(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Haruki Murakami established his reputation, in both Japanese and English, as a writer of surreal, fantastic tales of a world gone slightly awry, where a man can be spiritually possessed by a sheep (Hitsuji o meguru boken, 1982; A Wild Sheep Chase, 1989) and a hotel can contain an alternate universe (Dansu dansu dansu, 1988; Dance Dance Dance, 1994), where a man can gain access to an alternate universe by sitting at the bottom of a well (Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru, 1994;The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 1997), or where a hero who inhabits alternate universes approaches himself in alternate chapters (Sekai no owari to hado-boirudo wandarando, 1985; Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1991). What is clear is that Haruki Murakami’s universes are always alternatives; even the mundane world is inhabited by characters who push against the conformist grain of Japanese society. Murakami is a fan of Raymond Chandler, indeed has translated him into Japanese, and Murakami’s protagonists all bear some degree of resemblance to Chandler’s hard-boiled, loner detective, Philip Marlowe—his cynicism, his sense of morality, and his propensity to rescue damsels in distress.

In 1968, Toru Watanabe leaves his home town of Kobe to attend university in Tokyo. He lives in a private dormitory, where students from many universities board. He is a loner, spending his time reading American novelists such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Updike.

One reason for Watanabe’s solitary existence is that when he was in high school, his best friend, Kizuki, committed suicide. Kizuki was smart, charismatic, and popular, seeming to have everything in the world to live for. Watanabe spent most of his time with Kizuki and Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko. He seems to be reluctant to open up to anyone after this inexplicable loss.

Until that time, I had understood death as something entirely separate from and independent of life. The hand of death is bound to take us, I had felt, but until the day it reaches out for us, it leaves us alone. This had seemed to me the simple, logical truth. Life is here, death is over there. I am here, not over there.

The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. When it took seventeen-year-old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well.

One Sunday, two years after Kizuki’s suicide, Watanabe runs into Naoko in Tokyo, and they begin to spend their Sundays together walking around the city. It is an ambiguous relationship, not that of boyfriend and girlfriend, but of a deeper emotional connection than a typical college friendship. They never speak of the past, but the fact of Kizuki’s death is always there between them. Slowly, Watanabe falls in love with Naoko. On the night of her twentieth birthday, he brings a cake to her apartment to celebrate. After dinner, when Watanabe tries to leave, she begins to cry:

One big tear spilled from her eye, ran down her cheek, and spattered on a record jacket. Once that first tear broke free, the rest followed in an unbroken stream. Naoko bent forward where she sat on the floor and pressing her palms to the mat, she began to cry with the force of a person vomiting on all fours. . . . Supporting her weight with my left arm, I used my right hand to caress her soft straight hair. And I waited. In that position, I waited for Naoko to stop crying. And I went on waiting. But Naoko’s crying never stopped.

I slept with Naoko that night.

After Watanabe leaves the next morning, Naoko disappears. She moves out of her apartment with no forwarding address. A letter he mails to her parents’ address in Kobe is not answered. Finally, after three months, he receives a letter from a sanatorium outside Kyoto. Naoko explains that she is recovering from a nervous breakdown, but cannot explain anything more.

Time goes by. One day, in a small student café, a girl from his History of Drama class approaches him. Her name is Midori, and despite his insistence that he is just “an ordinary guy,” she persists in seeing him as unique and iconoclastic. Soon the two of them are spending time together, although she has a boyfriend and he is still emotionally bound to Naoko. Midori is a working-class girl—her father owns a small bookstore in a rundown neighborhood—who was sent to an upper-class high school because of her academic skills. The chip on her shoulder is evident, as are her eccentricities. She relishes, for instance, relating to Watanabe her fantasies, both sexual and interpersonal. These fantasies invariably revolve around her ability to...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)