Definitely a most unusual book. The story is told largely in first-person narrative by a young man called Toru Okada. His cat has disappeared and he starts getting mysterious telephone messages about this from unknown women. Then his wife disappears as well. Meanwhile he has begun to meet some of the women who keep telephoning him; they appear to want to help him find his cat and his wife (the two disappearances are somehow linked) but their advice is cryptic. Other characters appear, and there are long digressions or interpolated narrations about war and other matters. Some of these interpolations are dreamlike and indeed the whole narrative, although told in quite factual language, hovers continually on the edge of dream. For example, at one time the narrator follows a man into a deserted house; the man attacks him with a baseball bat but Okada wrests it from him and then half-kills him. The man is crying out in pain yet continues to laugh throughout, and later this episode recurs to Okada in nightmare form, as the man's skin detaches itself from his body and drapes itself over Okado. This echoes the theme of skinning people alive, which turns up horrifically in one of the war narratives. The violent episode just described is never explained or linked to the rest of the story, and the same applies to other episodes or themes which hover on the edge of relevance without ever quite making it into full connectivity with the plot.
There is a tone of menace or violence underlying the whole story; Okado is engaged in a potentially lethal conflict with his brother-in-law, who is a threatening figure at the start and becomes more so as the narrative advances. The brother-in-law is somehow contrasted with or counterbalanced by a charming young girl, who gives Okado his nickname of Mr Windup Bird and who writes him long letters. Even in her, however, the element of violence is not lacking, for she has killed a young man with whom she was riding pillion on a motor cycle by putting her hands over his eyes and causing him to crash.
At the end, many of the questions raised by the story are left unanswered. Is this just irritating mystification? It may be tempting to think so, but perhaps it really reflects Murukami's conviction that life itself is like that, full of questions that will never be answered even by the time we die. Either there are no answers, or we are incapable of understanding them.
This book is impossible to classify. It is unlike any I have read before. How much of this is due to the fact that its author is Japanese I cannot say, but I suspect not all that much; it owes its strangeness mainly to the unusual quality of its author's imagination, which will probably seem as strange to Japanese readers as it does to Westerners.
The translation reads well, in idiomatic English; it's easy to forget that you are reading a translation.