BOOKS: Truth at the bottom of the well

THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE by Haruki Murakami, Harvill pounds 12
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The Independent Culture
A baffled Toru Okada explains to Creta Kano, the medium who invades his dreams to have sex with him: "'You and I joined our bodies together in my mind.' When I heard myself speaking these words, I felt as if I had just hung a bold, surrealistic painting on a white wall."

One gets the same feeling after reading Haruki Murakami's new novel. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a profoundly alarming tale of urban loss in which the unconscious and the dreaming mind have full parts in the hero's quest to restore the equilibrium of his life.

What happens in the chronicle can effectively be reduced to two motive forces. Kumiko Okada vanishes, deserting her husband Toru because she feels her self, which has been defiled by her hated brother Noburu Wataya, is in turn defiling their marriage. Toru struggles to find her, with the help of Creta Kano, and, in so doing, is forced to confront the fears and blockages cluttering his own soul.

Binding these movements together are myriad stories and fascinating testimonies which form the intricate weft of this 600-page epic. Creta Kano and her clairvoyant sister Malta provide elliptical commentaries on Toru's progress. Noburu Wataya rises to fame as a politician, becoming insidiously pervasive as a talking head. Batty old psychic Mr Honda dies; Lieutenant Mamiya, Honda's old companion in the savage and disastrous Nomonhan Incident of 1938, witnessed a man-skinning and was thrown down a dry well to perish. Mysterious Nutmeg Akasaka draws out Toru's talent for healing. Toru himself befriends his neighbour, May Kasahara, a misfit teenager who runs away from school to work in a distant wig factory in the mountains. These diverse and exotic threads in Murakami's grand design are at once delightful and discrete adventures, but also facets of a greater whole, whose integrity is obscured within what is considered the "real" world.

All these characters possess some psychic quality or have suffered some touchstone experience that taps into a parallel supernatural world. Toru alone is "supernormal", trusting in appearances and face values until, as the comfortingly familiar is stripped from him - the wind-up bird that routinely creaks like an alarm clock outside the window each morning suddenly stops, Kumiko's cat disappears, Kumiko herself disappears - he drifts into a helplessly bewildered stasis. "Everything was intertwined, with the complexity of a three-dimensional puzzle - a puzzle in which truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth."

This is a hard lesson for the spiritually challenged and Murakami's bizarre allegories teach it well. Following Lieutenant Mamiya's (admittedly enforced) example, Toru begins meditating at the bottom of a dry well near his home. He learns how secrets withheld generate blatant lies - the unknown woman who phoned him at midnight or Kumiko's passionate sex with her numerous lovers - to build steadily into a shimmering veil of deception, a patina of unreality between husband and wife that cannot be trusted as the true face of their relationship. Returning more and more frequently to the dark seclusion of his dry well, Toru approaches a Cartesian sense of certainty that he is moving ever closer to finding Kumiko, both spiritually and physically, and to restoring their marriage. With the metaphysical deftness well-rehearsed in his earlier novels, Murakami squeezes his hero through the wall of the well and into the Pandoran, supernatural Room 208, the terrifying locus of his unconscious. Along with sexual fantasy, fear, courage, faceless guides and the paranoia of uncertainty, Kumiko is there. Or is she?

Murakami weaves these textured layers of reality into a shot-silk garment of deceptive beauty. The capacious metaphorical cut of the novel allows ample room for Murakami's probing of sanity, identity and the limits of conscious expression. Despite assaults on empirical truth and body-blows to the philosophical conceits that prop up our received sense of normality, the narrative pace of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle rarely slackens. What Toru Okada is actually searching for and what, if anything, he achieves is left tantalisingly opaque by the author, as though the reader could supply a wealth of personal testimony to augment the substance of his unnerving, overwhelming odyssey.