AFTER THE QUAKE
The Harvill Press 1-86046-9671 £10.00
Release Date 16.06.2002
Murakami seeks to extract something special and wise from the ruins of
The Kobe earthquake
in Japan had a devastating impact, not just on those living in the devastated
city, but its impact was felt nationwide. The Japanese live with earthquakes,
its a natural part of their lives and historically it has given
the nation some traumatic psychic tremors alongside the geological ones.
These tragedies manifest themselves in the collective consciousness like
sedimentary deposits forming layers of fear and doubt and foreboding.
If we berate them in the west for neglecting their history in architecture
and for living in soulless ugly cities, it is because we do not understand
what they know for sure, that all is temporary. They live with the certainty
that nature can strike at any time and demolish all, no matter how sacred,
or how rich or poor the citizens. It can and does affect everything in
Japanese life and shows up in what is valued and their constant desire
for new material things.
Haruki Murakami has been working this seam for a long time now.
Almost twenty years ago he burst onto the scene with A Wild Sheep
Chase and Norwegian Wood tapping into the
neurosis and fickle lives of a changed Japan. He knew, more than most,
that the young Japanese were obsessed with objects and show, unable to
give respect to their past any longer and more than most, completely absorbed
American culture into their imagination perhaps unable to distinguish
between the good bad or plain awful. Now a new generation is emerging
carving their own identity rapidly shaking off the old ways, the over
earnest and shallow respect, rejecting stupid jobs with no
purpose, the ten years of deflation have inverted all the rules and caused
an earthquake in the value systems. Dont buy anything because tomorrow
it will be cheaper. When they do buy, kawai is the way; everything has
to be cute and of course completely discardable. Rebellion
is in the air and kids act out their dreams anyway they can; any weekend
you can see them on show in Harajuku near Shibuya.
In recent years Murakami gave us Hard-Boiled Wonderland an
extraordinary work that give us two storeys in one, a dying man in Tokyo,
sinister forces at work beneath the city and a forcibly separated shadow
imprisoned in another surreal diminishing world. Last year he gave us
Sputnik Sweetheart, another seemingly nostalgic story of
a love gone wrong, a missing woman searching for herself and possibly
losing everything. Many of Murakamis books are about young women
and men suffering loss, impermanence, and pointless suffering or sexual
torment. His style is spare, never over-lyrical and his characters are
quite often plain ordinary people in strange situations, faced with the
power of magic realism which transforms their live swhich adds mystery.
This mystery, perhaps does away with a need to understand everything,
thus making everything permissible.
As with the kids in Harajuku with their Cos play literally
acting out, costume play in an unstructured direct street theatre, the
Japanese are seriously in need of a new way of life and sense they have
lost connection with the real, or the past or the imagination. You can
see this happening in such Japanese films as The Eel or
Warm water under a Red Bridge. Both invoke such mystical
content, yet beside Warm Waters erotic and amusing
story, is the tragedy of a real-life chemical spill, which sent many of
the local population mad.
So it is with Murakami. He knows that for Japan to work at all, then just
as Christianity taught us in the west to accept miracles to make life
worthwhile, he seeks to extract something special and wise from the ruins
Murakami is never far away from examining the entrails of changing Japan.
His non-fiction following up the events after the sarin gas attack on
the Tokyo subway system is a tour de force. He interviewed everyone on
the trains that day for his book Underground and whilst
it isnt easy to read the same similar story a hundred times, one
can admire his attention to detail. His extended essay The Tokyo
Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche is a real insight into what
and why it happened and why it could happen again. Like his fiction, such
as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles or South of the Border
Murakami seems to have extraordinary empathy for loss, erotica and a people
struggling above all to comes to terms with individuality.
After the Quake is a small step away from this.
These are gentle stories about people, not in Kobe in the quake, not even
directly involved with Kobe at all, but nevertheless caught up in the
national aftershock which affects them all in strange, small ways.
UFO in Kushiro opens with a wife obsessed with viewing the destruction
unfold in Kobe in the immediate aftermath of the quake. It affects her
so much, destabilises her so intensely she leaves her husband. The story
then is not about her, but him, the deserted husband, Komura, a hi-fi
Bewildered by this turn of events he resolves to take some time off and
his boss persuades him to go to Hokkaido, to take a small package to a
It is that simple. Komura arrives in Hokkaido and is met by two women.
One very attractive. But he finds himself ambivalent about the situation.
He finally confesses to the younger girl that his soul is empty.
You said your wife left a note, didnt you?"
I did. That living with me was like living with a chunk of air.
Komura is just starting out on a journey to make a connection with himself.
A more satisfying story is Landscape with Flatiron.
This story is about Junko and Miyake who like to burn driftwood on the
beach and discuss life.
Its a sweet tale about an artist Miyake who fears that one day he
will die suffocated in a fridge. Juko is already suffocating in an empty
Death isnt far way from their thoughts but somehow however incompatible
they are in age you sense they are making a journey towards each other.
Another, strange and slightly disturbing story is All Gods
Children can Dance. Yoshiya, born to an eccentric single mother
who is 'born again' after several unfortunate couplings. Now she firmly
believes her child is a child of God (confirmation of this is given by
the size of his enormous penis). The story is impenetrable as Yoshiya
seeks to find the man he thinks is his father and peopled with wise old
characters like Mr Tabata who thinks that. this life is nothing
but a short, painful dream.
Of safer ground we fly with Dr Satsuki to the World Thyroid Conference
in Thailand. She is exhausted, needs the break and is searching for more
meaning to her life. In the background there is a resentment of a rancorous
divorce. Nimit, her chauffeur and guide meets her. He looks after her
well and both are Jazz fans. The Kobe quake is on the radio and she tries
to suppress the thought that her ex lives there because when she does
think of him she can only secretly wish that he would be swallowed
up by the liquefied earth. Satsuki we sense is a woman who wants
to get past her bitterness and reconnect with herself. Nimit understands
this and takes her to see someone who might give her insight.
Each one of these stories is about someone undergoing an transformation
and change, the Kobe earthquake is almost incidental, each story a metaphor
for this new Japan. The earthquake finally is a wake up call for everyone
and the most sentient of them will change their lives.
After the Quake will be on sale in the UK in June 2002
© Sam North April 2002
See also Murakami
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