First off, this is not a coherent,objective, systematic review of the above Haruki Murakami‘s book. Rather, it is a bit of a rant about it. I don’t often write proper reviews (I only get as far as briefly expressing my feelings about a certain book). Nor do I like to read reviews. There are just too many of them out there, one click on Google and you’d be virtually crushed under a massive GOOOOOOOOOOGLE that seems to extend to infinity. Plus everyone’s preferences are different when it comes to music & literature, and pretty much everything else. So I only succumb to read a review on the rare cases where I know the reviewer has a similar taste to mine, or the book in question is unusually provocative / inspiring / notorious.
“Norwegian Wood” falls into the second category. After it was translated into Vietnamese a few years ago, it’s been HUGELY popular in Vietnam. I gathered that it’s also earned a similar fame in other Asian countries and, naturally, Japan. Everyone seems to talk about it and/or have an opinion on it (including yours truly, obviously), whether they love it, loathe it, want to read it, threaten to burn it, can’t wait to read it again, swear to never touch it with a 3-metre pole, etc.
Well, I have never read the Vietnamese version, only the English one which I bought in Narita Airport during a transit there a year ago. (Sorry, can’t help but mentioned that. Heehee.) And I’d better make it clear right now that I do NOT like this book. My only good comment about it is that: At least it’s a little easier to understand than that mind-boggling “Kafka on the Shore”, or Murakami’s collection of short stories called “After the Quake”. I hate it when at the end of a book I go “HUH? Wtf?” ** And as if the endless hours spent poring over its pages weren’t enough, the EVIL thing would continue to haunt me for days afterwards, turning me into this scary, obsessive creature. One who gets lost in thoughts all the time, trying to either shed some light on the whole saga, or accept the fact that she’s dumb, or track down the author and give them a good kick up the clacker and demand some explanation. As you can guess, none of the above is easy to do!
Anyhow, after reading a few Vietnamese reviews on this Japanese phenomenon, I wonder how many people really get the whole picture, really relate to it, really understand what the heck it was all about. And how many just decided to like it because a/ everyone else likes (or claims to like) it, and b/ it’s provocative, especially in a deeply conservative culture like Vietnam. A culture where just writing about normal heterosexual love scenes has always been a taboo until 2,3 years ago***, let alone detailed descriptions of disturbing juvenile lesbian sex scenes, and similarly gag-inducing acts. (Talking of which, I’ve kind of wanted to read the Vietnamese version just to see how those scenes were translated. Was anything censored and made a bit more “culturally acceptable? Or would my Mum have to sticky taped the pages together? Hmm…) So could it be the case, that claiming to like “Norwegian Wood” makes one feel (or appear) rebellious, liberated, and more accepting?
Also, my other gripe about this particular book is its title. “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is one of my most favourite Beatles songs. And a lot of their tunes were mentioned throughout the book. At first I thought the book’s title also meant the same as the song’s title. However, Wikipedia clears it up that:
The original Japanese title, Noruwei no Mori, is the standard Japanese translation of the title of The Beatles song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The song is often mentioned in the novel. Mori in the Japanese title translates into English as forest, not the material wood. Forest settings and imagery are also significantly present in the novel.
So the Vietnamese version of “Rừng Na-uy” is actually a correct translation. But. But! It still irks me because, why the hell did Murakami name it “Norwegian Wood” when it obviously has nothing to do with cheap pine, nor one-night-stands, nor Norwegian forests? Isn’t it misleading? And confusing? And out right annoying?
You can totally tell that this book doesn’t rate very high on my favourite list, can’t you? 🙂
** In her book “The Opposite of Fate”, Amy Tan has an amusing & very intriguing essay about this exact same thing – books that make us go “Huh?” and annoy us to no end!
*** Until 2,3 years ago when there was a sudden boom in all things erotic in the Vietnamese written world, especially short stories. To the point that almost every second book worthing mentioning resembled a collection of soft porn, sans graphics. If you’re in Vietnam, or are a Vietnamese, I’m sure Nguyễn Vĩnh Nguyên or Đỗ Hoàng Diệu would ring some (very disturbing) bells. I’m no fan of either, thank you very much. Give me Nguyễn Ngọc Tư or Nguyễn Ngọc Thuần any time.