83 pages • 2 hours readHaruki Murakami, Transl. Jay Rubin
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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a modern classic novel by renowned Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Translated into English by Jay Rubin, the novel is a bildungsroman that features Toru, a bored young man living a basic life in Tokyo. When Toru’s daily routines are interrupted by increasingly odd and chaotic events, he must undergo a metaphysical journey that tests the limits of free will and corporeality. Like much of Murakami’s work, the novel, often heralded as his masterpiece, is characterized by cats, domestic duties, and a narrator who wants to be left alone but whose solitude is interrupted by the more forceful and unavoidable outside world.
The novel’s themes bring together classic Japanese cultural norms of nationalism and tradition with contemporary Western values of independence and popular culture. In this philosophical treatise, Murakami explores human nature and posits that nihilism and hope, light and dark, and pain and joy are all intertwined.
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Published in Japan in 1994 and translated into English by 1997, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is regarded as a modern masterpiece. It was named among the 10 all-time greatest Asian novels by The Telegraph and won Murakami the Yomiuri Literary Award.
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Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko live a pleasantly normal life in Tokyo. Toru recently left his job, choosing to take some time to think about his life’s purpose. While his wife Kumiko goes to work, Toru takes care of the home. Kumiko is worried because their unnamed cat—nicknamed Norboru—has gone missing. She introduces Toru to Malta Kano, a psychic who met Kumiko through Kumiko’s odd brother, who is also named Noboru. Although Kumiko and Noboru have a difficult relationship due to the latter’s sociopathic tendencies and thirst for power, her entire family is invested in people who give spiritual guidance. Malta Kano and Toru meet, and she provides Toru with coded predictions that echo those made by Mr. Honda, Kumiko’s family’s preferred spiritual guide. Although Toru doesn’t believe in psychics, he is surprised when Malta Kano’s predictions come true.
Toru meets Creta Kano, Malta’s sister and secretary, who tells him a disturbing story about being raped by Noboru. Toru begins to have sex dreams about Creta. During the day, his sex dreams are amplified by mysterious phone calls from a nameless woman who tries to engage him in phone sex. One day, Kumiko doesn’t come home. Her brother informs Toru that she has left him for another man and that a quick and quiet divorce would be better for everyone. Toru is confused and filled with suspicions about Noboru; Noboru and Kumiko have such a complicated and difficult relationship that it seems impossible that Kumiko would turn to him for help with Toru. Toru refuses to concede to the divorce without talking to Kumiko face-to-face.
Meanwhile, Toru becomes increasingly fascinated with an abandoned house in his neighborhood. The house is famous for being cursed; all its residents have met gruesome and tragic ends. While checking out the place on a whim, Toru meets his neighbor, teenager May Kasahara. May is staying home from school for an extended period due to an injury sustained in a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend. May is nihilistic and obsessed with death, but there is something about her that allows her and Toru to develop a friendship. Toru notices that the abandoned house has a dry and deep well. After Kumiko leaves him, Malta recommends that Toru engage the natural flow of the world, instead of constantly seeking the essence of people and events. Toru relates this advice to Mr. Honda’s advice to dive into the deepest well. Toru takes this literally and, with the help of his new friend May, descends into the abandoned dry well.
For three days, Toru stays in the well where he experiences out-of-body, alternate realities. He finds himself in a hotel. A mysterious woman needs his help, but the dream ends before Toru can figure out what is going on. May encloses Toru in the well to challenge him, and he is saved by Creta, who climbs into the well when Toru is out.
May also goes into the well, after Creta. She is so disturbed by the feelings the darkness of the well inspires, that she tells Toru the truth about her life. The motorcycle accident had been her fault, and she caused the death of her boyfriend in that accident. May tells Toru that she worries she’ll end up like him, and she too disappears for a while.
Without Creta, Malta, May, or Kumiko, Toru undergoes a period of intense isolation. Eventually, he decides to start exploring the city and observe people so he can center his anxieties. On one of these observations, Toru meets a woman who asks him if he needs money. Toru has resolved to buy the abandoned house, which has been demolished and its well filled in. Toru desperately wants to go back into that well, so he tells the woman he needs millions of yen. She invites him to her office, where her son gives Toru money. Toru and the woman, Nutmeg Akasaka, develop a friendship. Nutmeg is also a psychic of sorts, a former famed fashion designer whose special power is to treat intense migraines and depression with the touch of a hand. She senses in Toru a similar power. She buys the abandoned lot, rebuilds a house, and empties the well. Toru works for her as a therapist while practicing his world-traveling in the well. Nutmeg’s son Cinnamon works with them. Cinnamon doesn’t speak, but he is kind, gentle, and essential to the operation. Around this time, Toru’s missing cat returns.
One day, Toru is approached by Noboru’s gofer, who proposes that Kumiko will speak with Toru via computer chat. Noboru has been reading about the curious land purchase of the formerly abandoned and cursed lot, and is curious about what Toru is up to. Toru keeps his work a secret, but he agrees to speak with Kumiko via Cinnamon’s computer. During the chat, Kumiko asks Toru to stop thinking of her. She tells him she’s grown bad, and she is no longer the Kumiko he once knew.
One night in the Residence, Toru wakes up to an odd sound. He follows the sound to Cinnamon’s computer, where a file of stories called “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” are open for Toru’s perusal. He reads a disturbing story that is clearly about Nutmeg’s father, but the story must be fiction because Nutmeg’s father died during the war and would not have been able to tell her this story first-hand. The title of the stories strikes Toru. He knows the wind-up bird, but most people don’t. The wind-up bird is a bird with a distinctive chirp that makes Toru feel like the world is coming to life. But he has never spotted the wind-up bird, and the chirping is irregular. May’s nickname for Toru is Mr. Wind-Up Bird, and that Cinnamon is chronicling stories in which other people also hear the wind-up bird is alarming to Toru.
One day, Cinnamon stops coming to the Residence, and Nutmeg disappears too. Toru, alone again, descends into the well on his own. Finally, he confronts the innermost depths of the alternate world he can access through the darkness of the well. He finds Kumiko and kills Noboru’s soul. When he comes to, he is drowning in the well. He hears May Kasahara above him shutting him into the well. Meanwhile, May Kasahara is actually working in a wig factory. May hears Toru’s calls and cries for him in the moonlight. Cinnamon saves Toru from the well and Nutmeg nurses him back to health. Nutmeg tells Toru the news about Noboru, who has become a popular politician: One day, Noboru simply collapsed and is unresponsive in the hospital. During his recovery, Toru again hears the call of Cinnamon’s computer. He reads the newest story in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” It is a letter from Kumiko, who tells Toru that she must kill her brother. Kumiko kills Noboru while he is unconscious in the hospital. She turns herself in and goes to prison.
Toru comes to terms with his existence and finds peace outside the well. He visits May at her wig factory and tells her that he will wait for Kumiko to be released from prison.
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