Saying that a writer with a book called Kafka on the Shore is influenced by Franz Kafka may seem like a rather redundant statement to open a review with, but there it is. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) is really very Kafkan indeed.
The novel follows mild-mannered Toru Okada from mundane beginnings through an often dream-like journey of personal spiritualism and communion. Okada’s life is swiftly established to be one of disappearances: first his job vanishes, then his cat, and then, most significantly, his wife Kumiko.
That said, Okada’s story is only so much his: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is interspersed with appearances from peripheral characters who arrive, tell stories, and vanish from the main narrative. These are some of the novel’s most brilliant sections: One anecdote, related by World War II veteran Lieutenant Mamiya, is the first story to introduce the recurring symbol of the dry well. Mamiya speaks of his time in the Japanese army and recounts how he was captured whilst on a mission in Inner Mongolia and forced to watch his commanding officer be skinned alive. The tale culminates in Mamiya’s abandonment in a dry well out on the Mongolian steppes, and it is here that he lapses into dream, marking the beginning of a vaguely defined dream/reality oscillation that continues for the rest of the book.
It is these segments—Mamiya’s well-story, his later tales of war-related woe, and several other uneasy anecdotes from other evanescent characters—that strike that Kafkan chord so purely. Reading of Mamiya’s horrific ordeal in Mongolia, I was reminded of “In the Penal Colony,” whereas other parables of identity, isolation, and transformation pointed towards other texts in the Czech writer’s oeuvre. That said, it is not the writing or the language itself that conjures these associations, but rather that uncomfortable and dream-like atmosphere that pervades—the feeling that Murakami’s characters, like Kafka’s own, are suspended and lost even in seemingly familiar settings and scenarios.
Of course, all of Kafka’s novels remained unfinished, perhaps because this kind of oppressive atmosphere does not lend itself to easy or satisfying conclusions. We should not be surprised then that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle seems to slip and stutter towards the novel’s close. The intriguing narrative threads laid out at the book’s start, themselves indicative of a vast and complex network of unseen operations, become less intriguing as more of them are revealed. Certain complex elements of the book, such as the character of Noboru Wataya, are either explained away in disappointing wrap-ups or are forgotten completely, whereas the titular wind-up bird becomes less a mysterious omen and more of an empty emblem by the novel’s close.
As a narrative then, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is intriguing but unsatisfying, engaging but not cohesive. Murakami’s writing is as glittering as ever, with several instances of pause-and-re-read-sentence admiration occurring in my first read-through. Such linguistic elegance contributes to the novel’s colossal initial charm; by the time the last page looms, it’s hard not to feel a little let down. Murakami may not have completely kept his promises in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but we forgive him the novel’s shortcomings in light of its many strange successes.