after the quake

after the quake by Haruki MurakamiHaruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin
Knopf ($21)

by Emily Johnston

For Americans, the first sentence of Haruki Murakami's recent book of short stories, after the quake, plumbs a sudden and surprising well of feeling: "Five straight days she spent in front of the television, staring at crumbled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways." The six stories in the book take place in the months immediately following the 1995 Kobe earthquake and previous to the poison gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. As the characters hover between natural disaster and terroristic threats, their usual fragility and isolation take on a new poignancy, and with skill and grace Murakami explores what effect such a profoundly disturbing event has on people who are already adrift.

Each character, of course, is affected differently, and many stumble into a state of emotional crisis without even understanding why they feel so vulnerable. In "ufo in kushiro", the story opens as Komura's wife, after five days of watching coverage of the earthquake's horror, leaves him. She explains, "The problem is that you never give me anything. Or, to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside you that you can give with you is like living with a chunk of air." Like many of Murakami's characters, Komura is almost perfectly passive, distant from both the world and his own emotions. Sent on a mysterious mission to distant, cold Hokkaido, he meets a woman who asks him if what his wife said was true. He replies, "'I'm not sure...I may have nothing inside me, but what would something be?'" Moments later, she provokes in him a moment of violent rage, pure feeling—and in doing so shows him that there is indeed something inside him.

Other characters' lives, having less connection, require a catharsis based in fantasy. Katagiri, the protagonist of "super-frog saves tokyo," catalogues his barren life to the giant frog that surprises him in his apartment, asking for his help in saving Tokyo from a rage-filled giant worm: "I'm an absolutely ordinary guy. Less than ordinary. I'm going bald, I'm getting a potbelly, I turned forty last month...Why should a person like me have to be the one to save Tokyo?" Frog seems to speak for the author, and not just ironically, when he replies, "Because, Mr. Katagiri, Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it's for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo." It is the lost who need saving, and Murakami reminds us of this comically and without sentimentality.

The Kobe disaster wakes these dazed characters, but not immediately. On the plane to Hokkaido, Komura reads coverage of the quake and thinks of his wife, "Why had she followed the TV earthquake reports with such intensity, from morning to night, without eating or sleeping? What could she have seen in them?" She has seen, of course, that everything can disappear in an instant, and she has begun to understand what this means to her life. Her leaving forces the same primal awareness on Komura.

Murakami's characters seldom act until they have been forced to this edge. This isn't because they're complacent—they're either thoroughly unhappy or quietly, uncomplainingly, but nevertheless dramatically unfulfilled. But they are inured to this, and feel utterly unable to change anything. When the quake comes, though, the emotional ground beneath them opens up too, and this changes them profoundly. They feel a powerful drive for connection, as in one character's realization that "right now I have to stay here and keep watch over this woman and this girl...even if the sky should fall or the earth crack open with a roar." Because they know now that it can.

Murakami has always been a keen and sensitive chronicler of the isolation that modern life can bring. The great surprise for his characters in these rich stories is that they are a part of the world, alive and vulnerable—and that they want to be.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003