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The phone rings, and the woman on the line asks Toru Okada for “Ten minutes, please.  That’s all we need to understand each other.”

This phrase caught my eye; whenever you move to a new city, your days are full of meeting new people, learning what role each of them will play in your new life.  You spend so many afternoons going to coffee shops with people you have nothing in common with, missing the people at parties who’ll be your favorite dinner companions only a few months later.  There’s so much sitting alone on weekends, before you have anyone to make plans with.  How much easier would it be if you could synthesize that almost agonizingly slow process down to ten minutes!

So that’s how I started reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami.  Ten minutes was too good an idea to pass up.  The woman doesn’t get her ten minutes with Toru that first call; her interest, it appears, is sexual.  Toru hangs up on her.

When we first meet Toru Okada, the recipient of the mysterious phone call, he is making spaghetti for breakfast.  He’s thirty years old and a little at loose ends.  A few months back, Toru quit his dull job at a Tokyo law firm not in order to “realize any particular hopes or prospects” but rather in the certainty that he would never want the life that career offered.  Remaining at home, his days are full of mundane chores: ironing, paying bills, depositing and collecting the dry cleaning, making dinner.  Kumiko, his wife, works as editor of a health food magazine, and her hours begin to run late into the evening.

When their cat disappears, Kumiko insists that he search for it.  “So now I had to go cat hunting,” Toru explains.  “But cats have their own way of living.  They’re not stupid.  If a cat stopped living where you happened to be, that meant it had decided to go somewhere else.”  The cat had gotten a better offer, but “to keep Kumiko happy, I would have to go looking for our cat.  I had nothing better to do.”

The life Toru lives is sadder than he admits to himself.  Searching for the cat through his neighborhood, Toru finds examples of futility: “A well without water.  A bird that can’t fly.  An alley with no exit.”  One of his neighbors, May Kasahara, helps him look, talking about her fascination with death all the while.  “It must be that I have so much time to kill every day,” she explains, “When you don’t have anything to do, your thoughts get really, really far out – so far out you can’t follow them all the way to the end.”

That, it turns out, describes both the novel and the progress I made in reading it.  I still haven’t finished the book.  It was published in three volumes in Japan, and it’s full of the kind of magical realism that blurs the lines between dreams and waking and makes for a lot of turning back chapters to remember where I’d met that character before.  I must admit that I’m enjoying it tremendously.  The characters Toru meets in his quest for the cat begin to invade his dreams, and the stories they tell him change his life.  I can only hope that my own new acquaintances will be as exciting