Thursday, January 6, 2011

Haruki Murakami's After the Quake

One of my readers, who just happens to be my daughter-in-law, Ean, asked me if I had read Haruki Murakami and, if so, what I thought of him. She also asked me about a Colorado science fiction writer, whose work I have not read. I am always happy to respond when readers ask me, "what do you think about....?" So here is a post of a review I wrote several years ago of Murakami's collection of stories After the Quake.

First Published: Kami no kodomo-tachi wa mina odoru, 2000
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

In the early morning hours of January 16, 1995, a 7.2 earthquake hit the port city of Kobe, Japan, killing over five thousand people, causing billions of dollars worth of damage, and putting 300,000 out of their homes, including the parents of Haruki Murakami. Two months later, the radical Aum Shinrikyo cult carried out a gas attack on the subway system in Tokyo, killing eleven and crippling many others for life. Because of these twin terrors, Murakami, who had lived in the United States for several years, returned to Japan to research and write a nonfiction book entitled Underground: The Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (2001) on the terrorist attack, filled with accounts of the lives of both survivors and cult members. In Murakami’s book, after the quake, (the small case letters of the titles of the book and the stories) are intentional) six stories explore the seemingly tangential, yet very real, effect of the earthquake on several Japanese characters in February, 1995, the month between the two disasters.

The first story, “ufo in kushiro,” begins with a woman who has spent five days after the quake in front of the television. On the sixth day, when her husband Komura, a salesman at a hi-fi-equipment store in Tokyo, comes home, she has disappeared, leaving him a note saying that although he is good, kind and handsome, living with him is like living with a “chunk of air.” As usual with Murakami’s characters, Komura does not make any emotional reactions to his wife’s departure. When he takes a week off from work, one of his colleagues says that if he will deliver a small package for him to his younger sister in the city of Kushiro he will pay for his airfare and hotel.

When the sister, Keiko, along with a friend Shimao, meet Komura at the airport, he has the strange impression that he is witnessing some moment from the past. He also feels he has not come far even though it was a long journey. These impressions create a transition from everyday life into a mysterious realm of reality typical of many of these stories. When Kieko says he does not think his wife’s departure had anything to do with the earthquake, Shimao says she wonders if things like that aren’t connected somehow. When Komura and Shimao try to have sex, he fails several times because he has been seeing images of the earthquake. He tells her about his wife’s note, and she asks if it is true that there is “nothing” inside him. When he asks what “something” inside of him could be, she tells him that the box he brought contains the “something” inside of him and that he will never get it back. At the end of the story, the most pessimistic in the collection, Kieko understands the emptiness inside himself.

The second story, “landscape with flatiron,” focuses on Junko, a young woman and an older man named Miyake building bonfires on the beach. As Junko watches, she thinks of Jack London’s story “To Build a Fire,” about a man traveling alone in the Alaskan wilderness who cannot get a fire started and freezes to death. She is convinced that the man actually wanted death, even though he had to fight to stay alive. Junko has always felt a “certain something deep down” as she watches the bonfires. Miyake, who is obsessed with the fires, tells her that if you get such a feeling while looking at a fire, it shows the deep, quiet kind of feeling inside you.

Like Komura in the first story, Junko says she is empty, to which Miyake replies that he is an expert on emptiness. After talking about committing suicide together when the fire goes out, Junko goes to sleep and Miyake tells her that when the fire goes out she will feel the cold and wake up whether she wants to or not. In spite of the sense of emptiness, characteristic of other stories in this book, there is also a sense of communion, between the two characters at the end. This mutual understanding thus suggests that it is possible that when the fire goes out, the two will still have each other.

“all god’s children can dance” begins with a man named Yoshiya following a mysterious man with a missing earlobe. Interspersed with accounts of Yoshiya following the man are flashbacks to his childhood, when his mother told him that his father was the Lord, and that one day he will show himself to him if he keeps his faith. Yoshiya is convinced the man with a missing earlobe must be his biological father. When the man gets off the train in an industrial area, he walks like a mechanical doll being drawn by a magnet. The fact that there is no sign of human life and the place looks like an imaginary stage set in a dream is another indication typical of these stories that the main character has entered some alternate dream reality. When Yoshiya follows the man into an empty baseball field, he disappears, and Yoshiya’s acts seem to have no meaning to him; in fact, meaning itself seems to have broken down, never to be the same again. Kneeling on the pitcher’s mound, Yoshiya gives himself up to the flow of time, saying aloud, “Oh God.” Once again, Murakami’s story ends with a sense of emptiness and loneliness; however, because Yoshiya calls out the name of his absent father at the end, there is some ambiguity about whether his discovery is positive or negative.

In “thailand,” a woman named Satsuki goes to a professional conference in Bangkok, Thailand and decides to vacation there for a week with the help of a limo driver and guide named Nimit. The alternate reality theme is introduced when the limo arrives, looking like an object from another world, as if it had dropped from someone’s fantasy. When Nimit asks Satsuki if her hometown of Kyoto, which is not far from Kobe, was much damaged by the quake, she thinks that an unnamed “he” lives in Kobe.” Nimit takes Satsuki to a poor village to meet an eighty-year-old woman fortune-teller who tells Satsuki that there is a stone inside her body and that she must dream of a snake that will remove it or she will die. The old woman also tells Satsuki that the unnamed man in Kobe, obviously a man who has jilted Satsuki in the past, is not dead. Satsuki now recognizes that it is she who is headed toward death. She even thinks that the earthquake may be her fault because she wished for it to kill the man who. As she flies away, she sits in the plane wishing for sleep so her dream will come. Once again, a character is reminded of the emptiness inside the self, but once again also there is some ambiguity about the implications of this realization. If Satsuki has her dream, will she be saved from the hardness of her heart?

The most surreal story in the collection is “super-frog saves tokyo,” which begins Kafka-like with a man named Katagiri finding a giant frog in his apartment who tells him he has come to save Tokyo from destruction from an earthquake. Frog says that he and Katagiri must go underground to do mortal combat with a creature named Worm that gets larger as he absorbs hatred. Frog, quoting Nietzsche, says Katagiri must cheer him on, for fighting is not something he likes to do. When Katagiri tells Frog that he is even less than ordinary and does not see how he can help save Tokyo, Frog says he is trying to save Tokyo for good, ordinary people just like him. However, on the day they are to go underground Katagiri is shot by a man in the street and wakes up in a hospital only to find out there has been no earthquake and that he was not shot at all. Like other characters in these stories, Katagiri has no idea of what is true anymore. When Frog comes to the hospital and tells Katagiri that he did a great job in his dreams, the strange creature begins to break out in boils, out of which come maggots, centipedes, worms and bugs, which fill the room and crawl all over Katagiri. When he wakes up, he knows that Frog saved Tokyo at the cost of his life, for he went back to the mud and will never come again. Then Katagiri falls into a restful, dreamless sleep. Although this is certainly the most Kafkaesque story in the book, it is also one of the most optimistic, for it ends with Katagiri no longer troubled by strange dreams, peaceful in his very ordinariness.

“honey pie,” perhaps the most hopeful story in the book, begins with a man named Junpei telling a story to a child named Sala about a bear named Masakichi, who has no friends and is especially hated by a tough bear named Tonkichi. The child’s mother Sayoko has called Junpei, a writer and a friend, to come and help her because Sala has had another hysterical fits because she believes someone called the Earthquake Man is trying to put her in a little box.

When Junpei, Sayoko, and her husband Takatsuki were close friends at university, Junpei felt that Sayoko was the girl he had been looking for, but because he could never bring himself to express his feelings to her, Takatsuki was the first one to declare his love. After graduation, Junpei becomes a successful short story writer, while Takatsuki gets a job with a newspaper and marries Sayoko. Just before Sala’s second birthday, Takatsuki and Sayoko get a divorce, and Junpei thinks about asking Sayoko to marry him but cannot make up his mind. When Junpei and Sayoko take Sala to a zoo to see the bears, he tells her a story about Tonkichi who trades salmon with Masakichi for his honey, eventually making them best friends. When the salmon disappear, Tonkichi ends up being sent to the zoo.

That evening after dinner Junpei and Sayoko embrace as if nothing has changed since they were nineteen. During the night Sala comes into the bedroom and says the Earthquake Man came and told her that he has a box for everyone. Junpei sleeps on the sofa and looks at the TV, thinking they were inside the TV waiting for the box to open. He thinks that as soon as Sayoko wakes up he will ask her to marry him. He also thinks of a conclusion for the story for Sala; he has Tonkichi bake honey pies, which Masakichi takes to town and sells so they can live as best friends forever. Thinking he now will keep watch over this woman and little girl and never let anyone put them in that crazy box, not even if the earth should crack open, Junpei decides he wants to write stories different from what he has written so far; he wants to write about people who dream and wait. And indeed, this final story in Murakami’s collection is precisely that kind of story--a story that ends with fullness and unity instead of emptiness and separation. Thus, although these stories seem distinct entities, they are interconnected not only by the effect of the Kobe earthquake, but also because they move from meaninglessness to final hope.


Unknown said...

Charles, I am touched that you posted a response to my question AND so quickly. Thank you. Your descriptions of some of the stories reminded me of Banana Yoshimoto's stories in "Asleep"...which I loved. I am checking out "after the quake" from the library today.

Jones said...

I read some of these stories and really love them... Thanks for sharing such a nice descriptions.

Tim said...

Murakami is one of my favorite writers. Thanks for the post, Charles. I especially enjoyed his stories from the The Elephant Vanishes including "On seeing the 100% perfect girl one beautiful April morning" and "The Second Bakery Attack." While there is still the sense of disconnection and emptiness, the stories are far more hopeful.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that Murakami explores a sense of questioning one's purpose through the characters in these stories? I believe that all of the characters reassess their lives through explorations of their past. They all seem to be at a turning point in their lives in which they accept or attempt to change their futures. I think the ideas of imagination and dreams repeated in these stories are used by the author to emphasize this.
Do you think that an event such as an earthquake works to draw his characters to similar conclusions? I have a sense that Thailand is reflective of Murakami's own experiences.

Satish Pai said...

HI, Sorry for posting this so late.

One of the impressions I had reading the UFO story again was that the hero is disconnected and in denial of his wive's death. Thats the story his friend mentions to his sister. And then there's a reference in the story about how the pack looked like how one packed Ashes.

I found the story very very very profound and so full of various meanings - that I have still to come to terms with it...

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