The mechanical cry of the wind-up bird that the book’s hero sporadically hears is the sound of history winding its spring.
Toru, our protagonist, meets a series of curious people: May Kasahara, a troubled teenager who feels responsible for her boyfriend’s death in a motorcycle accident; Malta Kano, a psychic who makes prophecies about Toru’s missing cat; Malta’s sister, Creta, who claims that she was raped by Kumiko’s brother, Noboru Wataya; Lieutenant Mamiya, a soldier who says he witnessed a man being skinned alive in Manchuria; Nutmeg Akasaka, a mysterious healer whose husband was violently murdered; and Nutmeg’s son, Cinnamon, a sharp dressed young man who stopped talking he was a boy.
May Kasahara is wise beyond her years, she works in a wig-making factory and observes: “…all I do here is work that my bosses tell me to do the way they tel me to do it. I don’t have to think at all. It’s like I just put my brain in a locker before I start work and pick it up on my way home.” How many of us have had similarly mind-numbing jobs?
This book reminds me of others, in “Kafka on the Shore” the protagonist is also hunting for a missing cat, which leads him to a whole series of adventures. One of the most memorable parts of the book is with the protagonist at the bottom of a well, which feels very Kafkaesque as he is gripped by an inertia and can’t do anything to save himself. In Pamuk’s “My Name is Red” the action begins at the bottom of a well with a murder victim recounting his story.
“One cannot look directly at one’s own face with one’s own eyes, for example. One has no choice but to look at one’s reflection in the mirror. Through experience, we come to believe that the image is correct, but that is all. (p 282)”
Murakami’s novels are all rather strange with elements of magic realism. There are also a few scenes of graphic violence, a man is skinned alive in Manchuria and soldiers are taught how to kill someone with a bayonet. The story begins as a hunt for a cat but then goes to some strange places in space and time. Lieutenant Mamiya’s tale of an operation behind enemy lines in Manchuria during WW2, which goes dreadfully wrong and the lieutenant’s incarceration in the Soviet gulag, saved from almost certain death by his ability to speak Russian are particularly memorable. There are a couple of Georgian connections, Beria, Stalin’s infamous henchman sets the quotas for the Siberian coal mines where many POWs are driven to death. There is also the time the carnivorous animals in the zoo are shot as the Japanese retreat, this reminds me of the shooting of the wolves, lions and tigers, who escaped from Tbilisi Zoo in 2013 (Tbilisi Zoo floods and shooting).
The petrolhead in me takes issue with a factual mistake in the narrative. Creta Kano tells us of her suicide attempt “I went to my brother’s room and asked to borrow his car. It was a shiny new Toyota MR2,”. (p95)
“That was six years ago, in May of 1978.” (p97)
Interestingly the Toyota MR2 wasn’t produced until 1984…
In an interview with David Pilling, Murakami described his writing process: “There’s a basement, but below that you have an inner basement beyond a secret door. It’s dark, completely dark down there. It’s a maze and a labyrinth, but if you are trained, you can come back to the surface. That’s what I do when I am writing.” When we pick up a Murakami novel, we too are taken into the labyrinth.
My rating 4 out of 5 Some of the novel was excellent but other parts felt like filler. The scenes at the bottom of the well were for me the highlights.