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6th February 2013

Lost and disenchanted: Murakami and the student experience

Ross Graham explores the parallels between Murakami’s evocation of ‘60s students life in Norweigian Wood and 21st century student life…

How many times have you stared blankly as a copy of the Socialist Worker is pushed into your hand on Oxford Road? How many times have you gone to the library intending to work and instead repeatedly refreshed Facebook, read Charlie Brooker’s column and browsed The Mancunion online, of course? And have any of us actually worked out why we go to terrible clubs with sticky floors and sticky drinks, only to miss every morning lecture?

Norwegian Wood is the 1987 book by Haruki Murakami, titled after the eponymous Beatles song; a novel about coming-of-age and the loss that goes with it, that, for me, encapsulates perfectly the disillusionment, boredom and the often paradoxical nature of university life.

Set in the anti-establishment atmosphere of student culture in early ‘60s Tokyo, Norwegian Wood follows student Toru Wantanabe as he wanders passively through further education. Toru takes drama. He has little passion for the subject, nor sees it as a viable career – a situation that may sound familiar to plenty of undergrads today in Britain’s degree-obsessed culture. Toru does not react with anger or vitriol to the banal realities of university life, in fact he seems not to react at all, but casts a disinterested eye over the hypocritical nature of Tokyo’s student movement. His own interest lies in a fondness for Western literature, which few of his peers care about.

But it’s not all self-loathing and midnight brandy swilled down with Fitzgerald, Toru also likes to get ‘crunk’. Toru periodically plays wingman to highflying, Owens-Park-Tower-type, Nagasawa. Nagasawa has a charming and long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi, to whom he pays little attention. These two students go out and do what male students tend (or try) to do: pick up women. His experience is unfulfilling and pointless, but that doesn’t stop Toru. Murakmi captures something of the essence of university social life in this complex semi-recluse’s sex life. Toru isn’t sure why he continues to seek out casual sex. And I’m not sure why I’ve ever been to BOP.

Toru’s anti-climactic, doubt-filled university experience is interrupted intermittently by the two central female characters in the novel. Female no. 1, Naoko, represents the perennially tragic undercurrent of the book, whilst no. 2, Midiori is an exciting and vivacious female who embodies an escape for Toru from his university peers. Midiori rails against the chauvinistic nature of a Marxist reading group she joins, and bemoans the use of ideology as a means of self-promotion and vanity. Having been involved in the utterly uninspiring world of student politics myself, Midori’s complaint unfortunately does not ring false.

Murakami’s detailed and understated prose chimes with Toru’s unassuming nature. His writing allows the reader to share in the complex relationships and passive skepticism that characterises Toru’s feelings toward his university life.
Current British university culture seems to share Toru’s ambivalence, a nihilistic obsession with the possibility that it all may be a bit meaningless. It’s a cliché of French new-wave films and Sartre-reading poetry students, but the ‘What is life?’ student mantra is sadly only too symbolic of the disillusion many idealistic high fee-paying students feel, given wads of student loan and 6 contact hours a week; with far too much time on their hands to stare out of windows and refresh Facebook. Norwegian Wood is the perfect story of student disenchantment, never more relevant than in 21st century Britain.

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