On Murakami’s novel ‘Norwegian Wood’

‘I was 37 then’… well, not exactly, but I was in my thirties when I discovered Norwegian Wood (1987), the novel by Haruki Murakami. The story’s false start resonated with me: a mysterious narrator landing at a German airport, The Beatles song ‘Norwegian Wood’ playing in the background, whisking him back to bitter-sweet memories of university.

Murakami’s Norwegian Wood features a 20-year-old protagonist, Toru Watanabe. Toru comes across as a likeable, ‘average guy’. He’s detached and cynical, sees things from a different point of view to most people. He’s attracted by certainty, and is himself seeking something tangible. The problem is that he lacks any conviction in his life. As a drama student, for example, he lacks any real passion for the subject. He is attracted to two girls, but unable to choose between them. One of the women is present in his real life, while the other is a dysfunctional ghostly spectre from his past, and hankering after her symbolically represents his immature desires — fantasies that can never become real.

Toru’s inability to ‘choose’ between them forms the backbone of the story, culminating in his final life decision regarding his future. It’s really a story about breaking with the past, with depression and consciously choosing a workable future. Toru can only get to this place (where he is able to make that choice) by truly understanding himself, and knowing what he wants from life. The novel is the journey of how he gets there, seen through a series of life experiences that gradually move him towards self-awareness. This is a coming of age story of sorts, even if Toru isn’t himself a teenager.

The novel encapsulates many ideas for me, not just directly relating to the text — the style, the narrator’s voice, the symbolic resonance, the atmosphere, the plot structure, etc — but factors outside of the text. It’s poignant to me how I’ve revisited the story over time as a reader, and looking back on the book feels a bit like Toru looking back on his past. It’s interesting how our perceptions of the story change over time. The words may remain the same, but our framing of the story — our expectations — shift. 15 years or so later I have a strangely ambivalent feeling about the novel. I can see the beauty — if you can call it that — of the protagonist’s journey, but I’m not so sure if I read it now, afresh (impossible as that is), that I’d be so enamoured by it. It feels like a story that could only resonate with the person I was a few years ago.

The other striking thing about Norwegian Wood is that it’s a novel written by a Japanese author in Japanese. It’s impossible for an English reader to understand the original text. What we experience is already an interpretation. The translation is everything. I read the Jay Rubin translation first, and for me this is the real Norwegian Wood. Alfred Birmbaum’s translation feels like a different novel. It’s all in the voice. Jay Rubin captures Toru’s voice, while Birmbaum’s version feels wooden and technical.

This is the first line of the novel translated by Rubin:

I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth, lending everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in waterproofs, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So – Germany again.

The words flow smoothly. There’s a musicality to the sentence construction.

Compare this to Birmbaum’s translation:

Here I am, thirty-seven years old, seated in a Boeing 747. The giant plane is diving into a thick cover of clouds, about to land at Hamburg Airport. A chill November rain darkens the land, turning the scene into a gloomy Flemish painting. The airport workers in their rain gear the flags atop the faceless airport buildings, the BMW billboards, everything. Just great, I’m thinking, Germany again.

They describe the same thing, more or less, and I can see merit in both versions. Birmbaum’s translation is perhaps fuller, and should be the better of the two, but it’s not. Rubin’s translation resonates with immediacy and an ‘authentic’ voice. His words create the impression of energy and life. The suggestion of vitality and resonance comes from the choice of words that suggest physicality, and the sentence construction has a certain musicality. The lesson for writers is that the small details contribute to the overall impression.

The Rubin version begins in the past tense, essentially: I was on a plane and remembered. The Birmbaum starts in the present tense: I am on a plane and remember. This almost inconsequential difference is fundamental to the whole story. The past tense accentuates a sense of loss, of time having passed, of gained wisdom through experience, while Toru still appears emotionally vulnerable. In short, I think there’s more to empathise with, because Rubin shows us Toru on the plane, while Birnbaum tells us about him. ‘Showing’ is more effective because it creates mystery, and asks the reader to creatively fill in the gaps. It’s a game of sorts, but an important one that elevates a good story into a great one.

In the first version Toru is ‘strapped in my seat’, which sounds like he’s imprisoned, and in the second he’s simply ‘seated’. In the Rubin translation ‘the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover’ and in the Birmbaum translation ‘The giant plane is diving into a thick cover of clouds’. It’s ‘plunged’ versus ‘diving’ and ‘dense cloud’ versus ‘thick cover of clouds’ — it’s more evenly matched here, but I’d say that Rubin edges it in terms of making the description come alive and seem more active. The ‘ground crew in waterproofs’ feels more evocative than ‘airport workers in their rain gear’, which is slightly more generic, and ‘a squat airport building’ has a tad more character than ‘faceless airport buildings’ (which, as a general observation, imparts less impact).

Jay Rubin’s version continues:

Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever.

Alfred Birnbaum’s translation continues:

The plane completes its landing procedures, the NO SMOKING sign goes off, and soft background music issues from the ceiling speakers. Some orchestra’s muzak rendition of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.” And sure though, the melody gets to me, same as always. No, this time it’s worse than ever before. I get it real bad. I swear my head is going to burst.

Rubin’s version achieves a satisfying balance between painting a realistic picture (through observed details), and making the important plot point about the music. The reader is waltzed from sentence to sentence with ‘soft music’ flowing from speakers, and ‘sweet orchestra’. The excessive detail in Birmbaum’s second paragraph overwhelms the plot point, plus Toru’s reaction seems overplayed in comparison. Rubin offers the physicality of ‘shudder’ and downplays the emotional landscape with ‘hit me harder than ever’ (an understatement) versus Birmbaum’s overblown, ‘No, this time it’s worse than ever before. I get it real bad. I swear my head is going to burst.’ This tells us what Toru feels instead of letting us work it out for ourselves. The tone feels a little overblown, sounding like an irritable 15-year-old, more along the lines of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, rather than a 37-year-old. There’s no right or wrong here, but, for me at least, Rubin’s tone and voice seems both more appealing and authentic.

There’s a critical lesson here for writers — the difference between delightful storytelling and something prosaic is slimmer than we might imagine. While precise language is crucial to good storytelling, overly technical descriptions of environments and internal worlds can bog down the flow and remove the reader’s fun of ‘filling-in’ the gaps.