After the Quake

By Haruki Murakami

Japan’s Haruki Murakami has earned an international reputation as one of the world’s most provocative, original, and gifted novelists. With works like the epic Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the brief romance South of the Border, West of the Sun, his non-fiction account of the Tokyo Subway gas attack Underground, and the brilliant Sputnik Sweetheart he has managed to become that rarest of creatures: the high-brow critical favourite who also enjoys a wide popular following.

After the Quake, a collection of short stories, is the first disappointing work he has done in the past decade.

What is disappointing is not any change in direction on Murakami’s part. His dual vision of modern Japan, mixing the mundane urban professional lives of his characters with an unconscious, underground landscape of fantasies and visions, is very much on display here. The people we meet – an electronics salesman, a banker, some marginal artists, a staffer at a publishing house, a scientist – lead ordinary lives. Then, unexpectedly, an emissary visits them from what seems to be another world. These mysterious figures are like phantoms of the unconscious, dreams that offer some vague or symbolic but essential meaning that the main character has, sometimes without even knowing it, been searching for. Without it they are empty, missing a part of themselves.

The visitor from beyond can take many forms. He may be a Thai chauffeur or a six-foot frog that can talk, but he always has an important message about how none of us is whole. Unless surface dwellers accept the “underground” – the unconscious, the presence of the past – as real, it will always have the potential to erupt and destroy us. Rumbling in the background of all the stories is the emotional aftershock of the Kobe earthquake, the symbolic revenge of dark, submerged forces.

Murakami’s magic fails to take off here because it hasn’t enough time to develop. His themes are declared too baldly, and the emotional pay-offs often seem rushed or undeveloped, almost without context. A typical moment of revelation occurs at the end of the story “All God’s Children Can Dance.” Yoshiya has followed a mysterious figure that reminds him of his father on a long subway journey out to a deserted baseball diamond. The figure disappears, but Yoshiya doesn’t care anymore. He thinks back on his life and begins to dance:

And then it struck him what lay buried far down under the earth on which his feet were so firmly planted: the ominous rumbling of the deepest darkness, secret rivers that transported desire, slimy creatures writhing, the lair of earthquakes ready to transform whole cities into mounds of rubble. These, too, were helping to create the rhythm of the earth. He stopped dancing and, catching his breath, stared at the ground beneath his feet as though peering into a bottomless hole.

If we knew Yoshiya better Murakami the story might have ended with a more subtle or individualized epiphany. As it is, the secret rivers and slimy creatures are too conventional, their meaning too general. There is none of the idiosyncratic resonance of the well in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or the cats at the end of Sputnik Sweetheart.

Even when he’s not at this best, Murakami is still a tremendous talent and well worth checking out. But for those who haven’t discovered him yet, this might not be the best introduction.

Review first published October 19, 2002. Looking back ten years later, this is where Murakami started to go downhill for me, fast.


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