The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book Cover

Author: Haruki Murakami
Original Title: ねじまき鳥クロニクル Nejimakidori Kuronikuru
Original Language: Japanese
Translator: Jay Rubin
Winner: Yomiuri Literary Award
Original Publication: 1994
English Publication: 1997
Genre: Fiction (Supernatural, Mystery)
#125 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”

Toru Okada is a passive, mild-mannered unemployed man who lives with his wife of six years, Kumiko. On the day their cat – named Noboru Wataya after Kumiko’s unpleasant brother – runs away, Toru receives a mysterious phone call from a woman who claims to know him and wants to have phone sex with him. He hangs up, but she continues to call. Enlisted by his wife to spend the day looking for the cat, he finds himself at the end of the block in an abandoned house known as “The Hanging House”, due to all of its former occupants meeting with terrible fates. Kumiko hires psychic Malta Kano to help find Noboru Wataya and Mr. Okada meets with her. During the course of his search, he meets an odd teenage girl named May Kasahara, who dubs him “Mr. Wind-Up Bird” and asks him to help her perform a survey for a toupee factory.

Toru learns the same week that an elderly acquaintance of theirs, Mr. Honda, has passed away and left a remembrance for him. Delivering the package from Mr. Honda is a Lieutenant Mamiya, a prisoner of war during WW2 who was tortured by the Soviets. Lieutenant Mamiya tells Toru a fascinating story about how he came to know Mr. Honda, and gives him cryptic advice: When the time comes, go down into the deepest well and stay there. Meanwhile, Malta Kano has been no help in finding the cat but has told Toru that Kumiko’s brother, the human Noboru Wataya, raped her sister. Toru is dying to tell Kumiko Lieutenant Mamiya’s story (and to ask her about her brother), but she never returns from work. Realizing that there is a dry, abandoned well at the Hanging House, Toru crawls into it for several days to think. When he emerges, he has a strange blue mark on his face and a letter from Kumiko saying that she has had an affair with another man, and that he should forget her forever. Meanwhile, the psychic’s sister, Creta Kano, has infiltrated his dreams and seduced him.

Toru finds himself pulled into a strange web involving the Kano sisters, May Kasahara, and a mother and her mute son, who are known only by Nutmeg and Cinnamon. Nutmeg and Cinnamon put Toru to work in the abandoned house, arousing the suspicion of Noboru Wataya, a renowned politician. Knowing that there is more at stake than Wataya’s political career, Toru vows to solve the riddle and get his wife back, whom he is certain has not left of him of her own accord but is being controlled by her brother. A year into Kumiko’s disappearance and Toru’s adventure, Noboru Wataya the cat mysteriously returns, no worse for the wear. The entire story is punctuated by the appearance of what Toru refers to as “The Wind-Up Bird”, a strange bird which only he and certain others appear to be able to hear, whose cry sounds like the creaky winding of a spring.

The story reads like a dream sequence, where one is never really certain what is real and what is not, but everything makes perfect sense in the context. The story could easily have been so nonsensical as to be unreadable, but Murakami brilliantly crafts the novel, and while it is a very odd story, one feels compelled to find out what happens next. The writing is unbelievably well-crafted. I always wonder how much of that is Murakami’s skill, and how much is the translation – surely some of the subtleties were lost in transformation, and it made me wish that I read Japanese – if this version was more or less mind-blowing, surely the original was even better.

Fun Fact: Two chapters are missing from the English Version of the novel which were originally included in the Japanese. The German translation of the novel was based on the English translation rather than the original, and is significantly different.

Bother if: The story is part Inception (the movie, where one’s dreams are infiltratable and controllable by outside parties), part astral travel, part mystery. I thought it was one of the strangest stories I had ever read, and I enjoyed it, even if I thought it was relatively easy to put down. It is a skilled writer indeed who could take such a complex story and interweave it so effortlessly. Several of Murakami’s novels appear on the “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” list. Fans of supernatural fiction or mysteries might really enjoy this.

Don’t Bother if: You’re not a fan of stories which are told in pieces; that is, where you learn a piece of information and have no idea what its relevance is to the story, yet. The story does not progress chronologically, and many of the details you learn along the way do not fit into the story until later, if at all. With one particular sequence, you never learn its significance. I wondered if perhaps it was revealed in one of the two missing chapters. The story also has some depictions of graphic violence, torture (in the context of war), animal cruelty, and sex.

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  • This particular book has been considered by critics as Murakami’s best work so far, ironically I read it far later despite being a fan of the author. I remember that spaghetti scene and the moment I read that part—where the mundane meets the mysterious (i.e the phone call) I was hooked.
    I like how you say that story compels you to reader further despite the oddity of the events. Its a perfect description to most Murakami novels. Also, like you, I wish i could read it in Japanese in order to truly enjoy Murakami’s work.

  • As you know, I’m reading 1Q84 at the moment, but while I was in town earlier I picked up his first novel to be translated into English: A Wild Sheep Chase. There is something about Murakami’s writing that I find totally captivating.

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