Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Some people think that, since life is so messy, art and literature should go about creating order.

Some people think that, since life is so messy, art and literature should go about creating order. According to them, stories should be logically tight, red-herring free, sparkling with intelligent dialogue, perfect grammar and syntax, restrained in adverbs and smelling of the creative writing programmes that fertilised their authors. These people would not enjoy Harukami’s book. It is a long, winding story full of diversions, ambitious themes, metaphysical concerns and unadulterated creativity. And all the mess that goes with them. It is a book littered with short stories, red-herrings, repetition of theme and expression, which trembles with authenticity and life.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was published in Japan in 1994 and 1995. English versions appeared since 1997, 1998, wonderfully translated (I am told) from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. My own copy, by Vintage, is 607 pages long, meandering, challenging, exciting, shocking, thought provoking.

I am new to his work – though I am soon to remedy this – but on the basis of this book alone I can understand Murakami’s popularity.

I will not summarise the book here. It would both spoil the pleasure of discovery for the reader and it is a redundant process; there are many summaries of it around. Google the book and you will see what I mean.

Murakami has been linked to Carver, Chandler, John Irving and others. To me he is nearer to Camus than any other writer. Surprised? Think of the Outsider, this short and sharp novel and you will recognise the feeling of alienation, of estrangement, of emptiness in the 607 pages of Murakami. The W-uBC just happens to enjoy the ride and therefore be longer.

Murakami writes about Japan and a not recognisable Japan, about friendlessness while hanging around  friends, about loneliness in the  middle of crowds, about being young and being understood by the old – or no-one. About the experience of having people appear, disappear and reappear again without any feeling of constancy of their presence or existence.

Toru, the thirty year-old hero, has left his job in law and is wondering what to do next while his wife goes out to work. He idles away his time left over from being a house-husband, listening to the cries of a bird outside his home, which sounds like a wind-up spring and which give the novel its title, until the disappearance of his cat sets him on a search for meaning, both personal and universal. This path takes him from a dead end alley, to the entry of the suburban railway, to the bottom of a well, where, in the dark, he tries to get in touch with his true feelings.

In the periphery of a life regulated to the minute by social laws, and not knowing what or who he is, Toru, and the reader, find meaninglessness accompanied by mindless brutality and sheer horror – I am referring to the skinning a person alive scene, to prepare the reader for something utterly nightmarish – emerge in ordinary settings, or unexpected turns in the story. History adds its gore to this mix. Dante’s Hell for the masses?

At best, the world appears a mysterious, strange, infinitely complex place, with good and bad taking turns to descend upon its populace unexpectedly. The mechanical cry of the wind-up bird that reverberates through the novel adds to this feeling of estrangement that is at the core of this book. Like the Emperor’s Nightingale, it carries risks. So, by all means, read it, but not at night – and not in the dark.


Haruki Murakami (2003) The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, London: Vintage.