enough of an explanation for her leaving everything behind one morning. He knows there’s a deeper force driving this, and he’s determined to rescue his wife from it. Meanwhile, he has more encounters with and stories of pain from peculiar characters – everyone from a World War II lieutenant and a former fashion designer to Malta Kano’s ex-prostitute sister, Creta.

Rather like a Kafka antihero, Toru simply can’t grasp what’s happening to him.

I shook my head. Too many things were being left unexplained. The one thing I understood for sure was that I didn’t understand a thing. … “I’m sick of riddles. I need something concrete that I can get my hands on. Hard facts. Something I can use as a lever to pry the door open. That’s what I want.”

Yet his first-person narration anchors the book, making him an Everyman who we journey along with in his state of confusion. So even as the plot gets increasingly outlandish and somewhat taken over by other voices – via long monologues, letters, or tales stored in computer files – we always have this sympathetic protagonist to come home to. Like in Dickens’s novels, I noticed that minor characters like the Kano sisters keep turning up just when you’re in danger of forgetting them due to the weight of the intervening pages.

I prefer this, or pretty much any other, cover.

Yesterday I gave a gleeful squeal when a review copy of just 190 pages arrived. “So you love short books?” my husband asked. I do … but I also adore long ones that have a darn good reason to be that long – creating a whole world you can get lost in. That’s what I’m trying to celebrate with this year’s monthly Doorstopper series: books whose 500+ pages fly by, best consumed in big gulps. Such won’t always be the case: City on Fire and Hame both felt like a slog in places, though were ultimately worth engaging with. But my first encounter with Murakami showcased expansive storytelling at its best. I want to read more books like this.

I’m not entirely sure I comprehended all that happens at the end of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but that doesn’t really matter. The novel left me mesmerized, shaking my head as if waking up from the strangest dream but hoping to someday go back to its world. And for 99.8% of it I forgot that I was reading a work in translation.

If I were to make a word cloud of important phrases from the book, it would look off the wall: lemon drops, a necktie, wells, bald men, baseball bats, birthmarks, being skinned alive, zoo animals, a hotel room, a wig factory, and so on. That list might intrigue you; equally, it might put you off in the same way that I was always daunted by the idea of Japanese magic realism. Let me assure you, this stunning novel is so much more than the sum of its parts.

My rating:


How do you feel about Murakami? Which of his books should I read next?

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29 thoughts on “First Encounter: Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

    1. I read this one on your advice (plus a couple other people’s)! 🙂 I’ll see if Kafka’s available from my local library…or in one of the shops in Hay-on-Wye, where we’re off to on Monday for a short break.

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  1. I see my friend Penny has already commented. She introduced me to your blog, but over the years we have come to learn that (almost) anything she likes, I won’t. And vice-versa. Marukami was the first proof of this, and I’ve never tried him since. The thought of Japanese magic realism is just SO unappealing though. Sorry Penny.

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    1. Alas, even my 5 stars can’t convince you? 😉 Well, I can see how it wouldn’t be for everyone. But I too had my doubts and ended up loving it.

      Surely you two have overlapping tastes in some genres, like nature or local history?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, those work . But fiction? Not a chance! OK, I promise I’ll give it a go. As I’m about to become a library volunteer, I have a better chance than most of coming across it. All the same. Magic realism …..*groan*

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  2. I’ve got Murakami books on my shelf left deliberately unread just for the pleasure of knowing I still have them to read! The only one that left me a bit disappointed was Colorless Tsukuru – mainly because it wasn’t particularly bonkers.

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  3. Welcome to the wacky world of Murakami! You’ve plunged into the deep end with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I started with A Wild Sheep Chase over 20 years ago and have been a fan ever since. If you’re not put off by its length, I’d suggest 1Q84.

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  4. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was my first Murakami too – I enjoyed it, but wasn’t wholly enamoured of Toro who felt like an empty shell to me (although that’s partly the point). I then tried Norwegian Wood which people rave about, but 1 chapter was enough!

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    1. I could sympathize with Toru’s feelings of aimlessness and bewilderment. I particularly liked “I’m thirty, I’m standing still, and I can’t find the image.”

      What went wrong with Norwegian Wood?

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  5. Hello there, I found your blog via a comment you left on Lonesome Reader. I feel I have struck gold with your treasure house of intelligent reviews of appealing books. Need time to look it over. Really enjoyed your review on Murakami, an author I am always hearing about but have never read, not quite sure why. It sounds great, you have inspired me to give Wind Up Bird a go.

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  6. My husband has read most of them and loved IQ84 so another rec for that. One of them has horrible cat deaths in it, though, I can’t remember which one). I like empty weird Japanese books but like Banana Yoshimoto best.

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    1. “Empty” and “weird” — ha! I’m ashamed to say it, but I think this is my first experience with contemporary Japanese literature. I’ll have to branch out and try some other notable writers, especially those who write novellas 😉

      Luckily the cat shows back up in this one.

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  7. Definitely 1Q84, which is my favourite Murakami so far. You should try Natsuo Kirino’s titles, Out, Grotesque and Real World for very whacky Japanese fiction 🙂

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  8. I’ve never read any Murikami, but this review sure makes me want to! I haven’t really been avoiding him, I just haven’t gotten around to him yet.
    I love that you’re testing out some doorstoppers. I love a good big book when I’m in the mood, but it’s nice to know ahead of time which ones are good and which ones are just too long!

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  9. My first Murakami was 1Q84 and I absolutely and utterly loved it. I was down with the flu at the time, and maybe me being down with a fever just matched the surreal dreamy crazyness of Murakami.
    I since read The wind up bird cronichle – loved the start and thought I was in for another great experience, but actually I was so disappointed by the ending of it and the way so many loose ends were left hanging or just tied in a hurry in nonsensical ways. Maybe your first Murakami will always be the best? Sort of like riding the rollercoaster for the first time – the second time the thrill is not quite the same?

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    1. I can see how being in a feverish state might help one appreciate a trippy book! That’s an interesting thought; I’ll have to see if my next Murakami (probably Kafka on the Shore) will live up to this first experience.

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