Translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin
Edition read: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Contents: ufo in kushiro; landscape with flatiron; all god’s children can dance; thailand; super-frog saves tokyo; honey pie.
I had yet to read anything by the highly esteemed Murakami and Sean was looking for a new(to him) author to read. He picked up After Dark at the Library and I picked up After the Quake.
The six stories in Haruki Murakamis mesmerizing collection are set at the time of the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake, when Japan became brutally aware of the fragility of its daily existence. But the upheavals that afflict Murakamis characters are even deeper and more mysterious, emanating from a place where the human meets the inhuman.
An electronics salesman who has been abruptly deserted by his wife agrees to deliver an enigmatic packageand is rewarded with a glimpse of his true nature. A man who has been raised to view himself as the son of God pursues a stranger who may or may not be his human father. A mild-mannered collection agent receives a visit from a giant talking frog who enlists his help in saving Tokyo from destruction. As haunting as dreams, as potent as oracles, the stories in After the Quake are further proof that Murakami is one of the most visionary writers at work today. ~publisher’s comments.
<a bit of a ramble>
“I call in Landscape with Flatiron. I finished it three days ago. It’s just a picture of an iron in a room.”
“Why’s that so tough to explain?”
“Because it’s not really an iron.”
She looked up at him. “The iron is not an iron?”
“Meaning it stands fro something else?”
“Meaning you can only paint it if you use something else to stand for it?” (“landscape with flatiron,” 51-2)
Such a literary piece longs for something equally well articulated, but I am at a loss. I thought to imitate several quotes found in response to Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake, but I can hardly interpret their meaning. I’m still collecting the thoughts, sifting emotions, looking up words.
There are several pieces of Writing that I feel I need a better education before approaching them. And just as many after I’ve met them. I know there are things I feel I am missing in After the Quake—the cultural education is a big one. Then there are the Literary and Musical references. Fortunately, Murakami’s stories have that magical quality that speaks to the soul of the Reader no matter their ignorance of Literature, Jazz, or Japan.
The style of the writing, the precise language of the short story, the clipped sentences, the forward momentum that pulls you through the foreign climes of his imagination and his reality—it is strangely easy to sink into Murakami’s portraits. So much was foreign to me and yet I was not alienated from the hauntingly familiar.
In Murakami’s stories anything seems possible and probable; which is admittedly discomfiting. The first story “ufo in kushiro” begins fairly normal before ending strangely. It is a nice introductory piece. The two of the six stories that resonated most deeply were “landscape with flatiron” and “thailand.” I couldn’t really say why. I am left with feelings over words, and I am uncomfortable remaining there. I would like to articulate how and why.
In after the quake there is the sense of helplessness, desperation, and the vast hollow of loneliness evoked. Life should have changed after a devastating earthquake, but why in such drastic yet mundane ways?—and without easily packaged explanation? The true echo of trauma in after the quake isn’t the resolve to create and fulfill bucket lists or prescriptive protocol. Murakami’s characters are stumbling through the fog, seeking to fill “a chunk of air” (6) with something substantial—like authentic relationships. They seek a freedom from the constraint of conventions suddenly illuminated—or maybe a return. Will the risks of extending one’s self to another (no matter the act that precipitates it) find reward? Despite the uncertainties in life, lives are propelled forward in both its mindless and deeply contemplative choices. The last story in after the quake “honey pie” presents the greatest glimmer of hope. But like all the previous pieces, Murakami leaves the ending open, the future teetering. The Reader is left to hope, the final and desperate act left to both the characters and the Reader.
“From now on, little by little, you must prepare yourself to face death. If you devote all of your future energy to living, you will not be able to die well. You must begin to shift gears, a little at a time. Living and dying are, in a sense, of equal value.” (105, “thailand”)
It is apt that the Kobe Earthquake is the only continuous character throughout the 6 stories. A quietly lurking character, it represents an event unexplainable, uncontrollable, un-preventable. It is less about the vulnerability of our mortality, but more the vulnerability of a life being lived.
“She could feel the man’s fear and hope and despair as if they were her own; she could sense the very pounding of his heart as he hovered on the brink of death. Most important of all, though, was the fact that the man was fundamentally longing for death. She knew that for sure. She couldn’t explain how she knew, but she knew it from the start. Death was really what he wanted. He knew that it was the right ending for him. And yet he had to go on fighting with all his might. He had to fight against an overwhelming adversary in order to survive. What most shook Junko was this deep-rooted contradiction.” (“landscape with flatiron,” 33)
When Junko was contemplating Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” her teacher thought her mistaken, but after the quake validates Junko’s response. There are many a fascinating and unsettling deep-rooted contradiction in the human person, in the human existence.
Murakami’s is the realist exploration I can handle, steeped in surrealist encounters, melding landscapes of varying degrees onto a canvas, illustrating the complexity of relationships internal and/or external. I have no idea what he is saying, but it is all too clear to me what is showing me.
“For a long time, [Jack London] thought he was going to die by drowning in the sea. He was absolutely sure of it. He’d slip and fall into the ocean at night, and nobody would notice, and he’d drown.” [….] “In a sense, he was right. He did drown alone in a dark sea. He became an alcoholic. He soaked his body in his own despair—right to the core—and he died in agony. Premonitions can stand for something else sometimes. And the thing they stand for can be a lot more intense than reality. That’s the scariest thing about having a premonition. Do you see what I mean?”
Junko thought about it for a while. She did not see what he meant.
“I’ve never once thought about how I was going to die,” she said. “I can’t think about it. I don’t even know how I’m going to live.”
Miyake gave a nod. “I know what you mean,” he said. “But there’s such a thing as a way of living that’s guided by the way a person’s going to die.”
“Is that how you’re living?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. It seems that way sometimes.” (“landscape with flatiron,” 50-1, the emphasis mine).
Neither come up with a solid plan for living or dying by morning. The only comfort found or answer made available lies within the connection between the two, in the companionship. There are journeys with few (if any) arrivals, journeys filled with moments of impotence (both actual and metaphoric). Many of the characters, whether protagonists or no, are quite pathetic; which, of course, does not deny the Reader a connection. I am guessing Murakami frustrates both the plot-driven and the character-driven Readers equally, while simultaneously lulling them into a deep affection. Perhaps he illuminates and frees the Reader from a few necessary constraints, as well.