display | more...

The titular quote is from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, a novel I've read a couple of months ago and has been on my mind since then. The quote is part of the advice given by clairvoyant Old Mr. Honda to the novel's main protagonist, Toru Okada. The point of the advice is to emulate water: never resist the flow and follow it where it wishes to lead you, be it the highest tower or the deepest well, or risk breaking the flow. In my own reading of the novel (which is likely not unique), the interpretation of this piece of advice becomes a pivotal point in the unraveling of the action.

The first book of the novel, The Thieving Magpie, makes it obvious that Toru has done something to break the flow. For whatever reason, it seems his life is slowly grinding to a halt. He has quit his job and his job hunt is hitting nothing but dead ends. He is forced to spend more and more of his days in search of his and his wife's lost cat (in a back alley both ends of which have been blocked off, symbolizing the stopped flow), a search that also forces him in contact with a really weird bunch of people. And finally, his wife leaves him, apparently for another man, and it doesn't seem like she's planning to come back or even have any further conact with him. The flow of his life is stopped. Whatever has been driving it is gone. At this point Toru is going on pure inertia. Well, inertia and lemon drops.

Toru doesn't quite know what to make of all the weirdness that has entered his stopped life. He doesn't know what he's done to muddle his life like this, and in fact he's not sure what it was that kept him going at all all these years. He has some superstitious hypotheses, however: like this bird he'd been hearing every morning (though never seeing) which makes the sound of a spring being wound up (this is the wind-up bird of the novel's title). He thinks maybe this bird has been winding the spring on his life, and since he hasn't heard it for a while, the wind in the spring is running out, and whatever wind is left isn't bound to last long.

It is critical for Toru to figure out how to restart the flow in his life, but he is too numb to deal with the task. An eddy of ennui, denial, and fear is preventing him from doing anything productive. There seems to be a bootstrapping problem.

At this point I became invested in the resolution of the novel. For the short length of my adult life, I have had a very positive, constructive disposition toward the world, which I feel has allowed me to live a healthy and robust emotional lifestyle. If we were to assign ourselves muppets we are most like, I would be Rowlf. Though I would like to imagine that this intuitive disposition derives from an intuitively grasped profound principle, I have no evidence to support this as the wellspring of my psychological stability. Even so, I have seen too many close friends afflicted by gripping, pointless depression, which seems to spring from nothing more consequential than bad mental habits and chemical imbalances, to not appreciate this naturally upbeat disposition even if it turns out to spring out of nothing. But this attitude is very precarious: if I don't know the source of my emotional stability, I would not know how to regain it in case a devestating shock disrupts it.

This is of course the issue at hand for Toru: it's all fine while the flow is going, but the problem is bootstrapping it when it stops. Therefore, it would certainly be a great boon to get a firmer, less intuitive grip on this principle at the wellspring of my positive outlook while it's still springing, but what if I sat down and analyzed my intuitive feeling thoroughly and found that indeed there was nothing at the source of it, there is absolutely no reason for me to be at all animated about my life, that in fact all indications are that I should be despaired and forlorn about the prospects of being happy in this life?

Well, reasonably or not, for a long time I was terrified of taking that risk, and for that reason I mostly avoided introspective writing. The process of writing, for me at least, is a method of taking specific, material-sensual, intuitive ideas that occur to me and polish them into abstractions, weave them into patterns with explanatory power. Therefore, my hesitation about disrupting the wellspring in crossing the gulf from the intuitive to the abstract led me to instictively resist any journal writing or other personal writing, despite delving into the depths of my mind quite regularly (as an introvert it is important to me to be comfortable inside my own head, where I do like to spend a lot of time). This wasn't a conscious fear at all, and the rationalizations I came up with ("my life isn't interesting enough to write about") were unrelated, but I do believe that this was the unconscious argument that was actually in effect. Just within the last year I've admitted this to myself and started to crack the door open with some introspective writing (some on this very site!)

So, when I picked up at the end of the first book that the issue at the heart of this novel (it is what the title metaphorically refers to, after all, I did not read into it my own preoccupations) was very much in resonance, I became very invested in how Murakami develops it and resolves it this novel.

When Toru's life unravels around him, he doesn't fall into a depression. He's way too numb for that. Instead he falls into ennui. He really should be thinking hard and analyzing the patterns of his life, but he doesn't seem to be able to do that yet at this stage of the novel. He is deep in denial, perhaps partly due to this fear of wandering into the darkness and losing sight of the lamp post. Instead, Toru seems to be taking Old Mr. Honda's advice and going where the flow takes him. He has sexy conversations with a mysterious phone caller, who haunts his dreams; he provides water samples to a pair of clairvoyant sisters named after Mediterranean islands; he goes surveying bald heads on the street with a truant high school girl; and finally at the height of his aimless drifting he just sits around at the train station for hours on end looking at people. He thinks he's going with the flow, but actually there is no flow; he is treading water, drifitng.

All around Toru, as he drifts, circle the answers to the questions he should be asking, and though he momentarily makes realizations in the right direction, he's too dense to take hold of them. Of the themes that Murakami sends flying around Toru is the question of whether we as human beings are all profoundly alone or we are all profoundly connected. The mysterious phone caller insists that they can understand each other completely within ten minutes. That seems impossible to Toru. After his wife Kumiko leaves, he starts to realize how solitary his life is -- was even before she left. No one could relate to (let alone believe) his bizarre recent experiences, so he seeks no one's empathy. Even in ten or so years of marriage with his wife, he has failed to understand some crucial truth about her. An attempt at anything close to full understanding between people is futile; we are alone.

Yet, throughout the second book, Bird as Prophet, Murakami intorduces a variety of subplots, the life stories of supporting characters (a lot of them also leading flow-stoppped lives), that echo each other and the main plot in a way that suggest some profound connection between these lives. At one point, Toru watches a bar singer perform a perverted magic trick: he puts his hand into the flame of a candle, and while he doesn't feel pain, every member of the audience cringes with pain watching this. He causes them pain by sticking his hand into the flame -- "empathy" he announces. Toru's anger at this trick surfaces when he later follows the bar singer into an apartment building and despite himself beats him to death with a baseball bat.

Well I spend my time at the bottom of a wishing well
And I can hear my dreams singing clear as a bell
I used to know where they ended and the world began
But now it's getting hard to tell
I could be just around the corner from Heaven or a mile from Hell
-- Jackson Browne, "The Road and the Sky"

And so, after trying to go with the flow for the first half of the second book doesn't seem to help, Toru decides to take Old Mr. Honda's advice much more literally and actually goes down to the bottom of the deepest well he can find, a well in the yard of an abandoned house on the back alley, and just sits down there to think quietly. This is the turning point of the novel, in my opinion. Toru's redemption begins with an act of introspection (although I wouldn't call it "sober introspection"). He loses grip of the real world and the sense of time and gains access to a weird supernatural realm that he has visited before in his dreams, which seems to be where the mysterious phone woman is calling from. By the time he climbs out, he shows immediate signs of progress: he has an opportunity of leaving his shambles of a life and start something new in Crete with one of the clairvoyant sisters, Creta, but he senses intuitively that he should stop drifting and start the flow going again. He needs to find his wife. Thus ends book two.

In the beginning of book three and the last, The Birdcatcher, Toru seems as adrift as ever. He's cut contacts with the clairvoyant sisters and with May, and he's back sitting around at the station looking at people. But soon enough he is recruited by a mysterious woman with the assumed name of Nutmeg, who runs an occult business, where she supernaturally cures wealthy and famous women of anxiety and world-weariness. Toru seems to have gained a gift for it, that is somehow related to this birth-like mark that showed up on his face after his time in the well.

More subplots are introduced with the backstories of Nutmeg's family: her childhood in occupied Manchuria (Manchukuo), from which only she and her mother escaped when it was captured by the Soviets, and the story of her superintelligent son, who stopped speaking at a young age after a supernatural experience involving the wind-up bird. In fact, several of the subplot take place in Manchukuo before and during World War II (and a Soviet prison camp after). They all tell of war atrocities commited by Japanese and Russians, and a theme of evil runs through all of them. They are reflected in the main plot by the character of Toru's brother in law, Noboru, a member of parliament, whose grandfather (from whom he inherited the seat) had a big part behind the Manchurian campaign. Noboru is the embodiment of eveything abominable to Toru: he is a manipulative demagogue, whose brand of politics is specially powerful in abusing pulic opinion in the age of television; he seems to lord over the weird supernatural realm, with his hand in nefarious business and getting his thrills mystically violating young women.

I thought I was smart
I thought I was right
I thought it better not to fight
I thought there was a virtue, in always being cool
So it came time to fight
I thought "I'll just step aside"
And that the time will prove you wrong
And that you would be a fool
-- The Flaming Lips "Fight Test"

The main plot of the novel is resolved when Toru, previously reluctant, goes down into the well and into the dream realm to fight Noboru and free his wife, whom Noboru apparently has been holding captive there. The interpretation of this resolution to the resolution of the themes of the novel seem to me to imply the following conclusions from Murakami:

Fundamentally we are all connected, but the connection does not lie outwards, in understanding one another's situation, but inwards, in understanding one's own situation in relation to humanity. That inward connection is represented by the dream realm that Toru accesses from the well, the site of his introspection.

Furthermore, the driving force, the generator of the flow for Toru, what he has been groping for in the first half of the novel and what he came to grip in the second half, is the cause of resisting evil and its influences in the world. This is a very Bhagavad Gita-Karma Yoga-like resolution: in the Gita, Arjuna shies away from his karmic duty, believing detatchment is superior, but is then taught by Krishna the truer interpretation of detachment, which is righteous action without attatchment to its fruits. Like Arjuna, Toru at first misconstrues Old Mr. Honda's advice about the flow to imply simple detatchment, but later figures out his karmic duty.

Ultimately, I was slightly disappointed with the novel. Though I'm quite fond of my reading of it, (a) it doesn't sit well with some elements of the novel (but I doubt that there exists a clean reading of the novel; Murakami doesn't seem like the kind of writer who catches any respectable percentage the balls he throws up]); and (b) I'm not sure I like the answers it gives to the questions that had made me invested in it. I definitely will need to think -- and write -- further to secure what my own answers to these same questions are.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.