Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has been compared to a whole pantheon of famous authors, ranging from Don DeLillo and Umberto Eco to Salman Rushdie and Gunter Grass. But the writer whose work is brought to mind in Murakami's latest novel, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," is the late Yiddishist and Nobelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Toru Okada, the perceptive but emotionally crippled young man whose voice is heard throughout Murakami's book, is a contemporary Japanese counterpart to the bemused and befuddled souls who populate Singer's world. Okada is 30, out of work, absent-minded and yet somehow hyper-vigilant at the same time. He is haunted by history, paralyzed by his own inertia and ennui, and baffled by his relationships with women in general and his wife, Kumiko, in particular.
Okada's life might seem utterly unremarkable--and his lengthy and leisurely ruminations might strain the patience of some readers--were it not for the fact that Okada keeps stumbling into the sharp edges of unseen obstacles, a series of omens, paradoxes and enigmas that cast ominous shadows on otherwise ordinary scenes. A beguiling sense of mystery suffuses "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" and draws us irresistibly and ever deeper into the phantasmagoria of pain and memory into which Okada tumbles.
A nameless woman calls him and engages in unsolicited phone sex. A teenage girl materializes in the alley behind his house and plays the role of muse, goad and temptress. He is drawn to an abandoned house that seems to drive its inhabitants to suicide. The darkest secrets of Kumiko's profoundly dysfunctional family begin to reveal themselves. More than one clairvoyant, including an old soldier who is also a seer, and an unlikely pair of sisters named Malta and Creta, issue dire warnings that hang over Okada like a curse.
"I believe that you are entering a phase of your life in which many different things will occur," warns one of these self-appointed psychic guides. "Good things and bad things. Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first."
Although the novel is set in contemporary Japan, Okada's life is studded with emblems of Western art, technology and consumables. He likes to cook spaghetti while listening to Rossini. He drinks Cutty Sark. He is proud of his signed copy of Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" and the fact that he knows the names of all the brothers Karamazov. His points of reference range from Allen Ginsberg to "Gulliver's Travels," and he knows enough about American pop music to crack that Herb Alpert's "The Sands of Malta" is "an authentic stinker of a song."
The references to imported cultural artifacts are so frequent--and the reflections of traditional Japanese culture so few--that we begin to see Okada's life as a quest to find some glimmer of authenticity in a world of deceit. Along the way, Okada discovers even more gruesome secrets about the troubled souls around him, starting with such mundane matters as madness and marital infidelity but soon escalating to molestation, murder, rape and suicide.
At its most intense moments, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" can be stomach-turning, as when the author describes how to kill a man with a bayonet or when he recalls the technique of a Soviet torturer whose specialty is skinning a man alive. Even when he is not confronting us with horrors of war and crimes of passion, the author refuses to allow the reader even a moment of comfort or complacency. Whether it is a wartime atrocity or a childhood memory, something is always under the skin of the men and women in Murakami's novel.
"You sensed the presence in your blood of some kind of dark secret, something from which you could not remain aloof," Okada tells his estranged wife, giving expression to the edginess that suffuses the book itself. "And so . . . you were always alone, always tense, struggling by yourself to live with your dormant, undefinable anxiety."
"Every secret struggles to reveal itself," Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote. That's exactly what happens in "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," and that's precisely why the book is so compelling and ultimately so convincing.