Thursday, December 13, 2012

Let's Talk about Sex (and Suicide): Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I was thirty-seven then, strapped
in my seat as the huge 747 plunged
through dense cloud cover on
approach to the Hamburg airport.
Opening to Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
translated from the Japanese
by Jay Rubin
Just past the halfway mark in Haruki Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood, Toru Watanabe has a conversation about sex with his friend Midori, a girl his age who is involved with another boy.  She tells him about the fantasy she is having at that very moment:

     "Well, first of all, I want to lie down on a big, wide, fluffy bed.  I want to get all comfy and drunk and not have any donkey s**t anywhere nearby, and I want to have you lying down next to me.  And then, little by little, you take my clothes off.  Sooo tenderly. The way a mother takes a little child's clothing off. Sooo softly."
     "And I'm just spacing out and feeling really nice until, all of a sudden, I realize what's happening and I yell at you, 'Stop it, Watanabe!' And then I say, 'I really like you, Watanabe, but I'm seeing someone else.  I can't do this.  I'm very proper about these things, believe it or not, so please stop.' But you don't stop."
     "But I would stop," I said.
     "I know that.  Never mind, this is just my fantasy," said Midori.

Then the story gets a bit dirtier and a lot funnier.

I suppose it's normal for people entering college to be concerned with sex.  Many people, certainly many people in 1969 when Norwegian Wood takes place, are just beginning to discover sex at that age so everything about it has an air of newness to it that makes you want to talk about it with anyone who will listen.  Watanabe has the typical group of young men who share his dorm, of course, but he also has several women with whom he can  discuss, and  try out, a wide range of sexual activities.  Except, for some odd reason the main activity--there's not all that much of that in Norwegian Wood.

I wonder as I write this if the title's naughty pun translates into Japanese.

Sex, of course, is closely tied up with love throughout Norwegian Wood.  Watanabe is in love with his best friend's girl, Naoko.  All through high school, the three of them were inseparable; though Watanabe was always something of a third wheel, he was always a welcome one.  When his best friend commits suicide towards the end of high school, Naoko disappears from Watanabe's life, doesn't answer his letters, vanishes completely as far as he is concerned until she finally turns up living in a wonderful asylum where the patients are all voluntary and free to leave at will.  The catch being that they can never come back once they have left.

In the meantime, Watanabe meets Midori, a fellow student who befriends him.  The two do not get together as a couple in love since he is dedicated to Naoko and she is involved with another man, but this does  not stop them from exploring.  In one scene, at her insistance, the two attend an adult theatre where the most extreme forms of S&M movie is showing.  While Midori is fascinated, Watanabe is bored by the movie.  He is also begins to fall in love with Midori.

Watanabe has only one other significant friend in college, a son of priviledge who is also a Casanova.  Together, the two go out on the town looking for women, Watanabe bedding the lesser of the two girls his wealthy friend picks up each night.  Watanabe plays along, but he would rather be with Naoko or Midori than any of the women his Casanova friends finds for him.

I found the result of all this sex to be much more comic than erotic.  Watanabe always seems like a reluctant participant to me.  Because he so seldom initiates anything, I get the feeling that he would much rather just lie down next to the girl he loves and hold hands most of the time.

I wonder how many people in Murakami's generation share this experience.  In 1969, presented with the freedom to have whatever sex was desired without much in the way of consequences, how many looked for something else instead.

Judging from the number of suicides in the book, three, quite a few.

I've no way of knowing just how closely Norwegian Wood speaks to the experience of young people in Japan circa 1969, nor of how closely it would speak to Americans of that era.  I was six.  I can say that it rings true overall.  As a window into Japanes college life, Mr. Murakami's book is fascinating.  The situation is different enough from my own American experience circa 1982 to make the book worth reading just for that one aspect.

However, Norwegian Wood is universal as well.  The experience of college, a time in between the safety of our parents home and day when we really have to face the world on our own, is a familiar one wherever and whenever it takes place.  Conversations with friends in attempts to make ourselves brave enough to try things we really weren't sure we wanted to do, attempts to find a place in the world and someone to share it with us.  There's quite a lot in Norwegian Wood that hits very close to home, whether home is in Japan or California or probably any place where young people leave their parents house to go away to school.


Karen said...

I read Norwegian Wood several years ago and thought it was a remarkable, if difficult, read.

Strangely enough, I don't remember the sex in it all. I'll be interested to know what you make of the book as a whole.

Bellezza said...

I was surprised there was this much sex in a Murakami novel; not sure why I would be, but I was. I, too, found it comic rather than erotic, but I also found it quite indicative of the behavior when I was in college in the 80's. Not of mine, though, of course. :)

Bellezza said...

p.s. Off to add your review to mine.

Reno said...

I liked reading your thoughts on this book as I love Murakami, but this is one of his books that I haven't read yet, even though I think it's one of his most popular. Probably because I'm not so interested in the subject matter, I like the surreal aspects of his work. Even so, I know I should probably read this one soon...I'm hoping it'll be an interesting read because I'm right at the 'transitioning' university stage of my life now also.