Spaghetti. A missing cat. Mysterious phone calls. Rossini on the radio. A napping protagonist. If I attempted to summarize Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to you, it would be as though I had plopped the pieces of an entire Liberty jigsaw puzzle in your lap. The novel is composed of a trillion tiny pieces—most of which are carefully crafted to fit together—and the sum total of the pieces is an exquisite, albeit an incomplete, tapestry.
By the first two pages, I was entranced by the mastery with which Murakami conveys each of the characters in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There is Malta Kano, the clairvoyant with the solemn voice and the red vinyl hat. There is Cinnamon, the secret agent with a knack for cleanliness who, one day, never uttered a single word again. And then there’s May Kasahara, the scrawny teenage neighbor who’s often found sunbathing in her backyard.
Murakami’s meticulous method of developing characters is reminiscent of the quiet and precious intimacy I feel when people-watching on public transportation. I’ll be on the BART, in a carriage full of strangers, and someone’s outfit or mannerism will catch my eye; because the person is too occupied being and existing within their own world to notice my gaze, I will feel as though I secretly possess the knowledge of a small, unfiltered piece of that stranger’s personality. Similarly, the subtle way Murakami lends the reader access to certain details about each of the characters’ lives made me feel connected to these strangers in an intimate way. Just as I sometimes wonder what that person on the BART (the one sporting a yellow rain jacket, cradling a bouquet of flowers) is doing right now, I also wonder what Malta Kano, Cinnamon, and May Kasahara are up to as I type.
Beyond the individual characters, I found the overall plot to be absolutely enthralling. The story revolves around Mr. Okada, a simple man living a simple life. One day his wife disappears, and on his search for answers, he becomes acquainted with a plethora of seemingly random strangers. As the characters’ backstories unfold, more and more parallels between their pasts and Mr. Okada’s present come to light. For instance, Mr. Okada discovers that a World War II veterinarian shares the same peculiar blue mark that he has on his face and multiple characters throughout various historical times find themselves at the bottoms of dark, empty wells.
All of these narrative threads with seemingly random moments of intersection create a sense of multiplicity, of spiraling out towards multiple directions which is not unlike the feeling of bafflement one is overcome by when something happens exactly at the right time and place—like when you’re thinking of a specific person and two seconds later you run into them. I find these moments of intersection within the novel to be satisfying, like pushing in a puzzle piece into its intended spot, but also frustrating, because I am left wondering the unanswerable question: this must be more than mere coincidence, right?
Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle spirals into different directions until its very last pages, but the characters and imagery are so delicious that I didn’t really care where the novel was heading, as long as I could keep devouring more prose. I will never forget how Murakami describes a particular scene in which a little boy awakens in the middle of the night and peers through his bedroom window into the wide expanse of his backyard.
As I returned the book to its shelf and tried to make sense of its many loose threads I realized perhaps I was okay with the unresolved subplots of the novel. Although The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s ending did not make complete logical sense, word by word, detail by detail, Murakami still pieced together a stunning novel that works to accumulate, drop by drop, towards a momentous wave.
Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and now lives near Tokyo. The most recent of his many honors is the Yomiuri Literary Prize, whose previous recipients include Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, and Kobo Abe. He is the author of the novels Dance, Dance, Dance, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and A Wild Sheep Chase, and of The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of stories. His latest novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun, will be published by Knopf in 1999. His work has been translated into more than fifty languages.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle can be purchased here.