Published in 1987, the novel stands out in Murakami’s writings because it is, in contrast to his other novels, very realistic, without the usual dream-like element.
This was the first of the 3 books I read from Murakami, and I think one of his most popular books he has written. The general plot is quite dark and melanholic. It seems that suicides plaster the book and surround the main character Toru Watanbe.
The book starts with the protagonist sitting in the plane, about to land in Frankfurt, explaining the emptyness he feels inside, the fact that he is starting to forget, so he has to remind himself, or write down about what happened to him in the past. From thereon, the present protagonist does not return, and the book goes back into when he was a teenager.
Watanbe’s best friend commits suicide when he is 17. As explained to me later by some people, suicide is not something that is shameful in Japan. It almost seems like the right and honourable thing to do, and as seems to be the case for Murakami’s other books as well, staying eternally young that way could be one of the reasons. The friend leaves behind a heart-broken girlfriend with whom they have been very close since childhood. The girl, Naoko, is very fragile and on the verge of mental breakdown. As it turns out later in the book, she has also witnessed another suicide of a close person, her sister, who was doing well in her life, but somehow decided to end her life before turning 18.
Watanbe and Naoko are both broken inside because of Kizuki’s suicide, and both move away from home to Tokyo to study. On Naoko’s 18th birthday, Watanbe sleeps with her, after which she moves into a desolated alternative hospital, to get treatment for her mental distress. She has a roommate who watches after her, Reiko Ishida, who has a dark past herself.
On his visits to Naoko, Watanbe learns more about Reiko and gets very close to her. Reiko is an older woman, with a child and a divorced marriage in her past, but she is fully devoted to taking care of Naoko.
A sudden plot twist in the end, when Naoko commits suicide, Watanbe sleeps with Reiko.
The book has a lot of psychological elements, reflecting on the fear of growing up and the attempts to end one’s life while it is still in perfection. Watanbe makes some curious friends, who all have different problems that they try to overcome. Unless they commit suicide, the future of these people is unclear as Watanbe loses sight of them.
For example, he has a roommate called Storm Trooper who is a perfectionist, with clear plans in mind on who he wants to be and what to do, likes cleaning and steady exercise, but doesn’t, all of a sudden, return to the dorm after the summer break. Storm Trooper is important for Watanbe, because he seems like this out of place, naive element in Watanbe’s life, who has clear directions and doesn’t realise being a joke to the surrounding people. It feels like Watanbe thinks he knows Storm Trooper inside out, and doesn’t analyse his way of being in depth, and realises how little he knew of the guy when he vanishes. For all we know, he might have also suffered from deep depression, could have had some serious problems at home, but we only see the comical surface.
Then, there’s Watanbe’s classmate Midori, who keeps lying about things in her life, to sound more careless than she is. She lies that her father escaped to Africa, and left her and her sister alone to look after the bookshop, claiming she didn’t really like him anyway. Then it turns out that the father is in the hospital, dying. Watanbe meets the father and takes care of him one afternoon, just days before he dies. Midori is in love with Watanbe and willing to wait for him, however, after Naoko’s death, Watanbe is unable to return to Midori and grows alien from everyone. The book ends with him trying to reach Midori, but not being heard, as if he has fallen to a deep coma that he is unable to get out of.
What happened to him between the death of Naoko and flying on the plane to Frankfurt, and how did he manage to survive with the depression remains a mystery. He doesn’t want to forget about Naoko, remembering when they were walking and Naoko asked him not to forget her, and it almost seems like the rest of the characters in the re-telling of the past were just side elements, although Naoko didn’t, other than mentally, play a huge part in his life. She was mostly away, too disturbed to write letters. But they shared one trauma that brought them closer.