after the quake

Like most other Murakami novels, this is one of those volumes bookstores never seem to run out of. As its title suggests, after the quake is a collection of six stories connected, in one way or another, to the catastrophic earthquake that rocked Kobe in 1995. From my understanding of it, the book’s project involves a depiction of how life goes on “after the quake,” after some distant disaster, when private concerns take precedence over national calamities. An excerpt from “ufo in kushiro” expresses this well: “Each article reported some new tragedy, but to Komura the details seemed oddly lacking in depth. All sounds reached him as far-off, monotonous echoes. The only thing he could give any serious thought to was his wife as she retreated ever farther into the distance.”

Of course the earthquake affects plotlines to varying degrees, but in general the stories portray it as a precursor to an internal quake in the characters’ lives. Two opposing struggles emerge: with emptiness and with contained emotions. “There’s nothing at all in here. I’m cleaned out. Empty,” says Junko in “landscape with flatiron,” while in “thailand” the main character wrestles with pent-up rage: “He turned my heart into a stone. He turned my body into stone.” (This heart/stone comparison recurs throughout the collection, along with other motifs: bear stories, frogs, boxes…)

The collection presents itself as being centered around the Kobe earthquake, but in some narratives I found the calamity a peripheral concern, irrelevant to the point that even its mention becomes questionable. In “landscape with flatiron” and “all god’s children can dance”—incidentally also my two least favorite—the earthquake reference seems forced, made only to fit the running theme. The other stories exhibit a less clumsy incorporation. One hilariously ridiculous yet multi-layered story, “super-frog saves tokyo,” features a Nietzsche/Conrad/Hemingway/Dostoevsky-quoting Frog who makes references to Anna Karenina. Another memorable story, “honey pie,” presents a simple, heartwarming narrative different from Murakami’s signature surrealism, closer to Norwegian Wood.

All in all I would have to say that while I liked some stories in after the quake, as a collection I found it somewhat disappointing. Most of the stories were pretty good, but even then so few felt fitting of their back book description: “as haunting as dreams, as potent as oracles.” The adoring blurbs made me expect too much. I prefer Murakami’s other fiction collection The Elephant Vanishes.

ufo in kushiro

…living with you is like living with a chunk of air.

‘No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself.’

landscape with flatiron

‘…it’s no good being too sensible when you’re young. It just spoils the fun.’

‘Some things your brain can’t help you with. It’s not easy being young.’

all god’s children can dance

…if it was all right for God to test man, why was it wrong for man to test God?

thailand

‘Strange and mysterious things, though, aren’t they—earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. … But suddenly one day we see that it isn’t true.’

‘I spent thirty-three years as another man’s shadow. I went everywhere he went, I helped him with everything he did. I was in a sense part of him. When you live like that for a long time, you gradually lose track of what it is that you yourself really want out of life.’

‘Are you prepared to die?’ ‘I am half dead already.’

‘Don’t tell me anymore. …if you put those feelings into words they will turn into lies.’

super-frog saves tokyo

‘A real frog is exactly what I am. A product neither of metaphor nor allusion nor deconstruction nor sampling nor any other such complex process.’

‘Worm lives underground. He is a gigantic worm. When he gets angry, he causes earthquakes. … And right now he is very, very angry.’

honey pie

‘Whatever distinguishes one lump of flesh from another when we’re alive, we’re all the same once we’re dead.’

I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far… I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so that they can hold the ones they love. But right now I have to stay here and keep watch over this woman and this girl. I will never let anyone—not anyone—try to put them into that crazy box, not even if the sky should fall or the earth crack open with a roar.

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