One thing I’m enjoying about this reading-the-world project is that it’s nudging me to read international authors I’ve always heard about, but have never read. In the case of Japan, I finally read a book by bestselling author Haruki Murakami – Norwegian Wood, translated by Jay Rubin.
As the novel opens, 37-year-old Toru Watanabe is on a plane that has just landed, and music begins to pipe through the airplane speakers. The song that’s playing is a version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” which unsettles him because it brings memories flooding back from many years ago.
“Norwegian Wood” had been the favorite song of Naoko, a girl he knew in high school. Naoko had been the girlfriend of Toru’s best friend Kizuki, and the three of them were inseparable. Then, inexplicably, Kizuki committed suicide. Bound together in their grief, Toru and Naoko continue to see each other, even after they head off to different colleges following their high school graduation. They are comfortable when they talk to each other and they are comfortable in their silences. On the night of her twentieth birthday, Naoko talks for hours about her life, but without ever mentioning Kizuki. When Toru tells her it’s time for him to go home, she cries and he’s unable to leave her. He spends the night, and they end up making love.
When Toru tries to call Naoko after that night, there’s no answer. The next weekend, he goes to her apartment, only to find that she has moved out. He sends letters to her at her parents’ home, but it’s months before he receives a reply. She tells him that she’s taking a leave of absence from college and checking herself into a sanatorium to focus on her mental health. She promises to let him know when she’s prepared to talk to him again.
In the meantime, Toru’s life at college continues. He becomes friends with an older student with whom he bonds over their shared appreciation for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Nagasawa is smart, popular, and a womanizer, which makes for interesting evenings for Toru when they go out drinking together. He also meets a girl named Midori, who has a boyfriend but enjoys spending time with Toru.
As Naoko’s mental health begins to improve, she invites Toru to visit her at the sanatorium. He goes to see her for the weekend, spending time with her and her roommate Reiko, a woman in her late thirties who plays songs on her guitar, including Naoko’s favorite “Norwegian Wood.” He enjoys his visit, and continues to write letters to both women after he returns to college.
Ultimately, Toru’s feelings for both Naoko and Midori create conflict for him. He feels committed to Naoko, especially in her fragile emotional state, but craves the fun and the normalcy of his growing connection with Midori.
Although Toru is the narrator, it seemed to me that his character was mostly reflected in his relationships with other people. It was difficult to get a sense of who he was otherwise. He studied, worked, spent time with his friends, and wrote a surprising number of letters, which I found unusual. Even considering that the plot took place before the advent of emails and texting, I couldn’t imagine a young man in his late teens/early twenties sitting down and writing so many letters. During one particularly difficult period, when he is unable to see any of his friends in person, he reflects that “(i)t was as if I were writing letters to hold together the pieces of my crumbling life.” Both a coming-of-age novel and a love story, Norwegian Wood was an interesting look at life for a young person in Japan.
There were several dishes mentioned in Norwegian Wood that I could have veganized for this post – ramen, sushi, sukiyaki – but I chose a dish that I learned how to make recently, tempura. At one point in the book, Toru says: “In the evening, Midori did some shopping in the neighborhood and made dinner. We ate tempura and rice with green peas at the kitchen table, and washed it all down with beer.” The recipe I used for the batter was an adaptation from Chef Jose Andres’ book, Vegetables Unleashed. His recipe called for equal parts flour and light beer, but I thought the batter was too thick, so I added more beer until it reached the consistency of pancake batter. I dipped the vegetables – purple sweet potatoes, Japanese eggplant, cauliflower, green beans, and mushrooms – into the batter and then deep-fried them in a pot of hot vegetable oil. It was great!
A shocking number of characters in their teens and twenties committed suicide in Norwegian Wood, so when I checked the GlobalGiving website for projects in Japan, I looked for one providing mental health services. I found one offering support for youth experiencing mental health challenges in the time of COVID-19. According to the project description, “In Japan, more people died from suicide in October than from COVID in all of 2020.” The goal of this project is to train sixty crisis lifeline support workers over the next twelve months and to ensure that these resources reach the young people who need them. More information about this project is available at Support for Youth Mental Health during COVID – GlobalGiving.
NEXT STOP: KENYA
(Originally published on February 19, 2021.)
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.