The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Who would I be at the bottom of a well wrapped up in darkness so absolute that time and space seem not to exist? Who would I be in the dark? I don’t know, but Haruki Murakami has me asking the question with a seriousness that felt impossible to imagine before reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

It almost feels like a disservice to even try to explain what Chronicle is about. It’s so much like a dream, where everything feels real until you reach the end of a chapter and then you’re not sure if it all really happened.

Ostensibly, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada’s search for his missing cat, which then becomes a search for his missing wife. Along the way, he simultaneously retreats deeper within himself and forms connections with a cast of bizarre characters who then populate his increasingly bizarre world. From the mysterious psychic Malta Kano to a WWII veteran with dark tales of the war to a morbid 16-year-old girl, Toru drifts from one encounter to the next as he tries to unravel the mystery of where his wife has gone and how to get her back.

This being my first experience with Murakami, I didn’t know what to expect from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The first few pages did their best to let me know that this would be anything but typical, but I think about 100 pages into the novel, I realized that the chapter titles might be even better at getting at the overall theme of the book.

Every chapter had a multipart title such as “Tuesday’s Wind-Up Bird / Six Fingers and Four Breasts” or “Magic Touch / Death in the Bathtub / Messenger with Keepsakes,” which never made much sense. It was only after reading each chapter, then flipping back to the beginning to reread the title that you could understand its meaning.

It reminded me of the way a dream feels both real and mysterious until you wake up and begin to see how all the mundane parts of your day burrowed their way into your brain while you slept. Then it all seems to plain and so simple. It makes sense without needing to make sense.

Ultimately, it’s just one of many ways that Murakami is playing with your sense of reality. He puts you in this dreamlike state of confusion and uncertainty and then populates your world with unreliable narrators and unreliable narratives within unreliable narratives in a way that builds until by the end of the book, you feel completely unsure of what actually happened. But by this point, you also know it doesn’t matter.

What really matters are the questions you ask yourself, what he can force you to think about or reconsider. As Toru recounts at one point,

It was reality. True reality. But each time I recognized that fact, reality felt a little less real. Reality was coming undone and moving away from reality, one small step at a time. But still, it was reality.

I was completely wrapped up in the writing. I hadn’t really felt that way about any book since House of Leaves, and I loved it. It felt like an exploration of what a novel could be—how it could break the rules—and what it really means to be human. It’s weeks later and there are still mysteries in the text left to be unraveled.

I’m not even sure I know what the wind-up bird is, but I’m in love with the question.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle falls squarely in that subset of books that have me hungry to read more. I don’t know what Murakami I’ll pick up next, but I know I can’t wait to see what I ask myself when I’m done.

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Midnight in Mexico

When I was 16, whenever I thought about Mexico, I don’t think a single real image came to mind.

Selena. Tacos. Heat. Cancún.

Other approximations, but nothing real.

My high school was 30% Latino. My best friend at the time was Mexican. I had taken years of Spanish classes. And yet I didn’t seem to know a goddamn thing about the place.

Mexico was somewhere over there. Somewhere decidedly not here.

That was somewhere around 2003 when stories of Juárez’s murdered women and the violence of the cartels was creeping into the news. The stories only got worse as I went off to college, peaking somewhere around 2010 with 23,000 dead in just 3.5 years.

But what was the country really like? What was happening there and why?

The older I got, the more it felt like time to take the initiative to become less willfully ignorant, but I never knew where to start. Finally, last year I was able to find a list of reads that gave me a jumping off point, and with my reading goal set for 2015, what better time than now? I might finally start making sense of it all. I might finally learn something.

I decided to start with Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico.

A reporter during one of the bloodiest periods of the war between the cartels, Alfredo Corchado receives a tip one night in 2007: in 24 hours, the cartels will kill an American journalist—Corchado’s source thinks it’ll be him. In this memoir, he recalls his mad search for the source of the threat as well as his internal struggle to reconcile two halves of himself: his Mexican heritage and his American upbringing. All the while continuing to report on the mounting violence and political upheaval.

A quick read, we get to peek at the layers of Corchado’s life as well as Mexican history. From Corchado’s childhood and his years of reporting in Mexico to Mexico’s shift from dictatorship to democracy and the bloody battles that came with it. It even touches upon the rise of El Chapo, leader of the largest criminal organization in Mexico, who was only arrested in February of last year.

I admit I had high hopes for this book. A memoir would be personal enough to give me the emotional connection I needed to start understanding a country I knew so little about. Not to mention the fact that Corchado’s story is gripping. And while the book was indeed fascinating and sad and maddening and honest, Corchado’s writing doesn’t really live up to the task of relaying it.

So often, I’d find his sentences clunky and the way he infused Spanish into his English writing frustrating instead of immersive. There would regularly be multiple pages where Corchado is relaying a conversation that clearly took place in Spanish, but since the bulk of the book is in English, he chose to write the dialogue in Spanish, immediately following every sentence or phrase with its English translation.

I still have a working knowledge of Spanish, and my goodness was this tedious to read. It was like reading every single sentence twice. Here’s a brief example from a scene in which Alfredo is arguing with his mother about the future of Mexico:

“‘Sólo Dios sabe,’ she’d replied, looking straight ahead. Only God knows.

‘Don’t underestimate God,’ my mother responded. ‘Dios es grande.’
‘Don’t underestimate the people,’ I retorted, and returned to eating barbecue beef grilled by Mundo.
My Mother shot me a look that said, ‘Ay, my Fredito, mi solecito. Ya no eres tan mexicano.’ Oh, my little sunshine, now you are naive as only an American can be.”

On its own, it’s not too troublesome. I definitely respect and agree with his desire to quote his family, friends, and sources in Spanish when they were speaking Spanish. The problem comes when he uses this same tactic four times in two pages. Then again on the page after that. Then four more times a page or two later. And again and again and again.

I would have preferred him to either write it all in English using punctuation to alert us when something was originally said in Spanish or, better yet, just write it in Spanish and trust his audience enough to be able to figure out the meaning through context clues. Or use footnotes if he’s that worried.

The flip-flopping back and forth was incredibly cumbersome in a book that was suffering from awkward phrasing and poor flow already.

It was this overall clunkiness that kept me from forming the emotional connection to the material I was craving. I wanted to feel utterly wrapped up in Corchado’s story, and I just couldn’t get there. Whether that’s entirely Corchado’s fault or whether his editor should be blamed is debatable, either way I was left unsatisfied.

But if anything can be said, reading Midnight in Mexico made me excited to read more about Mexico. To read more Latino authors. To read more Latino news. The book led me to more Mexican authors and reporters and ultimately to Francisco Goldman’s brilliant series in the New York Times on the missing 43 (a heartbreaking and brilliant bit of writing that I fully recommend to all if you missed it this past winter).

On a very basic level, Midnight works. It conveys the story, and it got me interested enough to want to learn more. If you’re new to the subject like I was, it’s not a bad place to start, but I’m sure there’s something better out there. I know I’ll be looking for it.