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June 21, 2008

"The Elephant Vanishes" by Murakami Haruki (Book review)

It is time for a modern writer and we start with Murakami Haruki. I have been reading his books since the early eighties, from the first novels Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 73. I bought the Japanese pocketbook-size Kodansha translations by Alfred Birnbaum (for Japanese learners of English), and at the same time read both novels in Japanese as well. That was not too difficult, as Murakami especially in his early work does not use too many literary expressions or esoteric vocabulary. Next I went on to the early stories, several of which have been included in The Elephant Vanishes, and the novel A Wild Sheep Chase.

This "early Murakami" is still my favorite Murakami. There is a naturalness and spontaneity that (in my view) has been lost in the later novels. I don't mind the loose ends and open endings of these early works, on the contrary, that is what makes them so interesting. Plus of course the humor! Murakami has a very particular style, which is impossible to translate literally. All three translators (Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) have their own way of rendering Murakami in English, but nothing is better than the real stuff in Japanese. When you are studying Japanese, I suggest that you have a try - these early works form an excellent start.

The Elephant Vanishes contains stories that were originally published in several early collections (and before collection, often in magazines). Murakami’s first collection of stories in Japanese was Slow Boat to China (1983), of which the following stories were included:

- "A slow Boat to China." The narrator ("Boku, "I") has three meetings with different Chinese, which all leave him with a certain feeling of guilt, especially when he puts a Chinese girlfriend on the wrong train (she will think he did it on purpose). By the way, Murakami is very popular in China.

- "The Kangaroo Communique." A weird story about a young man in the claims department of a department store, who starts writing a sort of love letter to a woman who has complained.

- "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon" The narrator has been mowing people's lawns during his summer holidays. When mowing his last lawn at the end of the vacation, he meets a mysterious woman who shows him the empty room of her daughter.

The second Japanese collection was A Perfect Day for Kangaroos (1983). The title story would be included in the later collection of translations Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. In The Elephant Vanishes we have:


- "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning" A perfect small fantasy about what you will (not?) do when you happen to meet the perfect girl...

- "A Window". A writing teacher from a correspondence school visits one of his pupils, a married woman in her early 30's, but they realize they cannot connect and end up only listening to Burt Bacharach.

The third collection in Japanese is Firefly, Barn Burning and Other Stories (1984). The Elephant Vanishes contains:

- "Barn Burning" The narrator loses his girlfriend to a cool guy whose hobby is burning barns.

- "The Dancing Dwarf" Features a dancing dwarf who takes over your soul, but also describes a very efficient elephant factory (yes, a factory where real living elephants are manufactured).

Next comes Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round (1985), of which was included the story

- "Lederhosen" When a Japanese middle-aged woman on a trip to Europe decides to buy a pair of "Lederhosen" for her husband at home, and has somebody who resembles him (fat, white skin) try them on, she suddenly realizes how much she hates her husband.

In 1986 the collection The Second Bakery Attack was published, of which the following stories were included in The Elephant Vanishes:

- "The Second Bakery Attack" A young married couple robs a McDonald's of 30 Big Macs because the man once failed in a bakery attack and the newly-wed wife feels this loose end can not be left dangling - that would put a curse on their marriage.

- "The Elephant Vanishes" An old elephant disappears, together with his keeper, from a small local zoo; the narrator wants to connect with a new girlfriend, but the memory of the vanished elephant pulls them apart.

- "A Family Affair" The narrator lives together with his sister, and is troubled when she brings home a boyfriend.

- "The Fall of the Roman Empire, the 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler's Invasion of Poland, and the Realm of Raging Winds" The narrator uses world events to note down bland daily events in his diary.

- "The Wind-up Bird And Tuesday's Women" The narrator searches for a missing cat and after passing through a closed-off alley between backyards, encounters a sunbathing girl. After a lazy conversation he dreams off and when he awakes, she has disappeared. Became the first chapter of the Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but is also perfect as a stand-alone story.

In 1989 TV People was published, of which the following stories were included in The Elephant Vanishes:

- "TV People" A man's apartment is taken over by TV characters, as the homes of us all are invaded by the media.

- "Sleep" One of MurakamI's darkest stories. A young mother cannot sleep anymore after she has dreamed that a shadowy man has poured water over her legs. Sitting up reading every night, she rediscovers herself and begins to question her marriage. But death is not far away, as she notices when she starts making nightly excursions in her car...

From the 1996 collection Lexington Ghosts, finally, were translated:

- "The Little Green Monster" A housewife is horrified when a little green monster enters her home, reads her mind, and declares his love. She promptly kills it.

- "The Silence" A friend of the narrator, who is a boxer, only once had to use violence...

Western reviewers have (a bit stupidly) complained that Murakami is "too Western." Some would rather have sushi than hamburgers, not to speak about other exotisms. They are wrong, because the Japan that Murakami's stories describe, is the real Japan of today, where people eat more hamburgers than sushi!

I like the stillness (ordinariness?) of these stories - also when seemingly nothing happens, still something important shifts inside the narrator. Or he realizes there is something more below the surface of daily life, like the undersea volcano in The Second Bakery Attack.

Most of the stories are realistic. When fantasy elements intrude, one doesn't mind as it is only for the time of a story. That is better than in Murakami's recent "magic-realistic" novels as Kafka on the Shore, where the piled-on magic elements become unbelievable. (I would have liked a short story about those fish raining from the sky!) On the other hand it is true that there is personal preference involved here - I prefer lyrical poetry to epics, haiku to tanka and concise short stories, like the world caught reflected in a diamond, to bulky, meandering novels.