on 16 December 2002
Americans seem to be fascinated by the culture of Japan. We wonder endlessly about a group of islands that can produce things as diverse as Noh drama, zen gardens and Nintendo games. American writers, too, can't seem to get enough of Japan, e.g., Jay McInerney, John Burnham Schwartz and Michael Crichton.
Haruki Murakami, one of the most original and brilliant authors writing today, gives us an entirely different look at life in Japan in his collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes. These stories show us Japan "from the inside." What might seem exotic to both Americans and Europeans, such as oyster hot pot or pillows filled with buckwheat husks, becomes, in these stories, the stuff of everyday life. In fact, Haruki Marakami's Japan could be "anyplace," and one has to read eleven pages into this collection before the first reference to Japan is ever made.
In The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami's narrators are as much "Everyman" as are the narrators of his novels. They are young, urban and charmingly downwardly mobile. And, they are more likely to eat a plate of spaghetti than soba noodles. They listen to Wagner and Herbie Hancock but eschew Japanese rock music. They read Len Deighton and War and Peace rather than Kobo Abe and The Tale of the Genji. They are Japanese, to be sure, but all their points of reference seem to be exclusively Western and signature Murakami.
In the world of Haruki Murakami, bizarre events take place with striking regularity and, also with strikingly regularity, they are accepted as simply the stuff of everyday life. In The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women, the narrator's search for a missing cat leads him to a closed-off and neglected alleyway passing between the backyards of parallel houses. Here, he encounters a sunbathing teenage girl who mimics the alleyway in that she is both ordinary and alien.
In A Window, a correspondence school writing teacher pays a visit to a pupil, a married woman in her early thirties. They spend their time eating hamburgers and listening to Burt Bacharach. Nothing much happens; in fact, the thing the narrator remembers most is the lovely weather and the colorful array of sheets and futons drying over the railings of the building's verandahs. Like many of Murakami's protagonists, what these two share is absent more than it is present.
Many of these stories seem more than a little fabulistic. The Dancing Dwarf is a good example. This story takes place in an impressively efficient factory that manufactures, of all things, elephants. The protagonist just happens to be assigned to the ear section during his narration of the story, working in that part of the building with the yellow ceiling and the yellow posts. His helmet and pants also happen to be yellow. The month before, however, he had been assigned to the green building and he had worn a green helmet and green pants and had made heads.
TV People is a bizarre story that involves human mutants reduced by twenty to thirty percent, something that made them look far away even when close up. When these mutants invade both the narrator's home and office and begin to deny his very existence, he begins to doubt it as well.
And, in The Elephant Vanishes, the haunting title story, an elephant actually disappears, with its keeper, from an enclosure where it has been kept as a mascot for a Tokyo suburb. The solution to the mystery, like all of Murakami's mysteries is not clear cut but hinges on a matter of perspective and proportion instead.
Parallel worlds abound in these stories; this is ordinary life, but ordinary life fraught with unexpected and unsettling views. In the stories that make up The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami is doing what he does so wonderfully: pointing out how much of life is hidden beneath the surface, how much is truly unknowable.
In Sleep, a young woman suddenly finds she no longer needs it. Rather than question her sudden awakening, she focuses instead on the strangeness of her husband's face. Unable to describe exactly why it now seems so strange to her, she simply accepts that it is weird and that is that. The protagonist of The Second Bakery Attack is similar in that he really doesn't question why his wife keeps a shotgun and ski masks in their car, even though neither of them had ever skied.
Lest anyone think these stories gloss over life, they couldn't be more wrong. Detail abounds: the pull tabs from beer cans lying in overflowing ashtrays, shotgun shells that rustle like the buckwheat husks in old-fashioned pillows, ice melting in cocktail glasses.
Like kittens lolling all over one another, a metaphor from a story entitled The Last Lawn of the Afternoon, these are stories in which animals--elephants, kangaroos, windup birds, and even the tragically mistreated "little green monsters"--play an extraordinarily prominent part. The Elephant Vanishes is definitely the world of Haruki Murakami, ordinary and yet so very, very extraordinary.