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Surreal 'Chronicle' Traces Search for Cat, Identity in Japan

THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE By Haruki Murakami Translated by Jay Rubin 611 pp., $25.95


A few months ago literary critics were busying themselves trying to invent new synonyms for epic and powerful. These efforts--putting a serious premium on thesauruses nation wide--were sparked by the appearance of Don Dellio's Underworld. In that monster tome Dellio juggles the stories of multiple historic and non-historic characters, all the while mining the existential freak-show of the later 20th century for all its tragic, ironic and surreal material.

It is because of Dellio's success that Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's The Windup Bird Chronicle, a hefty 611 page work of near genius, probably won't get the attention that it deserves. Although it spans a comparatively short six months in 1984, beginning with a Japanese thirty-something making a spaghetti breakfast to the beat of Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie," The Windup Bird Chronicle is a noirish, tragi-comic epic worthy of its own praise dictionary. From a bizarre story of the thirty-something's marital and spiritual crisis, Murakami's novel kaleidoscopes out into an exploration of post-WWII Japan that moves from the horrors of war to Allen Ginsberg to the loss of a beloved family pet.

In terms of timing, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle also beats Dellio in the premillennial funk literature sweepstakes. Although the English translation is just now reaching bookstores, Murakami's book was released a few years ago in his native Japan. Published in a three-part serialization, it is one of the most popular novels in recent Japanese literature. Critics have proclaimed Murakami, also the author of the much-lauded Dance Dance Dance and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the heir-apparent to the great Yukio Mishima (Decay of the Angel).

"I can't find the image...I'm thirty, I'm standing still, and I can't find the image." This is not only the narrator's affliction, but Japan's as well. After quitting his job at a law firm, Toru Okada spends most of the time loafing around the house--until he begins to receive a series of phone calls from a mysterious woman. This begins the search for a missing cat (yep, that's right) and Okada's identity. Okada must soon contend with his wife's desertion, the lost cat and a host of zany characters, including a duo of femme fatale psychic sisters, a scheming brother-in-law lusting for political power and a 16-year-old neighbor who would give Humbert Humbert second thoughts about Lolita.

"I felt as if I had become part of a badly written novel, that someone was taking me to task for being utterly unreal," says Okada. While the story does has some surreal flashes, it is anything but unreal or badly written. Murakami's characters, though almost all off-kilter in some way, are never so ridiculous that they become unbelievable.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a fairly easy read--little seems to have been lost in Jay Rubin's excellent translation. Each chapter, with such titles as "An Inquiry into the Nature of Pain" and "The Story of the Monkeys of the Shitty Island," has enough comedy and matter-of-fact prose to keep the narrative moving along quickly. However, beneath the deceptive surface-simplicity, the novel is so richly textured that it deserves repeated reading. Filled with brilliant throwaway lines ("her voice like a little broom sweeping off the dust that had piled up on the slates of a venetian blind"), its keen observations about relationships are reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai's 1995 film "Chungking Express."

Despite all its deadpan humor, Murakami's novel also probes more serious social and political themes without ever becoming too heavy-handed. Though the protagonist occasionally articulates his feelings through references to American pop-culture, the author never uses these moments to launch into a blatant social critique. They're simply for comic effect.

Murakami moves effortlessly between surreal comedy and tragedy. In one of his most striking and sparsely rendered passages, aging veteran Tokutaro Mamiya comes to visits Okada and describes in graphic detail how he watched a friend get skinned alive by a Mongolian soldier. This encounter is followed by one of the funniest episodes of the book, in which Okada and his Lolita-esque neighbor travel to Tokyo to take inventory of its bald inhabitants.

The only failing of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a recurring metaphor it uses--and overuses--to unify its many narrative strands. "You go up when you're supposed to go up and down when you're supposed to go down...When there's no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries. If everything dries up, the world is darkness." This is the philosophy impressed upon Okada by Mr. Honda, an elderly psychic with a weird fascination with phlegm. This analogy, intended to emphasize the nature of Okada's adventures in existential wackiness, is repeated throughout the novel ad nauseum. Although it's meant to serve to focus the book's many themes, it seems jarringly unoriginal in comparison with Murakami's cool, prose and inventive characters.

In his collection In a Marine Light, Raymond Carver dedicates one of the poems, "The Projectile," to Murakami: "We sipped tea/Politely musing on possible reasons for the success of my books in your country/ Slipping into talk about pain and humiliation you find occurring, and reoccurring in my stories/ And that element of sheer chance." Carver's verse easily applies to Murakami. Although Murakami deals with a larger terrain, he illuminates both man's condition and an entire nation's with unforgettable style.

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