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.