Murakami starts and ends the book with information from the life and works of a (fictional) American writer called Derek Heartfield, a novelist who writes stories based mainly in outer space (Kurt Vonnegut?), and this 'interesting' bookend surrounds a description of a few months in the life of a nameless university student who has come back to his sleepy hometown for the university summer holidays. Our protagonist spends his time lazing the days away, hanging around J.'s bar talking to his friend, Rat, and getting to know a girl he helped home after a drunken night out.
As alluded above, in this short but sweet tale, the elements which make up the themes of Murakami's later, more substantial works are already evident. University life (or the break therefrom), a symbol of rebellion and confusion which pops up in 'Norwegian Wood', serves as a metaphor for a period of life where you're not quite sure where you're going. Like Toru Watanabe, the central character seems stuck in a moment (and, as Bono so helpfully points out, he can't get out of it). As easy as it is to look back at such a period through nostalgia-tinted glasses as a golden era, at the time it can seem as if your life is never going to start; of course, with the manic, stressful life of the Japanese salaryman looming in the future, there is also the thought that you may not want it to...
When you mix his sense of dislocation to a growing feeling of the temporary nature of human relationships, it is no wonder that the slightly depressing, almost fatalistic nature of Murakami's world is also present in this book. Our hero has a few sad stories in his past, and the main female character is also far from happy with her lot. Despite this, they are able to continue with their daily lives and seek enjoyment from little things: good food, music, books; the things all of us use to help us through the day. However, when the student looks back at the end of the book, by now slightly distanced from the events of that summer, his connection to that time has become a lot weaker. All that remains is a Beach Boys album and a lot of memories...
The discerning reader (and my readers are nothing if not discerning) will have noticed that I haven't mentioned many names so far in my review, and this is because there are very few names actually used in the novel, something which makes describing it a tad tricky at times. This is deliberate and has the effect of reinforcing the temporary nature of the events; there is no need to use, or remember, the names as they are ultimately bound to be forgotten. This trend continues in Murakami's later works where many characters have names written in the 'katakana' syllabary used for foreign loanwords, rather than the 'kanji' (Chinese characters) or 'hiragana' which Japanese names are usually written in, instantly making the name stand out and appear slightly unusual (perhaps outside the usual society in a culture where conformity is prized).
This book is, of course, just as much about Murakami himself as it is about the story. The sections concerning the entirely invented Mr. Heartfield allow Murakami to play with his ideas about writing and to use an alter-ego to explain his first attempts at literature. The importance of writing about what is not known rather than what is known, as Heartfield tells a critic, could easily be (and, I suppose, is!) Murakami's own remark, and for anyone who has ever wasted countless hours wondering what on earth Toru Okada was actually doing down that well, a short perusal of Heartfield's short story collection 'The Wells of Mars' may bring enlightenment. Well, if not enlightenment, a little encouragement at least.
So there you have it; the start of a magnificent career, and, strangely enough, a start that old Haruki seems somewhat ashamed of. The edition I have is a translation by Alfred Birnbaum created purely for students of English as a Foreign Language (with several interesting translations in the glossary at the back!) which is not available outside Japan. It's easy to get your hands on it through Amazon or e-bay ('Pinball, 1973', the follow-up to this book, is another story entirely...), but Murakami refuses to allow the translations of his first two books to be published outside Japan. That's a shame, and I, for one, would be at the shops tomorrow if his first two mini-books were released together (in the beautiful British-style edition, of course). This may only have been his first effort, but this fascinating insight into the origins of a master novellist's career shows that even the best of us have to start somewhere.
Even Andrew Flintoff.
[Apologies to all of you who don't understand cricket for the references to Mr. Flintoff in this review; I'm sure all the English readers know what I mean. So will all the Australians but in a different way entirely...]