Comparing Nostalgia and Bittersweet Young Love in Exit West and Norwegian Wood
For the past several months, I have been sporadically reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. The novel is a quintessential piece by the renowned Japanese author, often being the most popular of his works amongst American audiences. The coming of age love story of Norwegian Wood sets itself apart from the rest of Murakami’s writings. As seen in our short stories unit, Murakami’s works (The Elephant Vanishes, Barn Burning) are heralded for being jarring, fantastical, and action packed thrillers that defy the norm of Japan’s 20th century canon. However Norwegian Wood seemed to defy Murakami’s rejection of simple, worldly fiction by depicting a seemingly simple and relatively plain love story.
Warning! Some mild spoilers for Norwegian Wood are ahead.
“I do need that time, though, for Naoko’s face to appear. And as the years have passed, the time has grown longer. The sad truth is that what I could recall in five seconds all too soon needed ten, then thirty, then a full minute – like shadows lengthening at dusk. Someday, I suppose, the shadows will be swallowed up in darkness. There is no way around it: my memory is growing ever more distant from the spot where Naoko used to stand – ever more distant from the spot where my old self used to stand.“Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood, p. 5.
“If they had but waited and watched their relationship would have flowered again, and so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West, p. 204.
Exit West chronicles Nadia and Saeed’s burgeoning, thriving, and finally–withering relationship with the same nuance and underlying bittersweet nostalgia that poignantly mark Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. Toru, the narrator of Norwegian Wood regales the story through a retrospective documentation of his memories, while Exit West takes on a more timely and omniscient narrative approach. Towards the end of Exit West, the novel unflinchingly portrays the distancing between two people and the transition from recent past to fading memory. These themes are prominent in Norwegian Wood as Toru learns how to devastatingly confront pain and loss. Similar to Nadia and Saeed, Toru and Naoko fall in love under tragic circumstances which bring to question if either couple were ever really in love at all – or if they were only bound by their shared traumas.
Toru and Naoko are linked by the death of Kizuki (Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend). They connect through their mutual grieving, and throughout the course of the book, their relationship carries the fragility and sadness that united them in the first place. Similarly, Nadia and Saeed are brought closer by the political upheaval and violence that plagues their home country. Both couples are inextricably linked, even as they grow apart, because their partners are the only ones in the world who could ever understand what happened to them. In a way this is true for all relationships, but this deep understanding and shared experience is much stronger when trauma, death, and survival are involved.
Similarly both novels address young sexuality and passion under a similar light. This uniquely marks the characters’ journeys into adulthood. The couples’ physical intimacy adds another layer of nuance to their connection, but in both pieces their emotional attachment is far more intense. This layered, rich portrayal of both their connections leaves the reader longing and aching, for a time that never was or would never be. Both Hamid and Murakami capture the passage of time in a beautiful and familiar way. It is not easy to portray such complicated relationships in such a full, dynamic way – yet both authors mightily succeed at doing so.