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After the Quake
Review by Charlie Dickinson

after the quake: stories by Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 181 pp., ISBN: 0-375-41390-1

By the 79th day of 1995, Japan had suffered both the Kobe earthquake that killed thousands and the terrorist poison-gas attacks in Tokyo subways at morning rush hour. These twin shocks to the Japanese psyche closed out Haruki Murakami's years as a novelist-in- exile: He came home to confront the grief of his fellow nihonjin and subsequently wrote about both disasters.

after the quake is, in a sense, a fiction companion to Murakami's earlier nonfiction work Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. The six stories of this collection occur in February 1995, weeks after the Kobe earthquake, prior to the Tokyo gas attacks. Not one of these six stories, however, takes place in Kobe. That immediate terror of earth tsunami, that sure horror of structural collapse and fire--it's capsulized as mere TV images, no more. Removed from the physical chaos, the story voices are heard elsewhere: Tokyo, the snow-engulfed northern island of Hokkaido, a balmy vacation resort in Thailand. What is not at a remove for the voices is the psychic aftershocks from the Kobe earthquake that keep rolling through their lives.

The lead story, "ufo in kushiro," hints of Raymond Carver (who, while alive, chose Murakami as his Japanese translator). Mystery, unanswerable questions stuffed into a should-be-simple story: A Tokyo housewife, motionless, stares at TV sights and sounds of the Kobe earthquake for five days, loses it, abandons her husband Komura, takes refuge with her parents. A quick divorce follows. Needing a timeout, Komura agrees to help an office colleague. He takes a package with undisclosed content to Hokkaido. There, Komura hears stories: a possible UFO abduction, possibly violent bears. An offer of sexual favors he accepts as if buying a cold beer from a vending machine on the streets of Tokyo only to discover the unthinkable: a Japanese vending machine that is defective! In fact, the defect is in Komura himself and thrumming to Kobe aftershocks, loss of his wife is furthest from his mind. Recovering from his real loss now calls for an inside job and he doesn't know where to start.

"landscape with flatiron" acknowledges yet another American author, Jack London, whose story "To Build a Fire" (with the stakes being to stay alive) has some resonance with painter Miyake's life in "a navel-lint nothing of a town" where he chose to live because it got more driftwood than any beach he knew. Besides painting, Miyake's great passion is building driftwood fires. Readers familiar with other works by Murakami will recognize this story as yet another signature meditation on death. Miyake and his female companion Junko take the bonfire on the beach for more than literal survival value: Implicit in the hypnotic flames are the cold ashes later. Drawn to each other, but not in life, Miyake and Junko might happily embrace death as companions. But not before the fire burns out.

Yoshiya in "all god's children can dance" was born to a sexy, teenage mom, who before too long became the most fundamentalist of religious believers: Yoshiya was conceived immaculately, a child of God, because she refused to believe her abortionist's contraceptive techniques would fail him when she finally had knowledge of him. But unbeliever Yoshiya is convinced the abortionist is his secret father. His chase, while nursing a hangover, after the man with the missing earlobe, whom he thinks is the abortionist, turns up empty, but then in Murakami-land, cul-de-sacs have a way of being the pipeline to the "deep space," and so it is for Yoshiya.

The balance of the collection includes "thailand," a cautionary tale about a divorcee who had hoped her ex-husband died in Kobe; "super -frog saves tokyo," an imaginative dialogue between Mr. Katagiri and a towering six-foot tall frog who's also the "un-me," the "un-frog," and the "total of all frogs," and who proposes the two will spare Tokyo an even worse earthquake than Kobe; and "honey pie," a story about decades of nondecision and passive observance in writer Junpei's life until Kobe shock brings him home from Barcelona to act.
after the quake is a surprisingly diverse sextet of stories unified by the effects of the Kobe devastation: wounded story protagonists, their keen personal loss and emptiness uncovered only after a symphony of mass death--and all told in the undeniably addictive prose style of Murakami-san.

A final note: Haruki Murakami insisted that the title of this English edition and its story titles be all lower-case.© Charlie Dickinson

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