There are many ways to dissect and analyze a novel like The Wind–Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. The original Japanese version of the book was released in three parts, and the English translation that I read was just over 600 pages. The novel is packed with different thematic elements and symbols, and it’s easy to get lost in the tangled web that Murakami spins.
The part of the novel that interests me most, though, is the relationship between the narrator and his missing wife. Toru Okada is the narrator and protagonist, and he’s a mild-mannered, thirty-year-old man living a quiet life with his wife of six years, Kumiko. Toru has recently quit his job and is living off Kumiko’s salary as an editor. Early in the book, it’s clear things aren’t what they seem. Kumiko keeps coming home late from work, and sometimes doesn’t even call Toru to remind him. Meanwhile, Toru’s strange journey begins with random phone calls from a flirtatious woman.
Eventually, Kumiko leaves for work one day and doesn’t return. Toru spends the rest of the novel searching for his lost wife, coming into brief communication with her at times, but mostly having to figure out a complicated set of directions from unusual people on how to find her.
Toru befriends a teenage girl, a Japanese war veteran, a pair of psychic sisters, and a middle-aged woman and her mute son who also have seemingly psychic abilities. Throughout the book, Toru re-hashes the six years of his marriage to see what went wrong, and it becomes clear his marriage wasn’t as happy as we’re led to believe. Toru and Kumiko have both kept many secrets from each other and, while it seems they love each other, there’s also an apparent disconnect between them.
There are many twists and turns in the book, and it eventually comes to a satisfying conclusion. The novel left me with a haunting feeling afterward because of the elements I thought were at the core of it: family secrets, dysfunction, trauma, and how it can be difficult to rid ourselves of troubled pasts.
Toru’s mission in the book is to save Kumiko, and his arch-nemesis is Kumiko’s disturbed older brother, Noboru Wataya. Toru and Noboru are opposites: Toru is quiet and shy and driven by love. On the other hand, Noboru is driven by a need for power and fame, and behind closed doors, we discovered he’s deranged and almost soulless.
Without giving too much away, the sick actions of Noboru led Kumiko to disappear. He “defiled” Kumiko and her sister, who committed suicide when Kumiko was young. Though Murakami doesn’t go into explicit detail, it’s implied that Kumiko has suffered an incestuous sexual assault, which has haunted her for most of her life. It leads her to cheat on Toru, get an abortion, and resign herself to a life of misery. It’s up to Toru to save Kumiko from her brother and herself, and he does this in a most unusual and creative way: through an unconscious battle with Noboru in a dream world.
I could relate to Kumiko very much, though not because I have a history of being sexually assaulted. More so, I could relate to the idea that a history of family dysfunction, abuse, and trauma can be hard to escape from as an adult, and a troubled past like that can weigh one down and affect their decisions.
Kumiko is a victim in the novel, and her husband is the hero. I was pleased that Murakami gives a somewhat happy ending, or at least one where the forces of good prevail over evil. In real life, things don’t always turn out this way. Through my own studies and experiences of family trauma, many people can’t outrun this painful past, and they succumb to mental illness, addiction, or other forms of self-destruction.
The Wind–Up Bird Chronicle is about many things, even delving into Japan’s past military aggressions. But at its core, I saw the book as a hero’s journey with Toru as the one who saves his lost wife. The battle along the way is vicious, and there are many ways Toru is sidetracked, but love wins in the end.