Haruki Murakami, born in 1949 in Kyoto, is Japan's answer to David Lynch and Don DeLillo, a novelist who takes readers into a fantastic world behind the humdrum surface of everyday reality. His 1995 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle starts with an unemployed house-husband, Toru Okada, searching for his lost cat in the suburbs of Tokyo. Before long, though, Okada is led into a surreal labyrinth, where everything may or may not be linked, by a series of figures that seem to have percolated up from the subconscious:I took a seat at the bar and ordered a Scotch on the rocks. The bartender asked me what kind of Scotch I'd like, and I answered Cutty Sark. I didn't really care which brand of Scotch he served me, but Cutty Sark was the first thing to come to mind. Before he could give me my drink, I felt a hand take my arm from behind, the touch as soft as if the person were grasping something that might fall apart at any moment. I turned. There stood a man without a face … "This way, Mr Okada," he said. I tried to speak, but before I could open my mouth, he said to me, "Please, come with me. We have so little time. Hurry."In Murakami's universe you had better watch out whom you talk to in bars.It is impossible to summarise the plot of this novel. Suffice to say, it is about Rossini, a baseball bat, World War atrocities, sex, clairvoyance, male pattern baldness, Japanese politics, a defunct zoo, and a dried-up well that is a portal to another dimension. At the centre of it all is the protagonist Okada, trying to figure out why his wife has suddenly disappeared. Has she grown bored of their domestic life and left him? Or is she being detained against her will? The solution, it turns out, has as much to do with the past as the present. And his initial clue is a strange inheritance:… sitting on the living room couch, I opened the package that Mr Honda had left me as a
keepsake. I worked up a sweat removing layer after layer of carefully sealed wrapping paper, until a sturdy cardboard box emerged. It was a fancy Cutty Sark gift box, but it was too light to contain a bottle of whisky. I opened it to find nothing inside. It was absolutely empty.Unwrapping layer after layer is what The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is all about. By the end of the novel Okada ends up at the bottom of the dry well and simultaneously in a sinister hotel room, number 208. There he discovers a mysterious woman who may or may not be his estranged wife Kumiko:On the small table in the middle of the room stands a nearly full bottle of Cutty Sark. The ice bucket contains newly cracked chunks of ice, and someone has made a Scotch on the rocks in the glass that is standing there … On the bed at the back of suite lies a woman. I hear her moving between the sheets. The ice makes a pleasant clinking in her glass … The woman brings the whisky glass to her lips, allows a few drops to trickle down her throat, and then she tries to speak to me. The bedroom is dark. I can see nothing but the faint movements of shadows. But she has something to say to me. I wait for her to speak. I wait for her words. They are there.Reading this novel is like holding a whisky on the rocks up against a bright light. Stare at it long enough and you'll find yourself seeing all manner of shapes and figures in the refracted rays. With its terse style, the book goes down well, too, clear and crisp. Just as Japanese whiskies are on the rise these days, Haruki Murakami has produced a novel that readers owe it to themselves to sample.