Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The moniker 'wind-up bird' was coined by Alfred Birnbaum, the original English translator of The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women, the tantalising short story at the front end of the Haruki Murakami's earlier collection, The Elephant Vanishes. I wonder if the connotations are the same in Japanese? With its suggestion that everyday reality is a bit of a practical joke, the wind-up bird is the perfect mascot for Murakami's sphinxlike realities.

The opening chapter of the novel is a near facsimile of that pilot episode. It's hard to convey the sense of excitement and densely-packed promise that it generates. It's rather like the first sip of an alluring wine. Yet I've contemplated empty bottles which on final analysis, much like this 600 page novel, haven't quite delivered on their prodigal potential.

Long before I read my first line of Murakami, the notion of misplaced destinies was one that insistently beguiled me. Narrator Toru Okada has ostensibly lost only his cat, but this misadventure is symbolic of a blockage in the flow of his existence; or so he is told by one of the eccentric females that force their way into it, and in so doing further mess with his flow.

Like many other Murakami characters Okada frets a lot about his selfhood. He considers whether he is only "a pathway for the person known as me". Another character in the novel, a retired lieutenant scorched by a monstrously macabre wartime experience suggests to Okada that a moment of revelation in his darkest hour somehow burned away his ties to the human world. He recounts his story at a time Okada himself feels abandonned by his increasingly recondite reality.

All of this echoes the ancient Asian intuition that life is just one dyanamic process amongst many. "When there's no flow, stay still" Okada has been advised. Wait for things to "firm up".

His problem is that he's one of those men that finds it easier to form an image of what he doesn't want to do rather than locate the one thing he does want to do. With this I can sympathise. He defines himself in opposition to men for whom "the only principle which governs their minds is the question how do I look?", and who raise themselves using scaffolding constructed from combinations of one dimensional systems of thought. Yet he recognises that these egotists are basically more capable individuals than himself.

However, Murakami's metaphysical explorations can be fairly trite - "truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth". As a philosopher he sports some of the dilettante characteristics of his protagonists. In contrast, the existential paranoia of men like Jorge Luis Borges and Phillip K. Dick belonged to a more formal system.

The novel was originally published in three distinct chunks, which gives the narrative structure the quality of a serial rather than that a feature film. Along the way I was reminded of Sophie's World, The Alchemist (unfortunately) and The Magus, but most obviously of Twin Peaks. This is a debt that Murakami openly acknowledges, and like Lynch's groundbreaking production, Wind-Up Bird's third set of episodes is a patchier experience, in which the geometry of internal connections has become just a little too arch.

Only one of the aforementioned female oddballs is really a fully-developed character - May Kasahara. Without her interventions the novel would be significantly diminished. She is allowed to make a number of darkly insightful observations that belie her youth (such as "If there was no such thing as death...complicated thoughts and ideas would never come into the world") and her presence invariably sparks some wicked sexual tension with hangdog Okada, who she playfully refers to as "Mr Wind-Up Bird".

Anyway, if you read nothing else by this eccentric Japanese author, go for the short story. Take it from me though, it will be hard to avoid the temptation to press on with the wayward flow of feckless Mr Okada, his elusive spouse Kumiko, her even more elusive cat Noburo Wataya, her messed-up brother of the same name, and May Kasahara, a misplaced sixteen-year-old with downy-fringed ear-lobes.

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