The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book One (June and July, 1984): Magpie “A Well Without Water. A Bird That Can’t Fly. An Alley Without An Exit.”

Book One, The Thieving Magpie, takes place in June and July, 1984. But, it ends with the most horrible scene that I can imagine: the skinning alive of a Japanese man named Yamamoto, that happened decades ago. The Russians had demanded a document from him, which he would not give, even under pain of torture by the Mongolians. This story, told by Lieutenant Mamiya, pierces the quiet, dreamlike mood of what has come before in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

The novel opens with Toru Okada asking the question, “Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?…We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?” (p. 24)

It seems that Toru knows very little about anything. He does not know the woman who is calling him at 10:00 in the morning asking him for ten minutes of his time. He does not know where his wife’s cat, Noboru Wataya (named after her brother) might be. He does not know what he wants to do with his career, quitting his job in a law firm even before taking the bar exam. And, he does not understand these strange people who are entering his life at this moment of time.

There is Malta Kano who asks him to meet her in a tearoom, telling him that his brother in law, Noburo Wataya, had recommended her to help find the missing cat. Her name comes from Malta, and Kana is translated “god of the water.” She tells him that he is entering a stage in his life when many different things will occur; the disappearance of the cat is only the beginning.

Then another fortune-teller, this time Mr. Honda, tells Toru that legal work might be the wrong thing for him. “The world you belong to is above that or below that.” When Toru asks him which is better, he says not to “resist the flow…now’s the time to stay still. Don’t do anything. Just be careful of water. Sometime in the future, this young fellow could experience real suffering in connection with water. Water that’s missing from where it’s supposed to be. Water that’s present where it’s not supposed to be. In any case, be very, very careful of water.” (p. 51)

After that, a sixteen year old girl who lives in Toru’s neighborhood, May Kasahara, shows Toru a dry well in an empty house near their own. Mr. Honda had told him, “When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom.” What does all this mean?

Malta Kano’s sister, Creta, whose real name is Setsuko, comes to visit dressed as a woman from the sixties. She says that Malta sent her, and when pressed for more information about herself from Toru explains that she has had tremendous pain, physical pain, for most of her life. Headaches, menstrual cramps, bruises appearing such that she never wanted to go swimming. Furthermore, she became a prostitute and was brutally attacked by Noboru Wataya. Before she can explain more, she abruptly leaves Toru’s home.

All of these occurrences, these characters with strange and seemingly disparate stories, combine to form a mysterious aura. Although I have read the book before, I cannot remember being so careful with each piece as I am now because I want to know how they fit together properly.

Coming back to where this post began, Lieutenant Mamiya, who told the horrible story of torture, was sent to Toru’s home by Mr. Honda, a man who had also witnessed the torture. Mr. Honda had given Mamiya the mission to present a keepsake he had especially selected for Toru, something from his closet just for him. When Toru unwraps layer after layer of wrapping paper he finds a Cutty Sark box. It is completely empty inside.

Clearly, the themes from Book One are water. A well. An emptying of oneself. War. I am eager to continue reading, while keeping the image of Jacob from the Old Testament, who was thrown into the empty well by his brothers, in the back of my mind. It may, or may not, have anything to do with this story, but I know that coming out of the well can be a form of transformation. At least it was for Joseph, who went in a hated brother, and came out to be a ruler in Egypt.

I am reading this book with Stephen, of Swift as Inspiration, looking forward to his insights as we proceed.

16 thoughts on “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle Book One (June and July, 1984): Magpie “A Well Without Water. A Bird That Can’t Fly. An Alley Without An Exit.””

  1. Meredith, excellent summary. It is exciting to have read the story along with you & to see one’s impressions confirmed (or not) while in the midst of the reading. I like doing it this way. Since our back & forth on Fosse was so fruitful (any success on contacting him?), I am going to use the same method: respond to you here first, & then once we’ve finished reading the book together, write my final thoughts on the blog.

    I am with you. I am intrigued, curious how Murakami is going to make all these pieces fit together. It does feel like he is gathering steam to make some big statement on postwar Japan & I am eager to see the results.

    I didn’t like at all the long, blow-by-blow, unreliable journey into the terrors of the war for Asia. It killed more than Yamamoto; it brought the narrative momentum to a full stop. But having read it I see the need for it, even in all its gory detail, if I’ve guessed right on where Murakami hopes to take his story.

    On the one hand we have your typical, urban, Tokyo-ite young couple. They are able to make a living & survive in the metropolis. But the husband Toru is strangely passive, & has dropped out of the rat race with no real good reason given (so far). We get the sense for how his discussion with Kumiko went about dropping out in seeing her indulge him in the present. Unlike just about everyone else in Japan in the 1980s, whether higher class, lower or middle, Toru has no initiative or ambition at all.

    Meanwhile, all these “weird” occurrences greet him, as you described them. So far I don’t see these as uncanny, mysterious, or supernatural so much as an extraordinarily un-curious man being forced to look at history, of rape, torture, cruelty, parental neglect, the meaninglessness of mass violence in war, suicide, which he would rather not think about: If he had his druthers he’d do nothing but listen to jazz, fantasize about women other than his wife, & come up with a few facile opinions on the books he has read. Our typical middle class comfort czar, in other words.

    What is throwing me off track are all the clairvoyant characters Murakami has included. I have no guesses for why or for what purpose yet.

    Excellent biblical reference in your final paragraph. Murakami is definitely circling around some meaning about the wells.

    I’m glad you chose this book for us to read together. It is a good time for me to finally take a strong look at Murakami. I’ll be posting soon on the recent Akutagawa prize results. The winning book speaks to the heart of Japanese social relations, much different from our own here in America. Most of today’s young writers in Japan are following in Murakami’s footsteps, so it’s important to see the connection made between what he did & what is being written today. So thank you for the recommendation.

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    1. Alas, I have not had success in contacting Fosse. I gather one has to go through his publishers…but, onward to Murakami. Talk about an author with whom I’d like to speak face to face! At least I have our back and forth on our blogs, which is greatly rewarding to me.

      The terrors of the war, the results of Japan’s invasion beginning in 1931, do reappear throughout this novel. But, to me, it is far more than a novel of war. True to who I am, and how I read, I am actually more focused on the relationship between the characters than a historical commentary. Not that the events in Asia were anything but damaging and horrific to say the least.

      It’s wonderful to have your experience of living in Japan, and the comparison you make between our passive Toru and the typical Japanese businessman. I recall going to sleep one evening in our Tokyo hotel, and as I closed the curtains, I saw well over half of the lights on in the office building across the way. Toru is definitely taking a “time out” to listen to what these supernatural characters have to say to him…and, I think, to accomplish his present purpose.

      I have to be careful not to disclose too much, as I finished the novel yesterday evening. It was well worth the reread, to me; in fact, I feel I could turn it over and start again knowing what I do. Which is not to say I know everything! There are still massive questions whirling around in my brain…which we will get to.

      As I have finished it, shall I post on Books Two and Three this week? I think it will lose impetus to wait until the end of the first week in August to post on Book Three, yet I certainly don’t mean to rush you. Let me know what you prefer. Again, thanks for reading with me. I had moments when I wondered if you were questioning your agreement. 😉

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      1. Aren’t those Tokyo lights something? In that little moment before you went to sleep in your hotel, it sounds like you got hold of a great insight into the culture. In any work environment, no one who cares about making a good impression on his colleagues wants to be known as the first one to go home every night. You don’t ever hear anyone say anything like, “I’m outta here, later!” while the rest are still at work. So you devise ways to make yourself look busy, even if you finished your work for the day, staying at it a lot longer than you have to: I was in the habit of doing that myself.

        Oh good, we have a lot of intricacies to work out over the upcoming week! Yes, go ahead & put up the posts whenever you’re ready. No need to take the three weeks to do the read-along. It shouldn’t take me that long to get through the book, but if for some reason I don’t comment right away to the posts, that means I’m still reading, not drawing back from disinterest. I’m really looking forward to tackling those massive questions whirling around your brain—I’ll probably have them too. We’ll get to the bottom of this one from Murakami, one way or the other!

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        1. Okay, then; I will publish the next two posts during the next two days. Of course, don’t let me rush your reading experience! When you get around to finishing it, and come by here, I can’t wait to read your responses. Even better will be to visit your post, and discover your thoughts. I may not understand all of Wind-Up Bird, by any means, but I think the second time around I got a better grasp than the first. Probably now I should start rereading it right away for a third!

          Isn’t it funny how we adapt to the culture around us? I remember when I was teaching under the best principal I ever had, no one left the parking lot before 5. NO ONE, compared to my last principal when certain teachers were waiting in the lounge for the clock to turn to 3:50. Culture, and leadership, greatly effects what gets done. I’m a bit concerned for our society today; somewhere between almost suicidal work ethics, and a complete sense of apathy, is where we should lie.

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  2. I appreciate your summary and thoughts on this challenging book. I recall attempting to read it many years ago
    and finding it a bit too bewildering at the time. I look forward to reading yours and Stephen’s further comments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is bewildering the second time around, too! But, we’ll worth the effort, I think, especially when we can discuss it. Like Fosse, when I finish Murakami I can hardly pick up anything else for quite some time. Even my favorite Norwegian crime writer made me yawn last night. Hopefully, these posts will shed a little more light on intricacies within Murakami’s novel.

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  3. Ooh, nice!
    Which reminds me, I should paste in my blog all my reflections on this book, that I read with the alas defunct Discord Murakami book club.
    No spoiler, but the well is very important.
    And it strikes me how often we find this image of some type of underground trap in Murakami, including in Killing Commendatore.

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    1. I would love your input and insights! Anything you would be willing to contribute to this post would be much appreciated, as well as directing me to your thoughts on Words and Peace.❤️

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    2. I second Meredith: I would love to hear your input, especially since you were active in a Murakami book club. I am definitely intrigued by your observation about underground traps. The psychology at the heart of Wind-Up is very interesting so far, & such an idea plays into it very well. Feel free to nudge us in certain directions if you feel we’re missing out on some key (Murakami) ideas!

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  4. I chuckled a bit Meredith when I saw that you had teachers leave the building by 3:50. Strong or weak principal, & I worked under both in Japan, in public & private schools, it would be unthinkable for any of us to leave that early. The pressure didn’t come from leadership; it came from within ourselves. No one had to tell us we had to stay. We stayed for many reasons, but mainly because we didn’t want to let anyone around us down. There were no substitute teachers, for instance. If you took a day off, your colleagues had to fill in for you—no one wanted to burden the other. The great mystery to me was where this internal monitor originated. Who knows, but we all definitely felt it!

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    1. Maybe it was part of our generation? My parents’ work ethic is as strong, or stronger, than mine, but the “kids” in their twenties and thirties? I think they are way behind where I was at that age. Of course, I’ve always been intent on perseverance and achieving excellence, as much as is possible.

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      1. It’s probably a part of our generation. To your above comment about finding the balance between a suicidal work ethic & complete apathy, I was thinking of my high school friend who is now a very successful architect in southern Florida. We both started off working at McDonald’s sophomore year high school. He cracks me up while ripping apart the work ethic of the young. It’s very difficult to find architects who have the kind of proper training he had, he says, & when he does find one who he’d like to interview, that person might call up to reschedule the time & the place for it if they happen to find it inconvenient. My jaw dropped when I heard that one; that would have never crossed my mind. He says for his job interviews it feels like they’re interviewing him more than the other way around. Unbelievable—times have definitely changed in that regard.

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        1. Like one of our superintendents who said that he’d accept the position if he was given two hours off at noon every day to cycle. Then, when that was granted, proved his character further by breaking his contract early, taking his full pension, and getting hired in Kentucky. How does he sleep at night?!

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