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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
An ancient well. A wind-up bird. A missing cat. A pair of psychic sisters. Like portents in a dream, animals, images, and people materialize and vanish throughout Haruki Murakami's ambitious, Kafkaesque new novel. Alternately alienating and seductive, the narrative's effect on the reader is one of profound disorientation: Where, Murakami asks, does the line between fantasy and reality lie? How responsible are individuals for atrocities their country committed in the past? And can the overwhelming power of history in fact change the course of the present?
These questions and others are filtered through Murakami's narrator, a gentle, 30-something ex-law firm gofer named Toru Okada. Okada has recently quit his job, lives in suburban Tokyo with his wife, Kumiko, and cat, Noboru Wataya (named after his despised brother-in-law, a politician on the rise). Singularly unambitious, he spends his days cooking and cleaning, until one day, suddenly, his cat disappears, unleashing an avalanche of bizarre events. Okada begins receiving obscene phone calls. Next he encounters the mysterious Malta Kano and her younger sister Creta, a former prostitute who has graduated to become a "prostitute of the mind," seducing strangers in their dreams. The tragedies of Creta's life were catalyzed, she claims, by her "defilement" by Okada's brother-in-law — an incident that sapped her completely of her identity. Soon after, Kumiko inexplicably abandons Okada, who, unmoored, befriends his adolescent neighbor, May Kasahara, a high school dropout who conducts sidewalk surveys for a wig manufacturer.
Eventsbecome yet more surreal when Okada discovers a dry well on the grounds of a neighboring house and begins descending it regularly in search of solitude. In its depths, he discovers he can "pass through" the subterranean well wall, accessing a hotel room that may or may not be a figment of his imagination. (Did I mention that psychoanalysts will love this novel?) In the room he is seduced by an unnamed woman, an encounter that leaves his cheek marked with a feverish deep blue spot, a stigma that later links him to the story of another marked man, a Japanese veterinarian, in a Manchurian zoo in the waning days of World War II.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is not just the story of Okada's descent (or perhaps ascent) into the surreal, however. The narrative is a pastiche of the stories of all the characters who appear in Okada's life: among others, Creta Kano, May Kasahara, and Lieutenant Mamiya, the ex-soldier who fought in the war with Mr. Honda, a now-deceased family friend of the Okadas. Each is seeking to understand a certain hollowness at the core of their beings. And each of their stories presents an elegant riddle, full of symbols, signs, and events that echo details in each other's tales, giving the narrative a dense, Rashomon-like quality. Mamiya's chapters describing his experiences in outer Mongolia during World War II are particularly mesmerizing. After watching a fellow officer, Yamamoto, being skinned alive, Mamiya is thrown into a well and left for dead, where he experiences an epiphany that he later recounts to Okada.
What I wanted to convey to you was my feeling that real life may have ended for me deep in that well in the desert of Outer Mongolia. I feel as if, in the intense light that shone for a mere ten or fifteen seconds a day in the bottom of the well, I burned up the very core of my life.... [A]s honestly and simply as I can state it, no matter what I have encountered, no matter what I have experienced since then, I ceased to feel anything in the bottom of my heart. Even in the face of those monstrous Soviet tank units...a kind of numbness was all I felt. Something inside me was already dead. Perhaps as I felt at the time, I should have died in that light, simply faded away. That was the time for me to die. But, as Mr. Honda had predicted, I did not die there. Or perhaps I should say that I could not die there.
Okada himself experiences that same emptiness decades later at the bottom of his neighborhood well:
It felt extremely strange not to be able to see my own body with my own eyes, though I knew it must be there. Staying very still in the darkness, I became less and less convinced of the fact that I actually existed.... My body began to lose its density and weight, like sand gradually being washed away by flowing water. I felt as if a fierce and wordless tug-of-war were going on inside me, a contest in which my mind was slowly dragging my body into its own territory.... The thought struck me that my own body was a mere provisional husk that had been prepared for my mind by a rearrangement of the signs known as chromosomes. If the signs were rearranged yet again, I would find myself inside a wholly different body than before. "Prostitute of the mind," Creta Kano had called herself. I no longer had any trouble accepting the phrase....
This sense of incorporeality, of the permeable membrane between substance and air, flesh and fantasy, reality and dream, pervades the book. As a set piece, the skinning of Yamamoto is a literal — and grotesque — representation of the book's persistent themes: What constitutes identity? What lies beneath our surfaces? What separates us from one another? If the "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" is occasionally too cryptic, it is also true that the philosophical labyrinth Murakami has created is rich and engrossing. (One other quibble: The book is too long and could have benefited from additional editing.) When Okada, in one chapter, is given a present left for him by the now-deceased Mr. Honda, he unwraps layer after layer of carefully sealed wrapping paper only to discover an empty box. Improvise your own meanings, Murakami seems to dare us. In doing so, he is rapidly becoming one of the most provocative novelists at work today.
—Sarah Midori Zimmerman is a writer and editor in New York City.