HBO recently aired a ten part miniseries – The Pacific. It was made by the same guys who did Band of Brothers (Tom hanks, Spielberg), in that same gritty handheld cinematography that made Saving Private Ryan so revolutionary.
But this series lacked the crumbling architecture of blitzkrieged Paris, or even the beautiful grassy hilltops of Terrence Malick’s Guadalcanal. This was all mud and black sand, sopping trenches that held the piled and maggoty remains of corpses. It was nightmarish not only in the violence but also the aesthetic: suicidal banzai rushes, flamethrowers in mountain bunkers, meaninglessness death in a struggle for little desert isles in the middle of the ocean.
That same nihilism informs a reading of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Although much of the book focuses on the mundane non-adventures of our modern day narrator Toru, the crux of the book’s theme – and the best passages – are in the dark depths of Japan’s imperialistic conquests during the World War.
Wind Up is an odd book. Set in the mid 1980s, Toru has recently quit his job as a lowly salaryman to rethink his life. He sits at home and listens to music, reads books, counts the number of times the telephone rings, cooks spaghetti, while his wife goes off to work. Every day he wakes to the sound of a strange bird – dubbed the Wind Up bird – which greets the morning with a strange creaking call, like the winding of a spring.
Toru’s cat goes missing, and he has some squabbles with his wife, but in the first few hundred pages of the novel very little happens. It’s a study in passivity. Toru really doesn’t do anything. He’s pushed around by external forces and the people around him. This can be somewhat frustrating – an odd sensation, reading something with so little drive to advance the plot.
The mundane is broken up by exotic and visceral episodes that feel completely out of place in their stark contrast. Sex and Violence. The first in the form of obscene phone calls from strange women. The second in the retelling of horrific events from the war by an ancient veteran.
Toru’s wife disappears. He meets a number of other women who act as doppelgangers for his wife, engaging in conversations both spiritual and mundane, providing physical comfort and sexual release. But most of the plot points feel like filler around the excellent episodes from the 1940s.
By the end of the book (as it resolves a sort of half-boiled thriller regarding his wife’s disappearance), he gets letters from a young girl named May Kashara. She’s probably the most compelling of the book’s characters, with childlike curiosity and mischief underlain by a deep fascination with mortality and human evil. She writes:
“Anyway, it seems to me that the way most people go on living…, they think that the world or life (or whatever) is this place where everything (or is supposed to be) basically logical and consistent. Talking with my neighbors here often makes me think that. Like, when something happens, whether it’s a big event that affects the whole society or something small and personal, people talk about it like, “Oh, well, of course, that happened because such and such,” and most of the time people with agree and say, like , “Oh, sure, I see,” but I just don’t get it. “A is like this, so that’s why B happened.” I mean, that doesn’t explain anything.”
Is the surface of the book nonsensical on purpose? Are these random characters and Toru’s passive reaction merely an illustration of that absurdist tenet?
There’s a lot to think about and digest in Wind Up. It’s easy to write the whole thing off as poorly organized, half-complete, or lost in translation. But it’s a book that requires multiple passes. On the surface, Toru is a passive robot, a blank everyman, a zombie of modern consumer culture. But he does possess a deeper spirituality, a hidden meaning, that’s only revealed when he climbs down and contemplates what lives in the darkness underground.