Poor Mr. Wind-Up Bird

“What we see before us is just one tiny part of the world. We get into the habit of thinking, this is the world, but that’s not true at all. The real world is a much darker and deeper place than this, and much of it is occupied by jellyfish and things.”

Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” is a total masterpiece and culmination of Murakami’s themes as an author of magic-realism. Like many of Murakami’s novels, ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’ investigates the relationship of psychic realms and its corollary effects on life in everyday reality. The world, as we know it, is subject to continuous change and, for all intended purposes, is therefore as surreal as any dream, but we’ve got a mind which attempts to logically solve mysteries presented to us, no matter the illogical nature of the conundrum. Murakami spends a lot of time skillfully playing in the gap between these worlds of consciousness, blending real and unreal elements together, creating an all-too lucid effect. Murakami is a master of making the real appear surreal and making the surreal incredibly plausible.

Toru Okada’s cat has disappeared, strange and intriguing women enter Toru’s life, followed by the disappearance of Toru’s wife – these are normal-enough circumstances which Murakami uses as a platform to dive into the deeper-darker mysteries involved. One event leads seamlessly into another, but as one reads further, the border between objective-reality & psychic-unreality blur, and in time it is revealed that they are symbiotically effect eachother. The charm of Murakami is that he constantly combines these worlds into a whole, and while there are many distinctions to be made between these ‘two shores of consciousness’ – facts and impossibilities are equally real in Murakami’s fiction, but that sense of magic-realism is also true for the world we live in, if we are as equally involved in our own mysteries as Murakami’s characters are in theirs.

“Here’s what I think, Mr. Wind-Up Bird,” said May Kasahara. “Everybody’s born with some different thing at the core of their existence. And that thing, whatever it is, becomes like a heat source that runs each person from the inside. I have one too, of course. Like everybody else. But sometimes it gets out of hand. It swells or shrinks inside me, and it shakes me up. What I’d really like to do is find a way to communicate that feeling to another person. But I can’t seem to do it. They just don’t get it. Of course, the problem could be that I’m not explaining it very well, but I think it’s because they’re not listening very well. They pretend to be listening, but they’re not, really. So I get worked up sometimes, and I do some crazy things.”

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle reads like an extended journey through a surrealistic wonderland, mostly based in modern Tokyo. As we become invested in the life of the protagonist, Toru Okada, we too are on a quest through our own subconscious. Every question that Toru asks of himself, the reader asks of their own reality. His mysteries become our own. His existential quandaries are direct reflections. The pace and flow of the story is like a developing whirlpool – a leisurely relaxed circulation of events that, as other story threads feed into it, begins to build, quicken, and funnel towards an inescapable center. Every element introduced into the story is worth further exploration and Murakami frequently indulges our curiosity. The details in any once scene are brought to life by Murakami’s adept descriptions of the shadows and careful exploration of an object’s secretive deception, or qualities of its inherent other-worldliness. Every character encountered is a Cheshire cat or caterpillar unto themselves…

Murakami is extraordinarily generous with the amount of personal histories accounted by nearly every character. As in coming to know a real person, characters relate their own recollections in highly-detailed fragments and their secrets are tantalizingly revealed over time. The only fault I can find in the entire book is the autobiographical-voice which takes over in relating these stories – the voice is too consistent between the different characters and they relate their stories as if they had written a perfectly-literary memory in their head and there is no trouble in remembering this story word for word. It is not a natural way for characters to tell a story, even if the details of the memory are as vivid as from the day before humans still stumble over their words, forget their place, and have a more simplified approach. It is quite clearly Murakami’s own voice which takes over and speaks for the characters. These stories are epic in scope and take up a notable portion of this novel and they’re each vital for understanding the present conditions for which they are converging to. These threads are remarkably tied together, although Murakami leaves obvious gaps and events unexplained, which compliments the novel’s overall tone of mystery and mysticism. All of these characters and histories converge upon Toru Okada, Mr. Wind-Up Bird himself.

“Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another? We can invest emotions time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close are we able to come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we know anything important about anyone?”

Toru is a very simple man who is constantly surprised by what is happening and has very little notion of how to proceed – he is reminiscent of protagonists from Kafka’s novels. In fishing for solutions to his current conundrums, he acts upon the advice of many other characters, or is driven forward by intuition gathered from hearing their stories. Slowly and meticulously, Toru works out the answers of a few questions, but remains mostly in the dark about the total mystery surrounding him. It is in this darkness – the void of the unknown – that Toru learns to embrace the core of his problems and develops a greater ability to explore them. In so doing, Toru is exercising a kind of psychic abilities, which links him to a subconscious world with direct consequences upon his waking reality. This practice of diving into the dark allows Toru to confront the conflicts of his conscious self and serves as a vehicle for his climactic transformation.

“Maybe the world was like a revolving door… And which section you ended up in was just a matter of where your foot happened to fall. There were tigers in one section, but no tigers in another. Maybe it was as simple as that. And there was no logical continuity from one section to another. And it was precisely because of this lack of logical continuity that choices really didn’t mean very much. Wasn’t that why he couldn’t feel the gap between one world and another?”

There are many literary themes within ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, enough to explore and write an entire thesis upon, but for the purposes of brevity I shall point out which struck me as most profound. Throughout the novel, characters encounter some event in their life that changes them irrevocably for better or for worse. The characters pass an invisible border in time and once they’re through, they are forever separated from what they were. This line marks a transition in the characters’ modes of existence and the entire world changes along with them to reflect these inner transformations. Furthermore, each character is aware of an invisible gap in reality which is responsible for manifesting these changes, and each wrestles with this “gap” in their own way. The following few lines may contain spoilers, but I’ve included them to exemplify my point (you can skip the blue text if you’d rather not know specifics): While navigating the subconscious realm, Toru is forced through a gelatinous wall and thereafter receives a bright blue-mark on his cheek; When Toru returns home from this experience, he is met by his cat which he had believed dead. Creta Kano undergoes two transformations; from a default life of physical pain to a numb existence and later into a balanced state of pain, pleasure, and psychic power. A six-year old Cinammon unearths a beating human heart which had been buried beneath his window, and therafter never speaks again. Lt. Mamiya survives several harrowing experiences, and after falling into a deep well, loses his spirit to live. Kumiko also undergoes radical change and is unable to return from… There are several such changes and I have only mentioned a few of the major ones. It would benefit the reader to identify when these transformations occur and contemplate what is at the root of them. What is this gap in reality? Can we see it in our own lives? Or is it so infinitesimally subtle that we don’t notice? Is this gap there at all?

“A life without pain: it was the very thing I had dreamed of for years, but now that I had it, I couldn’t find a place for myself within it. A clear gap separated me from it, and this caused me great confusion. I felt as if I were not anchored to this world – this world that I had hated so passionately until then; this world that I had continued to revile for its unfairness and injustice; this world where at least I knew who I was. Now the world ceased to be the world, and I had ceased to be me.”

This is a distinctly delicious novel which deserves a leisurely and thorough read. As daunting as the novel seems in girth, take your time, think things out, and revisit your favorite parts. A part of me wanted to hurry along and finish the novel, but it took me a month to eat away at this book, and towards the end I became desperate that I was running out of pages to read. I didn’t want Wind-up Bird to end, and since finishing I have been very slow in reading anything else because my mind is still picking away at some of the unanswered questions and reliving many lucid selections.


2 responses

  1. B. Bohn

    Who should be credited with the sculptures?

    01/08/2014 at 13:02

    • Good question and poor oversight on my part. Jim Mullan is the mechanical bird sculpturist. You can see more of his amazing clockwork curiosities at his site: Mullanium Designs

      01/08/2014 at 16:49

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