Simple Twist of Fate

There’s a moment in Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian wood, when the protagonist, Toru Watanabe, sleepless in his friend’s family bookshop, finds an old, beaten-up paperback of Herman Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel, and starts reading it. “Funny” he thinks to himself. “If it hadn’t been for these strange circumstances, I would probably never have reread Beneath the Wheel.” I couldn’t help but smile when I read those lines as I, too, was rereading Norwegian Wood for the second time because of strange and unfortunate circumstances that happened in my own life. It is a testament to Murakami’s artistry with words, that by rereading his acclaimed novel, I’d be able to use his words to find a way to go on. 

This past February, as most people were trying slowly but shyly to return to normality after a second lockdown, I found myself in a standstill. A sequence of misfortunes in my life, amplified by my father’s passing, made me unable to grasp reality. The death of a parent, comes as a shock to one’s system. You get to wake up in a world where one of the people who brought you in it, is no longer a part of. You have to push yourself every day to understand the meaning of going on. But most importantly you challenge everything, you ask the point of it all. You have to re-establish your sense of the world.

In the midst of this hazy winter, as I was going through this humbling and transformative experience, stumbling into the corners of my brain, I started looking around for the answers I needed to carry on. I started rewatching favourite movies and TV Series. I reconnected with friends who I hadn’t been seeing as often as I wanted. I spent more time than I probably should have at work. I kept trying to adjust to this new normal. And everything seemed to help to a degree. We tend to get better as we keep on keeping on. What I didn’t expect was to see such a tremendous change in my mental state, as I did when I picked up again one of my favourite books. And that’s how I got to reread Norwegian Wood.

Anybody who’s familiar with Murakami’s writing, would know that he uses a language that is often abundant in pop-culture references (be them movies, music or literature, and usually all three) and writes about young, more often than not, male adults, who usually go through a mishap in their own lives. His stories are about the journeys they encounter as they are picking up the pieces along their way. The tale of Norwegian Wood, which is aptly named after The Beatles track from their 1965 masterpiece, Rubber Soul, begins untangling in Germany, when Toru hears the song on an aeroplane’s speaker. That weird feeling of déjà vu, engages Toru into the memory of Naoko, and their relationship which began 20 years ago. 

As we go back in time, we fly across oceans to land in Tokyo, where Toru and Naoko story re-emerges. The young Toru, appears as a coming-of-age replica of Catcher in the Rhye’s Holden Caulfield, an 18-year-old student, living alone in a dormitory for the first time in his life, going about his day in a typical Murakami fashion – going through books, exercising periodically, listening to jazz records, hanging out with his very few friends, but mostly spending his time alone, and of course falling in love. Falling in love with Naoko, a beautiful girl from his home town, who used to be the girlfriend of his best friend. Sadly, as it happens with most great love affairs, Naoko never loved Toru. 

“Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that eighteen years later I would recall it in such detail. I didn’t give a damn about the scenery that day. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about the beautiful girl walking next to me. I was thinking about the two of us together, and then about myself again. It was the age, that time of life when every sight, every feeling, every thought came back, like a boomerang, to me. And worse, I was in love. Love with complications. The scenery was the last thing on my mind.”

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

Even though I could spend the better part of my afternoon typing away an ode of praise to this book, I’d rather focus on something else. That although there are not many similarities between me and Toru, his infatuation with Naoko, his stubbornness, his audacity of hope, inspired me to carry on with my own life and finally stand up on my own two feet. Very few writers in their lifetimes could save lives with the power of their ink. Haruki Murakami is certainly one of them. Norwegian Wood is about travelling. It is about first love and unrequited love. It is about loving one’s self, and especially about loving life. It is about redemption, never giving up, and about being able to let go. It is one of those stories that echo through infinity and remind us that the power of written word can lift us up even when we are feeling sad or depressed. 

As the cliché goes: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. It is definitely true, that in times of trouble it’s almost impossible to see the bigger picture. In times when the tangy smell of lemons burns a hole in your nose, and the bitter taste of the rind forces your eyes shut. They always tell us that when something bad happens, you have to face the music and dance, but, alas if you cannot do it alone, you can always pick up a familiar book, from a favourite writer and take it from there. And even when the most horrible thing happens to you, most of the times something positive will come out of it. Even if it’s the smallest of things, like rereading your favourite book. Everything happens for a reason goes the other cliché, or as Bob Dylan would say: “blame it on a simple twist of fate”.

Markos Batsis

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