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by Haruki Murakami
The Harvill Press 1-86046-9671

Review by Sam North
Murakami seeks to extract something special and wise from the ruins of Kobe.
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, it’s 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 forty 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. Don’t 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 Murakami’s 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 Water’s 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 of Kobe.
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 isn’t 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 salesman.
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 friend.
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, didn’t 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.
It’s 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 relationship.
Death isn’t 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 God’s 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 profile

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