After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Harvill HB, cover by Keenan

In 1997, Haruki Murakami published his first full-length work of non-fiction (later translated into English in abridged form as Underground) in which he interviewed both the victims and the perpetrators of the sarin gas attack that took place in the Tokyo subway in March 1995. After the Quake, a slim collection of six stories first published in Japan in 1999 (and in English in 2002) is in part an outgrowth of that project, being an artistic response to another devastating event that occurred in Japan only two months before the gas attack, the January 1995 Kobe earthquake. Like Underground, it focuses on ordinary lives and how they are affected by a large-scale disaster.

A key difference, though — apart from this being fiction — is that, unlike the interviewees in Underground, none of the characters in After the Quake directly experiences the Kobe earthquake. Instead, in each of the six stories, the main character has some sort of powerful, barely-dormant subterranean force of their own that they have learned to live with on a day-to-day basis, but which the Kobe earthquake, through a sort of sympathetic magic, threatens to bring into the open. It might be unacknowledged love, it might be long-held-onto hatred, but most often it’s loss or emptiness.

It’s perhaps at its purest, and most Murakami-ish, in the first story in the book, “UFO in Kushiro” (which can be read at the The New Yorker). The main character, Komura, is a hi-fi salesman whose wife, after spending days doing nothing but watching reports of the Kobe earthquake on TV, suddenly leaves him. The only concrete reason she gives is that Komura has nothing to give her: “living with you,” she writes in her farewell note, “is like living with a chunk of air”. Komura takes a week’s leave, but, unsure what to do with himself, accepts the suggestion of a work colleague that he visit Hokkaido, because the colleague has a delicate package he needs to get there, and he’s willing to cover Komura’s expenses if he delivers it. Komura does so, handing over the package to the colleague’s sister, then spending the rest of the day with the sister’s friend, Shimao. They end up in a love hotel together, but Komura finds himself impotent. He tells Shimao about the emptiness his wife accused him of having inside. Out of nowhere, Shimao says that the thing Komura is supposed to have inside himself was in the package he just delivered, and now he’s handed it over, he’ll always be empty inside. If it’s a joke, it’s too close to the mark, because, hearing it, Komura feels his own inner-earthquake pre-tremors:

“For one split second, Komura realized he was on the verge of committing an act of overwhelming violence.”

It doesn’t matter, in “UFO in Kushiro”, what the emptiness is, only that Komura finally manages to feel it. In “Landscape with Flatiron”, the second story in the collection, the main character, Junko, feels inside herself “a certain ‘something’… deep down, a ‘wad’ of feeling… too raw, too heavy, too real to be called an idea”. Having run away from home and now working in a convenience store, she gets to know a middle-aged painter, Miyake, who has an irrational feeling that he will die trapped in a fridge. He’s clearly aware this is just a symbol of his own fear of being trapped in other ways — as, for instance, by the family he abandoned in Kobe. He likes to comb the beach for driftwood, building bonfires, which symbolise, for him, true freedom. Looking into the flames of his latest creation, Junko sees not freedom but acceptance, in response to her own particular emptiness:

“The flames accepted all things in silence, drank them in, understood, and forgave. A family, a real family, was probably like this, she thought.”

In most of the stories, Murakami’s characters find some way of working with the emptiness they find within themselves, but these are almost always abstract, irrational actions, symbolic rather than practical, as though it doesn’t matter so much what you do to counter the emptiness, just that you do something. In “All God’s Children Can Dance”, for instance, Yoshiya is told by his highly religious mother that he has no human father, but is the son of “Our Lord”. He has ceased to believe in God, but finally finds a sort of self-acceptance by dancing his own peculiar form of dance, alone in the dark. In “Thailand”, meanwhile, an ageing thyroid specialist who has retained a lifelong hatred of a certain man in Kobe (and who can’t help believing, at some level, that her hatred caused the earthquake there), is told how to finally let go, because otherwise, she’s told, when she dies, only the hatred will remain.

The strangest tale in the book, and surely the most memorable, is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”. The main character here is Katagiri, who sees himself as something of a nobody. He collects debts for the Tokyo Security Trust Bank, and is largely successful because, having given up on life, he has no fear when confronted by the various gangsters, heavies, and criminals his work brings him into contact with. One day he comes home to find a giant frog waiting in his apartment. This frog — who insists on being called “Frog”, not “Mr. Frog” — is going to try to save Tokyo from an earthquake many times worse than the one that hit Kobe, and needs Katagiri’s help. The Frog, who is both immensely strong and impressively well-read for an amphibian (he quotes Tolstoy, Conrad, Nietzsche, Hemingway, and Dostoevsky) is perhaps Katagiri’s own repressed potential — his unacknowledged strength (his “courage and passion for justice”, which Katagiri is surprised to find Frog praising him for), and the urge to live a fuller life (Frog’s endless quotations finally encourage Katagiri to read).

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Jay Rubin (translator of a lot of Murakami’s fiction, including these stories), says that After the Quake is “perhaps Murakami’s most conventional story collection”, and it’s certainly his most consistent, with none of the more experimental pieces you find in his other collections. (The stories are also almost all of the same length.) Some, such as “UFO in Kushiro”, with its abandoned, suddenly empty mid-life protagonist, or the final story “Honey Pie” (whose tale of a love triangle between college friends evokes Murakami’s most famous book, Norwegian Wood, as well as one of his most recent, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) feel like essence-of-Murakami: characters, as Rubin says, “whose outwardly satisfactory lives leave them feeling unfulfilled and who live on the edge of some devastating discovery.”

I was very happy to get the chance to see Murakami himself shortly after the book’s publication in the UK, where he read from one of the stories (I’m sure it was “Super-Frog”), in both English and Japanese, and where I got my copy signed. This may, of course, be why it remains one of my favourites of his — After Dark, which came out shortly after, being another — and perhaps it helps that it’s short, but it’s certainly a more consistent and satisfying collection than his first book of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes (which only, for me, had a couple of really good hits).

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

cover imageThroughout his high school years, Tsukuru Tazaki was one of five extremely close-knit friends (three boys, two girls) in his hometown of Nagoya. Of the group, he was the only one not to have a colour in his name, so was nicknamed ‘Colourless’ Tsukuru Tazaki, something that subsequently coloured his own view of himself as being ‘An empty vessel. A colourless background. With no special defects, nothing outstanding.’ He was also the only one of the five to leave Nagoya after high school, going to Tokyo to study engineering. Returning briefly in the middle of his sophomore year, he phones his friends only to find they’ve cut off relations with him. ‘Think about it, and you’ll figure it out,’ is all he’s told. But Tsukuru can’t figure it out, and he’s plunged into near-suicidal despair:

‘The door was slammed in my face, and they wouldn’t let me back inside. And they wouldn’t tell me why. But if that’s what all of them wanted, I figured there was nothing I could do about it.’

The novel begins sixteen years later. Living an empty but ordinary (colourless) life, Tsukuru is prompted by his latest girlfriend — the first he feels serious about — to track down his former friends and solve the mystery. Tsukuru is none too keen: ‘I’ve managed to slowly close up the wound and, somehow, conquer the pain. It took a long time. Now the wound is closed, why gouge it open again?’ Sara says: ‘Maybe inside the wound, under the scab, the blood is still silently flowing.’ She does the initial work (with social media, something Tsukuru, of course, doesn’t use), and comes up with the first shock: Shiro, ‘Miss White’, was murdered several years ago. Another of the group, Eri, married and moved to Finland, but the remaining two, the men, are still in Nagoya. Keen not to lose Sara, Tsukuru agrees to visit each of the surviving three and learn the truth about what he’s been dealing with on his own all these years.

inner coverIt’s just before halfway through the novel that Tsukuru meets with the first of his former friends, Ao, head of a Lexus car dealership in Nagoya, and perhaps because of the much slower pace of Murakami’s last novel, the triple-decker 1Q84, I was almost shocked when, instead of the usual Murakami-ish evasions and mysteries-around-mysteries, Tsukuru actually gets most of the answers he’s looking for! But Colourless Tsukuru is a much shorter book than 1Q84 — and, I’d say, a better one. It’s a pity that (perhaps because of the economics of publishing such a huge novel) 1Q84 got so much press attention at the time of its release, drawing in so many readers new to Murakami, many of whom were left somewhat overwhelmed by the size and typically Murakami-ish incomprehensibilities of the book. Colourless Tsukuru, though by no means as barnstorming or epic a novel, is much more effective at telling its low-key tale of a quiet man coming to terms with the loneliness and rejection he’s borne throughout his adult life. (It’s a novel that could, even, be shorter still. An early episode in Tsukuru’s college years, featuring the only fantasy-tinged sequence in the book, could be removed, I think, without unduly affecting the rest of the novel. Aside from offering up an interesting but mostly detachable story-within-a-story, it left me expecting a resolution that never comes.)

Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage addresses themes Murakami has dealt with before — intense early-life relationships derailed by mental illness (Norwegian Wood), social ostracism (“The Silence”, one of the better stories in The Elephant Vanishes) — but to me it felt like he was taking those themes a bit further, adding a little more maturity and perspective to the brew. There’s a real feeling of mere human beings doing what they can to face up to the dark forces of life, an attempt to rescue something meaningful from an early, life-defining wrongness that has blighted all the years that followed:

‘Life is long, and sometimes cruel. Sometimes victims are needed. Someone has to take on that role.’

By the end of the novel, mysteries remain, but these are just the tying up of plot threads; the central emotional core resolves, and it makes Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki a satisfying, if low-key offering from Murakami, and one that bolsters my faith in him after the frankly overlong 1Q84.

1Q84

I prefer the pronunciation “q-teen-eighty-four” to the “one-q-eighty-four” touted on Wikipedia, but I can’t remember where I got it from, now. Anyway, it’s the title of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, published as a three-decker in Japan (the first two volumes simultaneously in 2009, the third in 2010), but in the UK just over a month ago, as two hardbacks. I’ve spent most of the intervening month reading it.

Told in alternating chapters following its two main characters, Aomame (female) and Tengo (male) — though a third joins the rotation for volume three — 1Q84 is, according to Murakami, based on the same idea as his story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” (published in English in The Elephant Vanishes back in 1993, but it can be found online here). The main difference between the two is that “100% Perfect Girl” is just under four and half pages long; 1Q84 is nine hundred and eighty seven.

The story starts with the two characters following their normal, separate, rather lonely lives. Tengo teaches maths at a “cram school” by day, and tries to write novels in the evening; Aomame is a fitness instructor who occasionally performs the odd idealistic assassination, revenging female victims of domestic abuse. One day Tengo is contacted by Komatsu, a somewhat unconventional editor he knows, wanting to involve him in a possibly dodgy scheme to rewrite a powerful but flawed novel by a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl, Eriko Fukada, who turns out to be a refugee from a secretive religious cult. At the same time, Aomame starts to realise that the world, as she knows it, is subtly different: policemen, for instance, wear different uniforms and carry different guns, and there are now two moons in the sky instead of one. The world is no longer our 1984, but an alternative reality of 1Q84, where the “boundary between the real world and the imaginary one has grown obscure.”

As a long-time reader of Murakami, my fascination in reading him is as much to do with watching Murakami the storyteller in action as it is with the stories he tells. Seeing how he cooks up his plots — simmering scenes & ideas with repetitions and diversions till he finds a viable thread to follow, occasionally throwing in a new ingredient, say a new character, or a plot twist, or just letting things noodle along. And pretty soon after starting 1Q84 many of the traditional Murakami ingredients were there — protagonists who are highly competent at their jobs but who are still searching for the real vein of meaning in their lives, portentous but peculiar phone calls at odd times, the occasional animal (here, a crow) who appears & reappears at seemingly significant moments, a dark & violent male authority figure lurking behind the scenes, an elderly female figure trying to heal & protect, a quirky teenage girl who seems to have an insight into all the weirdness that’s going on, love hotels, suicidal school friends, a lot of cooking meals and listening to old records, just to name a few.

Murakami is a marathon runner (his last non-fiction book was about marathon running, with a few tentative links to writing), and he seems to have taken the telling of this tale as he might a marathon, beginning with an easy, steady pace, and continuing at the same, determined trot, gradually picking up momentum till you feel there’s a real story going on. That’s how I felt till about halfway through the second volume, anyway, whereupon either I or Murakami hit the Wall and began to falter.

As much as I love Murakami, and am happy to follow his quirks, I think 1Q84 is too long. I don’t like long books generally, mostly because there are so many other books I want to read, and I tend to resent the one I’m reading if it takes up more time than its readerly rewards seem to justify. 1Q84, as a book, generated some real promise in the first volume, started fulfilling it in the second, but really stopped giving for most of the third, where too many of the characters were sitting at home waiting for things to happen, and Murakami introduced some story-threads that really felt like they were just passing time.

There are two types of long books that work: otherworld fantasies, where the size of the book is a necessary part of the immersiveness of the reading experience, and those Victorian meganovels that try to encompass as much of the broad-view stuff of life as possible — things like Middlemarch, Bleak House or War and Peace. Murakami, though, is more a writer about individuals, often quirky individuals, and their passage through a sort of early-mid-life psychic crisis, often beginning with a sense of loss (or the actual loss of a loved one, usually in some fantastic rather than mundane way), a period of intense, often hallucinatory loneliness, and then perhaps an eruption of sudden, frightening violence. His stories pass through weird, often best-unresolved moments of David Lynch-like fantasy, as some sort of unconscious conflict is faced. And these are wonderful stories, but I don’t think they work when spun out too long.

This isn’t to say I didn’t like 1Q84. It came to a satisfying ending, as I knew it would, and I instantly forgave it its longueurs; but during them (most of volume three, apart from the early Ushikawa chapters), I was frustrated at the feeling that I was just being strung out before an ending was reached. My favourite Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is quite long, but it never felt too long, perhaps because it contained at least one independent secondary story. Here, once Aomame and Tengo’s stories are thoroughly linked, they’re perhaps too tethered together to act in contrast to each other, which is the main advantage of telling stories in parallel.

But, as I say, as soon as I finished it, I forgave it all that. However, I would say that 1Q84 isn’t the ideal place to start reading Murakami. After The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my favourites are the shorter novels and the longer short stories — South of the Border, West of the Sun and After Dark, as short novels, would be excellent starting points if you want to read some Murakami, as are the longish short stories in After the Quake. But 1Q84 has received a lot of positive reviews, and a great deal of success in Japan. There really were some quite moving passages. Perhaps all I really want to say is, it may be good, but he’s done better.