Ripple effect

Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake zooms in on lives interrupted.

Aug 28, 2002 at 12:00 am

Haruki Murakami’s 2001 book, Underground, captured the aftermath of the March 1995 sarin gas attacks on Tokyo’s subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. He was there to interview victims, eyewitnesses and attackers, and add his own insight to the impact the attacks had on Japan’s national psyche. It was a street-level document about the cultural hydra of disaster. It was also, in form at least, a departure for the novelist and short-story writer.

After the Quake is Murakami’s reaction to the January 1995 Kobe earthquake — chronologically the first of the one-two punch of national disasters to strike Japan while its economic bubble was also bursting.

Instead of diving headlong into documenting the Kobe earthquake and its cultural aftershocks as he did in Underground, Murakami presents the earthquake as a recurring motif making its presence known in each of the stories. Sometimes it’s only mentioned in passing as part of the background noise and sometimes it takes center stage as an unseen, unspeaking character. It’s always there, though — reminding us of the frailty of humanity in the face of incomprehensible forces, acting as metaphor for Japanese culture at large, expressing subterranean longing.

As we know only too well, shared disaster makes (or lets) us stop and catch a glimpse of the whole in which we are all involved. With After the Quake, Murakami is telling us the stories that make a lot more sense in the face of such disaster. They are things of magic, koans projected into the everyday lives of unsuspecting people. But they’re not much to talk about in cold black and white.

In the opener, “UFO in Kushiro,” a man’s wife leaves him after several days of doing nothing but watching coverage of the quake on television. He is cast into a series of events that lead him to a northern seaside town with two mysterious women. The rest is in the details.

In another story, “Thailand,” a stressed-out doctor finds cosmic comfort in an otherwise-deserted mountain spa retreat and the care of her valet. And in the most fantastic of all, the feverish “Super Frog Saves Tokyo,” a bank’s loan officer is convinced to help a giant frog save Toyko from the giant angry earthworm that threatens to level the city.

Murakami’s meticulous attention to letting the smallest of details do the heaviest of the narrative lifting is disarming. In “Landscape with Flatiron,” we’re hypnotized not by his description of a winter seaside bonfire built with driftwood, but by his telling us how Miyake — a painter in self-imposed exile — goes about making the fire art, a living, breathing testament to enduring. Stick by stick. That the fire eventually holds the lives of two characters in balance is, in this context, a natural conclusion.

Each of the six tales here is thus touched by not so much the air of tragedy as by the weight of inevitability. These works are self-contained curiosities, gems and transforming meditations. Here is postmodern literature as fable, a set of bedtime stories for torpid dreamers.

This, of course, is right in line with Murakami’s other short story (and longer fiction) works in which the mundane informs the fantastic and, indeed, the mundane when examined closely is the engine of the fantastic. In After the Quake, no one escapes transformation under Murakami’s quiet watch.

E-mail Chris Handyside at [email protected].