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All the World’s Darknesses

February 8, 2013
Japanese winter scene

A Wintry Novel (Photo by Bryce, Nozawa, Nagano, Japan)

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood, 1987 (English translation 2000)

Toru visits the woman he loves, Naoko, who is seeking recovery from mental illness in an isolated sanatorium. They walk in the nearby meadows and woods, and she warns him not to leave the path, because nearby is a “field well”, a hole in the ground. No one knows where it is, but it is “deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world’s darknesses had been boiled down to their ultimate density.”

If you fall in, Naoko says, “you couldn’t expect anyone to find you, and you’d have centipedes and spiders crawling all over you, and the bones of the ones who died before are scattered all around you, and it’s dark and soggy, and high overhead there’s this tiny, tiny circle of light like a winter moon. You die there in this place, little by little, all by yourself.”

Norwegian Wood was Haruki Murakami’s breakout novel, the one that made him famous, and is firmly in the realist mode, containing none of the fantasy and magic realism that fill his later works. It tells of love, mental illness and suicide, and the image of the “field well” powerfully conveys the experience of several of the characters.

Murakami’s depiction of mental illness is sensitive and realistic. Toru’s first person narration plunges us into the emotional lives of the characters, yet through an invisible meta-level of the prose, we see each person in a way that is at once dispassionate and sympathetic.

Ami Hostel, the sanatorium in which Naoko stays, seems enlightened for the time (1969), with a philosophy of each person achieving their own recovery by helping others recover. Days are structured around work, and staff and patients are considered equal. These principles are similar to those of the Clubhouse model of recovery used in the centre in which I once worked. The main difference is that Ami Hostel isolates people from society, while the Clubhouse approach favours social integration.

The novel is deceptive: it appears to be simply written, with nothing much happening, but gradually the story becomes more layered and the characters more complex. Deep sadness runs through it, with an accompanying vein of gentle humour. But what makes it a joy to read are the four central characters: Toru and Naoko, both paralysed by grief after the suicide of the teenage boy who was Naoko’s soulmate and Toru’s best friend; Reiko, who finds that she is better at bringing out the best in others than in herself (“I’m the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox”); and Midori, a spirited young woman who gives the novel much of its humour.

I now know these people intimately, and I love them.  I see them vividly as they walk, eat, weep, kiss in the rain or play Norwegian Wood on the guitar. I hear them talk to each other. I will not forget them, even though I do not speak their language.

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