Murakami's 'Bird': resonant purpose

October 19, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," by Haruki Murakami. Knopf. 613 pages. $26.95.

Having lived for a decade in the United States and written novels like "Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World," in which the characters read only European literature, listen to Western music from Jazz to the Beatles, and feast on spaghetti and potato salad, Haruki Murakami was compared misleadingly to Brett Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" is Murakami's first novel since his return to Japan, and it is a mesmerizing, original work.

The alienated Murakami hero poised between fantasy and truth, reality and dream, now faces the perspective of Japanese history, in particular the exploits of the Japanese in the last days of their puppet kingdom Manchukuo.

Murakami leaves in his dust his ostensible American counterparts to write a searing story of how history inflicts an alternate reality that seeps into the present like the water that almost drowns our hero in a well he descends to escape the burdens of being Japanese both during the war and now.

At first, Toru Okada seems a typical Murakami character. He is clean and precise, a domestic man out of work in a society where work has been rendered meaningless.

He is also bereft of strong passions; his "distinguishing characteristics" include that he knows the names of all the brothers Karamazov.

Outside his window a bird creaks, sounding as if it were winding a spring. So unfolds this saga that extends to the depths of

post-war forced labor camps in the Soviet Union presided over by the sadistic NKVD operative named Boris, famous for skinning men alive. The wartime incidents, which include horrific slaughter, "liquidation'" at a Chinese Zoo, are written with an exacting realism that stands in sharp contrast to Toru's feelings that he is "being ripped away from the world of reality." History brings him back.

"The last thing I wanted to do was think," Toru confides. First the cat, playfully named for his wife Kumiko's sinister brother Noboru Wataya, a television personality and corrupt politician, disappears. Then Kumiko, herself, vanishes.

Coping with the present means confronting history, symbolized by the baseball bat with which a Japanese soldier is ordered to murder a Chinese character - apparently after the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb, and after the Emperor's famous radio speech ending the war.

Toru loses the ability to distinguish between his dreams and reality. He can communicate with Kumiko only through a computer. Allegory hovers, as a neighbor girl named May Kasahara stands for the hope for a revitalized Japan while Noboru Wataya epitomizes the vulgarity and and cynicism of the old ways.

May calls Toru "Mr. Wind-Up Bird," and he begins his healing by changing the name of the cat, which returns after a year, to "Mackerel."

Toru concludes: I could not - and should not run away ... I could never get away from it. It would follow me, wherever I went," a reference perhaps to Murakami's decision to return to his native land.

"The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" is fascinating, daring, mysterious and profoundly rewarding. It's every detail, even the opening of a can of cat food for the newly returned Mackerel, resonates with purpose.

Joan Mellen teaches creative writing at Temple University. She has written 13 books. Among them are a novel, seven books on modern culture and several biographies, the latest of which is "Hellman and Hammett," a dual biography of Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett.

Pub Date: 10/19/97

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