Yesterday was Haruki Murakami and I’ve seen plenty of people on Instagram picking up his books this month. I decided that I wanted to pick something up and decided to finally get round to this short collection. I’m not as well-versed in Murakami’s short stories as I’d like to be. It’s not about their quality but more about my attention span for short stories. I typically need a longer narrative to keep me going or I just lose my pace. I have lost count of how many anthologies I own but have never read more than one story. So, I was determined to keep to my “read more books from my shelves” resolution and finish this one.
Haruki Murakami is the kind of writer who enjoys writing novels. Though he likes short stories, he didn’t feel as present within those tales as he did in his novels. He supposedly once told his translator and biographer, Jay Rubin that ”it’s important to write short stories, and I enjoy doing so, but I believe strongly that if you take away my novels, there is no me.” I’ve never felt as strongly about Murakami’s short stories as I have about his novels. Perhaps this is the reason why. The short form is a great way to explore certain themes but he is a man who needs a longer form to really put his all into it. But I wanted to give after the quake a try despite my reticence. It’s a slight move away from his usual work and one that was very poignant in its own way.
The quake in question is the 1995 Kobe earthquake that caused nearly 6,500 people to lose their lives. It was one of the worst earthquakes to hit Japan in the 20th century. The 6 stories that make up after the quake were written as a response to the devastation and were part of his attempt to explore more of a Japanese conscience in his books. All of the stories take place in the month between the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack. None of the protagonists were personally involved in the tragedy as they were all living far away from the disaster. However, the quake became something of a turning point in their lives. The mass destruction sees them coming face-to-face with the emptiness in their lives that they have ignored for too long.
The collection has plenty of similarities with his earlier works but there is something of stylistic difference to be seen. For one thing, the stories are written in the third person instead of the more familiar first-person narrative. There is also an obvious lack of supernatural elements. Only one of the stories in the collection contains an overt of fantastical element. These stories are about people who are suddenly faced with unimaginable despair and realising that their lives have been changed forever. These short stories might lack his usual supernatural edge because they explore humanity. They explore the effect that this national tragedy had on the people of Japan. Of course, this isn’t exactly a case of Murakami embracing realism and the stories contain enough of his flair to make them unmistakably his.
As with every short story collection, not all of the works are the same quality but they do all offer something interesting. We are introduced to the same sort of characters and themes we see in the writer’s other works. The loner male, the sexy enigmatic women, and blurred lines between reality and dreams. Before the Kobe earthquake, the protagonists in all of these stories are leading unfulfilled and isolated lives. The people who, when faced with the endless news reports on the tragedy in Kobe, finally had to face what they had been hiding. In their own ways, each of them has nothing. When faced with the reality of death on such a huge scale, they come face-to-face with their own, inevitable, end. For some, it drives them into despair and for others, it pushes them to make a change.
Though the earthquake plays a large part in this collection, it is only ever seen in the background. Nobody here has actually experienced the kind of peril that the people of Kobe did. It takes the news to show them what they are lacking. That their lives could end at any time. And if they did, what would they be losing? What do you have when you have left behind your roots and lost all those that you loved? When you are empty inside, what kind of life do you have? It is the final story in the collection that stands as the strongest moral to these tales. It is the one that offers the most hope and the call to action. This is a collection of stories about healing. It is, perhaps, Murakami’s attempt to heal Japan after their troubles and help them move on.