Runs In Transit

Category: Literature

Contrasting Themes in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

It’s been a long time since a book has captured my attention the way The Wind Up Bird Chronicle has. Perhaps not since 6th grade when I would read the Redwall series by Brian Jacques back-to-back for days on end. An addictive page turner, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is beautiful, complex, and layered with history and social commentary. It’s a joy to read, so if you haven’t read the book, please consider doing so before you read this post, as the thrill of experiencing it for the first time is invaluable. Because this book is so deep, to do a proper analysis would be nearly impossible. For the purpose of this post, I will focus on three themes of contrast, East and West, the past and the present, and the young and the old.

Before delving into the novel, it’s important to briefly examine the life of the author, Haruki Murakami. Born after World War II to teachers of Japanese literature, Murakami was certainly endowed with a sense of Japanese culture and its relationship with a modernizing society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Murakami spent his youth reading western literature, the likes of Dickens, Vonnegut, and Kerouac, to name a few. In college, Murakami studied drama, and would proceed to run a coffeehouse/bar for 7 years. It was only until age 29 that Murakami first started writing at all. His first novel would win a literary competition and lead to a renowned career as an international best selling author.

Now considering Murakami’s background, it is easy to see how a novel like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle could come to fruition. The novel combines the East with the West, the past with the present, the young and the old, in a way that is born from Murakami’s life.

East and West

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is noticeably Western in its surreal and Kafkaesque style, blending reality and dreams in absurd situations that lead the reader to question what is happening in front of them. It does this in a way that closely parallels Western authors (the surrealism of Kafka, the absurdism of Vonnegut, the social criticism of Dickens, etc.), but without disregarding Eastern ideas. Wind Up Bird is also closely tied to Eastern beliefs such as Buddhism, Shamanism, and Confucianism. Frequently, Toru, the main character, finds himself at the bottom of a well in a state of meditation, trying to reach a different level of consciousness in order to find answers to his life, often through spirits and dream-world versions of the people in his life. When he does this, he avoids any worldly possessions, choosing to fast, not drink, and wear his most worn clothes. He repeats rituals in similar manner such as when he sits on a bench every day in order to follow his premonitions, and when he seeks help from psychics and mind readers, who are emblematic of the idea of sagehood, an idea of focus in Confucianism. By bridging the gap between Eastern and Western ideas, Murakami sheds light on the contrasting perspectives present in modern Japan, especially regarding the atrocities committed by the Japanese army during World War II.

Past and Present

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is rife with conflict, revealing a Japan that struggles to form a collective identity. The past is embodied by characters such as Lieutenant Mamiya and Mr. Honda, both soldiers in WWII. These characters are the last living link to the past, and deal with their experiences in strange ways that mirror Japan itself. Mr. Honda is entranced with the horrific battles he saw, choosing to replay the Battle of Nomonhan over and over again to his visitors, even though he has had experiences arguably much worse. On the other hand, Lieutenant Mamiya deals with his experiences by hiding them altogether. He agreed with Mr. Honda to never speak of an incident in Mongolia, and only reveals his story in order to keep it alive after he dies. In contrast, the rest of the characters of the novel are detached from Japan’s past, instead focused on goals inherent in a capitalistic society. One of the primary plot-lines is Toru deciding what he wants to do as a career, and the conflict present as his wife works long hours. These characters choose to ignore the past, but are faced with the identity of a people that has to deal with its effects. This brings up the question of how we should remember the past while focusing on the present, a problem modern Japan deals with closely, and one which the answer is obscure.

Old and Young

The three generations present in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle represent three distinct ideals. The old, mentioned before, are fading, and carrying with them the scars of the past. The middle-aged, including Toru, are trying to find themselves in a world where your identity is your career, and in tandem, how much money you make. The young is embodied in May Kasahara, a young girl who is also thrust into capitalist Japan, but skeptical of its goals. She avoids school and does not adhere to any expectations of a career. She works part-time as a surveyor, and only at the end of the novel commits to a full time occupation. Even then, she doesn’t do it for enjoyment but in an attempt to find answers. She constantly questions the way things are done, and through viewing Toru’s journey, decides that she doesn’t want the same things the previous generation valued. A normal life that suffocates excitement in exchange for complacency is not appealing to her, especially given the situations Toru’s circumstances created. Japanese youth are like May Kasahara, rejecting the salary chasing ideals of their parents in return for fun and deeper sources of meaning, reflected in the millions of young workers choosing to do odd jobs for a living.

Murakami is a genius in story-telling. Combining multiple elements of modern Japan in a gripping novel is a difficult feat, and Murakami does it to near perfection in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Hats off to you Haruki.

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The Genius of Hemingway

Decorated war hero, deep-sea fisherman, boxer, U-boat hunter, not to mention one of the greatest writers of all time, Ernest Hemingway was a jack of all trades, but his literary style was truly groundbreaking. Many people know that he introduced a style of prose that was succinct yet powerful, but to say so is a massive understatement.

You see, before Hemingway, most novels were written in a descriptive and “flowery” style characterized by the Victorian period. You might remember reading Pride and Prejudice or A Tale of Two Cities in English class and perhaps complaining about their lack of approachability. But then came the First World War and a whole generation of writers like Hemingway who were deeply shaped and scarred by their war-time experiences. These writers felt a disconnect with post-war life and wanted to express a less romantic, more ennui-filled mood in their work. When Hemingway published his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, about this feeling, a whole generation was inspired and the course of modern literature was altered forever.

You were probably once taught to “show, not tell” and to “be concise” in writing, and we have Hemingway to thank (or blame) for that. His minimalist style focused on stating things that were evident on the surface but not the underlying themes, later coined “Iceberg Theory”. He forced readers to interpret their own meaning and focused on telling a story so true that it can have many different meanings. Of course, you might find this style boring, especially if you are not a fan of his subject matter, but there’s no denying his genius, especially at describing the most simple things, and the way he accomplishes this deserves more attention. Take this excerpt from The Old Man and the Sea for example:

“Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty. He seemed to hang in the air above the old man in the skiff. Then he fell into the water with a crash that sent spray over the old man and over all of the skiff.”

There are many things to note here:

1. First, he almost exclusively uses short words. The longest word is “showing” but only because of the suffix “ing”, and the average word length is only 3.6 letters. The effect of this is that each sentence is extremely curt and almost sounds staccato. By making the most economic word choices and taking off all of the “fat”, he takes the reader directly to the point as quickly as possible in a clear and unfiltered way.

2. He uses adjectives sparingly. There are 16 nouns, 7 verbs, and 3 adjectives in this passage. This means the reader gets no help from the author in forming a descriptive image. Instead, you have to derive as much meaning from the few adjectives (“alive”, “high”, and “great”) as you can and rely on nouns and verbs to form descriptions. Not only does this make each adjective much more powerful, but it forces you to discover the heart of the story.

3. He avoids punctuation. In many places, especially the first sentence, proper grammar would dictate the use of a comma. Hemingway disregards this and uses the word “and” in place of a comma many times. Of course, this is done purposely to minimize pauses, the intention of which is to convey a sense of immediacy, making the reader feel like the scene is really going on in the present moment and putting you in the shoes of the protagonist.

4. Lastly, he uses flow to alter the passage of time. The first sentence is long and just when it feels like it is going to end, it is extended with an “and”. This creates a buildup where time is dragged on, giving a sense of length. The second sentence describes the fish hanging in the air, freezing time. Then immediately, the fish “fell into the water with a crash”, bringing the reader back to reality. By doing so, the reader can form a much more visual image even in the absence of description.

I could go on, but you get the point. Each paragraph Hemingway has written can be deconstructed,  each sentence containing a meaning that extends past what meets the eye. Hemingway truly was a genius, and every novel after him was influenced by his work either directly or indirectly. If it were not for him, I know I would not be the same writer.hway8
The man, the myth, the legend. Rest in peace.

PS: if you want to get started with his work, I recommend A Farewell to Arms if you enjoy war and romance, The Sun Also Rises if you enjoy partying and bullfighting, and The Old Man and the Sea if you enjoy fishing and nature.