REVIEW: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a dark masterpiece of magical realism, establishing Japanese author Haruki Murakami as one of the world’s foremost voices in speculative fiction and a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

I first discovered Murakami’s work in my early twenties, devouring all his published work in the years following my college graduation. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle became my favorite novel, impacting me in subtle ways that have become a core part of who I am today.

I have revisited The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle each decade since my original read in 2004. I know it’s the same book, but it feels different each time. My format for this review is directly inspired by Mark Lawrence’s recent short story, “About Pain,” which contains the following quote:

“You cannot read the same book twice. When you return to the first page it will be a different ‘you’, changed by the very experiences you are seeking to recapture.” (Mark Lawrence)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle2004: After rekindling my passion for reading in college, I feel fortunate to have discovered a long list of novels that I adore, books where I feel a strong personal connection with the characters and themes being explored. Most of all, these are books that have helped me to think in a new way, or to somehow broaden or deepen my understanding of our place in the world and our relationships with each other.

I don’t always give the same response when people ask me which book is my all-time favorite. It depends on my mood, and there is also some recency bias depending on which books I have recently enjoyed. Despite these reservations, in my heart I know that I’ve converged on an answer: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I feel like a different person after reading this book, like I’m somehow more attuned to the ways in which people treat each other and the metaphysical reality hiding just beneath the surface of our everyday lives.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a very difficult book to summarize, with a number of disparate plot lines that all converge at the end. I’m not going to attempt to write a plot summary or even a character summary. What stands out to me most is how Murakami blurs the line between the real and surreal. The main protagonist, Toru Okada, is so passive in our physical world and can only grow by entering the metaphysical realm:

“In a place far away from anyone or anywhere, I drifted off for a moment.”

Murakami makes such effective use of magical realism here, as he does in many of his other novels. But The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is somehow different. The magical elements are not meant to be fantasy: they are meant to be a deeper level of our true reality.

It’s hard to describe how much The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle means to me or how much it has impacted me. I feel like it somehow deepened my consciousness and, in doing so, made me a better person in some small way.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle2014: A decade older. Am I ten years wiser or just more jaded?

I’ve read a lot of great books over the past ten years, yet The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is still my favorite. However, it seems significantly darker this second time around.

Ten years ago, I would have told you that the main theme of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is transcendence: discovering our true selves by digging deep into our souls, perhaps with a little help from some unlikely friends. But I missed the point.

Returning to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in my thirties, the overarching theme is cruelty: not the cruelty of an uncaring universe, but rather the cruelty that people inflict on each other, either purposely or just plain carelessly.

Murakami covers cruelty on both personal and global levels. There is the small-scale cruelty that people inflict on each other within a relationship. When The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle opens, the narrator (Toru) is obsessed with the search for his lost cat. However, he is focused on the what rather than the why. Toru should be asking why the cat left in the first place, since this seemingly innocuous event is the harbinger for the impending breakdown of his marriage with his wife, Kumiko:

“I realize full well how hard it must be to go on living alone in a place from which someone has left you, but there is nothing so cruel in this world as the desolation of having nothing to hope for.”

Kumiko’s troubles stem from the inexplicable cruelty inflicted on her by her brother, Noburo, who is a slick, media-savvy politician, well-loved by the public, but also a sadistic abuser, especially toward his two sisters. Noburo’s abuse is cruelty for the sake of cruelty, committed by a twisted soul.

Murakami pairs these personal stories of cruelty with violence committed on a much larger scale during World War II. There is a very clear political aspect to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, with Murakami criticizing his own government, which has been much more reluctant than Germany to admit its atrocities during the war, issue apologies, and make reparations. I really admire what Murakami is doing here in bringing the atrocities of the war front and center, entreating the public to come face-to-face with this cruel past.

Murakami doesn’t restrict his criticism to Japanese violence during World War II. On the other side of the war, the Soviets were equally cruel. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the embodiment of this cruelty is Boris the Manskinner. The scenes with Boris are some of the most excruciating of the entire book and have seared a permanent image in my memory.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle2024: I keep coming back to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a book that has left a permanent mark on me much like the blue mark left on the face of our protagonist, Toru, after his transcendent experience at the bottom of the well. Reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle feels like coming home, but it’s not the home I remember:

“Memories and thoughts age, just as people do. But certain thoughts can never age, and certain memories can never fade.”

May Kasahara has always been one of my favorite characters from the book: a sixteen-year-old girl obsessed with aging and death, yet she is such a vibrant presence in this bleak world, even if she does have a bit of a sadistic streak:

“You know, Mr. Wind-Up Bird, I sometimes wonder what it must feel like to die little by little over a long period of time. What do you think?”

It feels weird that despite May’s obsession with aging, she is exactly the same age as when I first picked up the book in 2004. Instead, it is this unsuspecting reader who has aged twenty years, and I must admit that as a younger man I missed the crux of this novel.

It’s about pain. It’s the pain of being human, a pain that is core to our existence. We seek to escape this pain, but the only way to escape pain is to abandon our very selves. Consider this quote from Creta Kano, who endured unspeakable cruelty but eventually came to numb herself from the pain:

“A life without pain: it was the very thing I had dreamed of for years, but now that I had it, I couldn’t find a place for myself within it.”

In my twenties I thought that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was about transcendence. But now it seems to be more about acceptance. We become better people by accepting our identities, becoming truer versions of ourselves while also becoming more aware and understanding of each other.

We all suffer through pain: this is part of our common existence. The core message of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is that there is hope in suffering. We become better people by looking inward in discovering a truer sense of ourselves, but more importantly by looking outward at the people we love, the people we hate, and the strangers we pass by on the street who may be just friends we haven’t met yet.

I know The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the same book I read twenty years ago, but somehow it feels different each time. What will I learn from this book in ten years’ time? I have no idea, but I hope that I will have grown as a person by then.

I also hope that, by next time, the Nobel Prize committee will have finally honored Haruki Murakami for the sheer genius that is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a novel that remains without peer more than twenty years since its original publication and, I’d argue, the foremost example of grimdark magical realism.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.