Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1866
Hong is a published poet and the editor of the fiction and memoir anthology Growing Up Asian American. In the following essay, Hong discusses how Murakami humorously and empathetically portrays a modern world marked by a sense of imbalance, emptiness, and unease.
Like many of the stories in Murakami's...
(The entire section contains 11271 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this The Elephant Vanishes study guide. You'll get access to all of the The Elephant Vanishes content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays
- Teaching Guide
Hong is a published poet and the editor of the fiction and memoir anthology Growing Up Asian American. In the following essay, Hong discusses how Murakami humorously and empathetically portrays a modern world marked by a sense of imbalance, emptiness, and unease.
Like many of the stories in Murakami's acclaimed collection The Elephant Vanishes: Stories, "The Elephant Vanishes" focuses on the life of an individual haunted by a sense of general disequilibrium. In this story, that individual is an unnamed narrator who relates how an old elephant and its keeper suddenly disappear one night from his town's elephant house. As an obsessive chronicler of the events related the elephant's disappearance, the narrator recalls news coverage of the incident, the futile attempts of the townspeople to find the elephant and the keeper, and the strange facts surrounding the case, which indicate that the elephant apparently vanished into thin air. In relating this odd, humorous, and surrealistic tale, Murakami lightly satirizes the problems of contemporary, urban society and explores the phenomena of alienation and imbalance that many people experience in the modern world.
The story opens with the narrator, a thirty-one-year-old public relations executive at a major kitchen appliance manufacturing company, telling how he read about the elephant's disappearance in the newspaper. From this initial description, Murakami draws attention to the absurdity of contemporary life by having the narrator recall the details of the article, as the narrator states, "The unusually large headline caught my eye: ELEPHANT MISSING IN TOKYO SUBURB, and, beneath that, in type one size smaller, CITIZENS' FEARS MOUNT. SOME CALL FOR PROBE." This headline seems both implausible and ridiculous, but as the narrator's recollection of events continues, the reactions of the townspeople to the missing elephant seem more and more absurd.
The first part of the story proceeds with the narrator interrupting his description of the newspaper article to tell how the elephant came to live with its keeper in a lone elephant house. He notes that the elephant's age led to its adoption by the town a year before the animal disappeared. When a private zoo had to close due to financial problems, the zoo relocated the other animals to zoos throughout Japan, but because the elephant was so old, no one would take it. The elephant then remained alone in the abandoned zoo until a deal was struck by the town's mayor, the developer who had bought the land the zoo was on, and the former zoo's owners. The narrator meticulously recounts the debates over how to deal with the elephant problem and the eventual outcome, with the town taking care of the elephant and relocating it to a new elephant house along with its long-time keeper. Throughout this section, Murakami pokes fun at modern life, again by having the narrator recall all the details with a wry, detached tone. Following his description of the new elephant house dedication ceremony, the narrator says, "The elephant endured these virtually meaningless (for the elephant, entirely meaningless) formalities with hardly a twitch, and it chomped on the bananas with a vacant stare. When it finished eating the bananas, everyone applauded."
In this part of the story, Murakami also sets up the central theme regarding how commercialism and urban developments have supplanted older ways of life. The story is set in a wealthy Tokyo suburb during the 1980s, when Japan, the United States, and other countries were experiencing an economic boom. The event that sets the other events in the story in motion is the closing of the old zoo due to financial problems and the buying of that land by a developer who plans to build high-rise condos. This act—the literal replacement of a place of recreation and enjoyment with the money-making project—forces the elephant to be relocated to the new elephant house. The old elephant and its elderly keeper represent longstanding relationships and symbolize former ways of life, which have been pushed aside by commercial ventures. The narrator emphasizes that it is the elephant's age that keeps it from being adopted elsewhere, as it is deemed too feeble to be a good investment. But the relationship between the keeper and the animal is one of familiarity, love, and trust, not financial arrangements.
As the narrator begins again to describe the newspaper article about the elephant's disappearance, he discusses the facts surrounding the case that make it highly improbable that the elephant actually escaped. Upon rereading the article, the narrator concludes that the elephant had to have miraculously vanished somehow much to the bafflement of the town's authorities, who persist in denying this possibility. As he goes on to recount the town's responses to the elephant's vanishing, the narrator points out the futility of these actions, and again in having the narrator relate these details, Murakami satirizes the blind literalness and lack of imagination in modern life. Among other details, the narrator recalls how the mayor held a news conference defending the elephant house's security system and denouncing persons responsible for the elephant's disappearance and politicizing an event which defies ordinary comprehension: "'This is a dangerous and senseless anti-social act of the most malicious kind, and we cannot allow it to go unpunished.'"
The narrator also describes the reactions of a "worried-looking" mother interviewed on the news; Self-Defense Force troops, firemen, and policemen combing the woods for the elephant to no avail; and the silly commentary of a news anchorman about the incident. As he notes how interest in the story inevitably waned after several months of not finding the elephant or discovering how it disappeared, the narrator also mentions how dissatisfying all the official responses were. As he puts it, "Despite their enormous volume, the clippings contained not one fact of the kind that I was looking for." The narrator searches for answers regarding the mysterious case, which these typical contemporary actions have all failed to address, and he is left feeling increasingly bewildered. Another aspect of modern life is the often bizarre discrepancy between unanswered questions and the reductive, matter-of-fact news reporting that distorts a story in order to compress it.
As the story progresses, the narrator continues to feel confused by the elephant incident and saddened by the disappearance of the elephant and its keeper. He feels "the air of doom and desolation" hanging over the empty elephant house, which he continues to visit. His sense of disorientation following the vanishing is so strong that he finds he cannot make decisions he would like to make. His confusion becomes most apparent after meeting a magazine editor at a party thrown by his company. The narrator recalls how he and the editor flirted at the party and continued their conversation at a hotel bar afterward as two people who "were beginning to like each other." However, after telling the editor about the elephant case, which had occurred a few months earlier, the narrator finds that their conversation becomes awkward.
While talking about the case, the narrator admits to having seen the elephant and the keeper on the night of their disappearance and says he was probably the last person to have seen them. He explains that he had been in the habit of spying on the keeper and the elephant through an air vent in the elephant house, which was visible from a spot on a cliff. When the editor asks if there was anything unusual about the two on the night they disappeared, the narrator goes on to say that there was and there was not. After hesitating, he says that although the two were doing what they always did, their relative size seemed to change, as either the elephant had shrunk or the keeper had gotten bigger or both. When the editor asks if he thinks the elephant shrunk until it was small enough to escape or "simply dissolved into nothingness," the narrator concludes that he does not know and that he has a hard time imagining what happened beyond the strange sight that he thinks he saw.
The editor and the narrator part ways soon after this conversation, and the narrator says he never saw her again. In spite of wanting to ask her out for dinner, he ends up never doing that, because it does not seem to matter one way or the other. The story concludes with the narrator admitting to feeling paralyzed. He finds it difficult to take action of any kind on his own behalf. He describes a sense of external and internal imbalance, which has left him disoriented:
I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance, though it could be that my perceptions are playing tricks on me. Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair, and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way. It is probably something in me.
Although the narrator blames himself for his sense of things being not quite right, Murakami conveys that the narrator alone is not to blame, as the banality of the world in which the narrator lives fails to provide the connection, continuity, and security that older ways of life offered. In the last few paragraphs of the story, the narrator notes that even as he feels things have lost their proper balance, he has become more successful than ever in his job, selling appliances by espousing a pragmatic viewpoint which he does not believe. The narrator points out that his campaign has been successful, because people crave "a kind of unity in this kit-chin we know as the world." In this statement, both the narrator and the author seem to emphasize that as modern society replaces traditional modes with things to buy, people will continue to long for some kind of security or sense of familiar order.
That longing for solace accounts for the narrator's strange, obsessive interest in the elephant and the keeper, as they represent old ways of life that are being pushed to the literally invisible margins. The elephant and the keeper palpably demonstrate what has been lost in the transition to modern culture, as the two of them display an unusually strong bond of affection. The narrator watches them on a regular basis, because he marvels at the empathy he perceives, as he notes, "Their affection was evident in every gesture."
This long-term closeness and warmth contrasts dramatically with the isolation the narrator experiences in his everyday life as a company man and with the empty gestures offered by the narrator's society at large, which fails to see the mystery at the heart of the vanishing much less to explain it. The pragmatic, consumerist contemporary world provides no room for the kind of intimate, intuitive bond shared by the elephant and the keeper, and Murakami seems to suggest that their vanishing is inevitable in the face of the new prosperity and materialistic values. Murakami subtly underscores the immeasurable price of this loss by his narrator's paralysis. The loss fills the last lines: "The elephant and keeper have vanished completely. They will never be coming back."
Source: Anna Maria Hong, Critical Essay on "The Elephant Vanishes," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6116
In the following essay, Loughman explores how the stories in The Elephant Vanishes "offer a good overview of the patterns and variety to be found in Murakami," including a connection to early Shinto beliefs in "The Elephant Vanishes."
The opening scene of Natsume Sōseki's 1914 novel Kokoro shows Sensei, the central figure, at a beach accompanied by a Westerner, alluding to his and the Japanese attraction to the West. In the end, however, following General Nogi's example after the Emperor Meiji's death in 1912, Sensei makes the traditional samurai choice of committing suicide to redeem his honor. Similarly, in Junichirō Tanizaki's 1928 novel Tade Kuu Mushi (Eng. Some Prefer Nettles) there is a scene wherein Kaname, the male protagonist, boards a ship on which, given the choice, he selects a Japanese room rather than a Western one. Nevertheless, he changes from the kimono he is wearing into a gray flannel suit. Although the novel ends ambiguously, it is very likely that Kaname's future lies not with his modern, westernized wife or with his Eurasian mistress, but with the puppetlike figure who embodies, or at least plays the role of, the passive, submissive Japanese woman. Examples such as these have been repeated innumerable times since Commodore Perry docked in Tokyo Bay in 1853. They reflect the concern, even obsession, of the Japanese with the inroads of Western culture on Japanese society, a concern that has produced contradictory responses ranging from indiscriminate borrowing of Western ways to the cry "Expel the Barbarians."
No such conflict between Japan and the West exists in the works of Haruki Murakami, arguably Japan's most popular novelist. Whereas the characters in early-twentieth-century Japanese fiction could and usually did choose traditional Japanese ways, Murakami knows that no such choice is possible now. Japan has come too far. If a conflict still exists, his characters are not engaged in or even aware of it. So enmeshed are they in the forms of Western, and particularly American, culture that they accept these forms as integral to contemporary Japanese life. Nonetheless, their essential Japaneseness is never truly lost in spite of what the works appear to say.
Reading Anna Karenina, the narrator of the short story "Sleep" remarks: "Like a Chinese Box, the world of the novel contained smaller worlds, and inside those were yet smaller worlds. Together, these worlds made up a single universe, and the universe waited there in the book to be discovered by the reader." No comparison of Murakami with Tolstoy is intended by the reference, but the Chinese box is an appropriate image to designate the structure of Murakami's works. The short stories collected in the volume The Elephant Vanishes offer a good overview of the patterns and variety to be found in Murakami.
The outer world or container of his fiction, the geographic boundary of Japan and Tokyo in particular, is indisputably Japanese. People drive to Shinjuku, Aoyama, and Roppongi; they travel the Tokyo subways and take the Yamanote Loop. The environment is stable, fixed. Within that geographic frame, however, is the far less stable world of social interaction in which traditional Japanese culture has all but disappeared and there are no fixed markers anywhere. Notably absent is the sense of group identity, a cornerstone of Japan's social structure. In the context of Murakami's fiction, Chie Nakane's excellent analysis of Japan's group consciousness, Japanese Society, first published a quarter of a century ago (1970), seems quaint. Nakane writes: "In group identification, a frame such as a 'company' or 'association' is of primary importance; the attribute of the individual is a secondary matter" (3). She notes the "exceedingly high degree" of emotional attachment to one's company (4) to the point of limiting social life to the members of the work group. Murakami's narrators have no such involvement. They are so-called "salarymen" who work in law offices, in quality control for department stores, in PR for appliance manufacturers. Bored and dissatisfied, some quit their jobs; others escape into dream and fantasy; all are emotionally and psychologically detached from their work group.
The family group fares no better. Whether single, married, or divorced, the narrators are disconnected, alone. Concerning kinship in Japan, Nakane cites the adage "The sibling is the beginning of the stranger" (6). Contradicting this view, the bond between the narrator and his sister in "Family Affair" is the closest family relationship to be found among the stories. Physically separated from their parents and living together in Tokyo, the two enjoy their casual, unstructured, and uncommitted lives. Tension develops between them when the sister becomes engaged to a computer engineer who is engrossed in his job, has strong family ties, and follows traditional courtship behavior. The narrator sneers at the conventionality and formality of the fiancé, the only one who is given a name in the stories. Yet, in a rare example of the force of tradition, the sister will marry the man, vaguely recognizing that the way she and her brother have been living does not have "the feel of what real life is all about." She is attracted to the order and stability her fiancé represents: "There's nothing wrong in having one guy like him in every family." Marriages in the stories are unhappy, dissolving, or dissolved. The women who choose to leave their husbands are those who are economically independent with careers of their own. In A Wild Sheep Chase the wife, reflecting the sexual freedom that some contemporary Japanese women are experiencing, leaves the narrator to live openly with his friend. The traditional Japanese housewives who stay with their husbands are invariably lonely and unable to communicate with them. In all instances the men, when they are aware at all of their marital relationships, seem bewildered by their wives' dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
The lack of group identification is only one indication of the breakdown of traditional Japanese culture in the stories. The signs are everywhere; and like those highlighted by Roland Barthes in Empire of Signs, they signify emptiness, but with a difference. Whereas Barthes found an empty center in signs of traditional Japanese culture, such as its food, its landscape, and its poetry, Murakami's works are almost completely emptied of Japanese signs. His characters eat pasta, McDonald's hamburgers, and sometimes vichyssoise; they listen to Willy Nelson, Three Dog Night, and Ravel; the date markers for events in their lives are not Japanese but the year Johansson and Patterson fought for the heavyweight title or when Paul McCartney was singing "The Long and Winding Road." Murakami overloads his works with Western images to make his point. For example, in a story already filled with similar references, it is gratuitous for the narrator to comment, "I was brushing my teeth to Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the U. S. A.'" ("Family Affrair"). The characters' immersion in the pop culture of the West is not, however, treated disparagingly by Murakami. In fact, he has said, "To tell the truth, I have no interest in traditional Japanese lifestyle." At the same time, however, he is pointing out the emptiness of the signs, which signify nothing beyond their momentary, superficial function. Ignoring their traditional culture while absorbing the forms but not the substance of another culture, his people have lost their moorings and are adrift.
To a considerable degree, Murakami's characters are universal stock figures of contemporary literature, almost a cliché of the existential condition. Lonely, fragmented, unable to communicate, they live a mechanical, purposeless existence. They have become merely their functions, as Emerson warned. Vaguely they sense that something is missing in their lives. Some are shallow with little interior life; others have a deep need for meaning and self-fulfillment. Mostly they are simply bewildered by their sense of disconnection and loss. Murakami's tone is sometimes comic, sometimes sympathetic and serious. When least serious, he uses parody, satire, and sometimes fantasy to show his people trying to make sense out of life in a high-tech, consumer society in which they know that "things you can't sell don't count for much" ("The Elephant Vanishes").
"The Dancing Dwarf" is in part a parody of mass production. The narrator works in the ear department of an elephant factory, a business that is needed because people do not want to wait for elephants to give birth naturally every four or five years. Instead, one real elephant is spliced to make five elephants. Thus, four-fifths of each manufactured elephant is "reconstituted," but no one notices the distortion in an age which demands, to use Ezra Pound's description, "an image of its accelerated grimace." In "The Kangaroo Communique" Murakami satirizes the "I," who is attracted to emptiness and whose principal desire is to "exist in two places simultaneously." "I want to be a McDonald's Quarter Pounder and still be a clerk in the product-control section of the department store." In his job answering customer complaints, he is sexually aroused by a letter from a woman because she is absent from it. What excites him, he tells her in his response, "is that there's no you in the whole piece of writing," only the story itself.
The shallowness of the narrator is also the focus of "A Window," a more serious story about loneliness. The twenty-two-year-old college student has a part-time job critiquing letters written by students in a correspondence school. It is obvious that many of those enrolled simply need to communicate with someone, anyone, particularly the thirty-two-year-old woman who invites the narrator to lunch when he leaves his job. She is a recurring figure in the stories, the traditional Japanese wife who waits at home alone for a husband she rarely sees and with whom she cannot communicate. Her loneliness and limited choices do not touch anything deep in the narrator, whose sensitivity is limited to recognizing a good hamburger. He simply wonders why she continues to stay with her husband. Ten years later his shallowness is still intact. Passing the building where she lived, he asks himself, "Should I have slept with her? That's the central question of this piece."
One narrator could be telling many of the stories in the collection. Several have the same history and experience a similar sense of loss, mystery, and bewilderment in their lives. The narrators of "The Second Bakery Attack" and "The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday's Women" both worked part time mowing lawns, were graduated from the law department of a reputable university, failed the bar exam several times, got married, and worked for a considerable period at a low-level job in a law office. They are connected to the narrator of "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon." The three stories, which show the narrator at different stages, contain key ideas that run through the collection, particularly the concern with a lost past, a lost self. Attempting to recapture his past through memory, the thirty-four-year-old narrator of "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon" recalls being a nineteen-year-old college student on the last day of his lawn-mowing job. His work is careful, methodical, beautiful. The customer is a lonely widow who drinks all day; and when he is finished mowing, she gives him a drink and takes him to her daughter's room to show him the girl's things but really to keep him there. She engages him in a game of "signs" by asking him to tell what the daughter's things signify about the girl as a person. His answers lead away from the girl to conjectures that relate to himself: "What matters is … she hasn't really taken to anything. Her own body; the things she thinks about, what she's looking for, what others seek in her … the whole works." Uncertain of so much about himself, he is sure of one thing: "All I wanted, it came to me, was to mow a good lawn." Limited though the goal may be, it is the closest that any of Murakami's characters come to having an ideal. The point of the story is that the ideal and the self who held it have vanished, as expressed in the line "Not once since then have I mowed a lawn."
The search for a lost past or a lost self is treated more directly in the other two stories. "The Second Bakery Attack" is also told retrospectively, recounting an incident when the narrator was two weeks married and working in a law office. The couple's insatiable hunger, which pointedly developed only after the marriage, evokes the narrator's recollection of his attempt, while a college student, to rob bread from a bakery with his friend. The baker thwarted the robbery by giving the students bread in return for their listening to Wagner overtures. As the narrator sees it, the outcome was a turning point, rooting him in a life of conventionality. He went back to the university, graduated, took a job in a law firm, studied for the bar exam, married. At his wife's instigation, they now set out to rob another bakery. The wife, who inexplicably has a shotgun and masks and seems to know how to conduct a robbery, serves to illustrate the idea of the mystery we are to one another. They can find no bakery, only McDonald's—the implications are obvious—where they succeed in stealing hamburgers. For a moment he, symbolically at least, has retrieved his past, changed it, and made possible a different future. Contrived though the story is, it is part of the pattern of dissatisfaction with one's life and one's self that afflicts all the narrators.
In "The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday's Women" the narrator is thirty years old, has been married for a while, has failed the bar exam several times, and has quit his longtime job in a law office, though he doesn't know why except that he wants "to settle in a new life cycle." For the moment he is a househusband while his wife works. He too wonders what happened to his old self, but this lost self is the one with ambition, the one voted runner-up as "Most Likely to Succeed." "So where had I screwed up?" he asks himself. The answer is in the wind-up bird of the title, a metaphor for contemporary society mentioned several times in the story and even explained for the reader: "A regular wind-up toy world this is, I think. Once a day the wind-up bird has to come and wind the springs of this world." By quitting his job and probably deliberately failing the bar exam, he is rejecting a world of mechanical rituals emptied of meaning. Paradoxically, however, to escape from his confusion, he, like the characters in other stories, takes refuge in ritual behavior and methodical attention to detail, the only stability he has: "Whenever things get in a muddle, I always iron shirts." He does so in twelve steps, never deviating from the sequence. His marriage is part of the muddle, and his day has what one senses is a routine ending: "Me drinking my beer, my wife sobbing away."
Although Murakami is not proposing a return to the traditional Japanese life-style as a remedy for the restlessness, confusion, and dissatisfaction that he portrays, he is conscious of the loss of idealism that marked Japan earlier in the century: "Something has vanished in these twenty-five years, some kind of idealism. It has vanished, and we became rich." His people live in a rich society which they find wanting. They show its insufficiency as a source of fulfillment by, for example, withdrawing from the race for success and riches or attempting to retrieve a lost self. Murakami shows that neither materialism itself nor the preference for Western popular culture is the problem. The problem is that that's all there is. The idealism which has disappeared has not been replaced with anything else as a source of meaning and self-fulfillment.
An intimate link is implied between lost or confused personal identity and the lost connection with Japan's cultural past. Occasionally someone senses that link, if only obliquely, as in "A Slow Boat to China." (The title, taken from a 1940s American song, suggests the role of America in the acceleration of that lost connection.) In the story China is less a specific place than it is a metonym for the most influential source of Japanese culture. As the narrator says, "Not any China I can read about…. It's a part of myself that has been cut off by the word China." As usual, the narrator is bewildered: "There are some things I don't understand at all. I can't tell what I think about things or what I'm after. I don't know what my strengths are or what I'm supposed to do about them." The story is slight, a culling from the past of the few encounters the narrator has had with Chinese in his thirty years. The first such encounter occurred twenty years earlier, when he was a student assigned to take an exam at a Chinese elementary school. He remembers the flawless order and the words of the Chinese test proctor, "And be proud." The second encounter, at nineteen, was with a female co-worker who astonished him with her diligence and commitment to perfection on the job. She is another example of flawless order and one who lived the proctor's words. Although the narrator insists that it was a mistake, he disoriented her when, after a date, he put her on a train going in the wrong direction. The values that he sensed in the Chinese from these encounters impressed and, at nineteen, disconcerted him. The most recent encounter, however, is with a high-school acquaintance who has lost connection with his cultural past. The narrator remembers the Chinese as a close-knit, self-contained group that remained apart from the rest of the students. Since then, though, his fellow student has been absorbed by the Tokyo way of life, and the Chinese have become for him simply people to whom he can sell encyclopedias. "China," the narrator concludes, "is so far away."
When it was remarked to him about one of his stories that it could have easily taken place in America, Murakami replied: "But you see, what I wanted was first to depict Japanese society through that aspect of it that could just as well take place in New York or San Francisco. You might call it the Japanese nature that remains only after you have thrown out, one after another, all those parts that are altogether too 'Japanese'" (NYTBR, 28). Within the world of social interaction in a materialistic society is the innermost world, or box, of Murakami's works, the interior life of his characters where imagination often roams free and where the essential Japaneseness of Murakami can sometimes be found—specifically, in the echoes of early Shinto and Buddhist thought.
In "A Slow Boat to China" images of Tokyo assail the narrator as he rides the train:
The dirty façades, the nameless crowds, the unremitting noise, the packed rush-hour trains, the gray skies, the billboards on every square centimeter of available space, the hopes and resignation, irritation and excitement. And everywhere, infinite options, infinite possibilities. An infinity, and at the same time, zero. We try to scoop it all up in our hands, and what we get is a handful of zero. That's the city. That's when I remember what that Chinese girl said. This was never any place I was meant to be.
He is not aware of the ironic reference to Buddhist thought in his use of the terms infinity and zero. To him the city of Tokyo, a synecdoche for Japan, represents infinite possibilities for self-fulfillment that equal nothing, zero. Zen Buddhism, however, posits the opposite, that nothing equals everything because one becomes one's true self in nothingness, which means a state of being beyond intellection. D. T. Suzuki uses the terms zero and infinity to describe the process of self-realization: "The realm of absolute subjectivity is where the Self abides. 'To abide' is not quite correct here, because it only suggests the statical aspect of the Self. But the Self is ever moving or becoming. It is a zero which is a staticity, and at the same time an infinity, indicating that it is all the time moving" ("Lectures," 25). The nihilistic emptiness of Japanese society implied in "a handful of zero" is also an ironic contrast to the Buddhist concept of sunyata, "emptiness," which refers to ultimate reality or truth and is synonymous with "nothingness": "Sunyata is the point at which we become manifest in our own suchness as concrete human beings, as individuals with both body and personality. And at the same time, it is the point at which everything around us becomes manifest in its own suchness" (Nishitani, 90).
There is another allusion to Buddhist thought in the story. After being knocked out while playing baseball as a boy, the narrator comes to and says, "That's okay, brush off the dirt and you can still eat it." Though he has never understood what the words meant, a parallel comment by Suzuki clarifies the statement. When discussing the teachings of Ichiun (a philosopher of swordsmanship) and the legendary Buddha, he says: "Both want us to scratch away all the dirt our being has accumulated even before our birth and reveal Reality in its isness, or in its suchness, or in its nakedness, which corresponds to the Buddhist concept of emptiness (sunyata)" (ZJC, 179). The boy's epiphany was a recognition that beneath the accumulated "dirt" of Japanese society one could still find the source of self-fulfillment and truth in the foundations of Japanese culture. Twenty years later he knows that that time has passed and that the only "words of wisdom" he could utter now would be like those of the Chinese girl: "This is no place for me." In spite of his characters' indifference to traditional Japanese culture, in the allusions to Buddhist thought Murakami is showing that at some unconscious level Japan's cultural past is not forgotten.
Murakami's characters live exterior lives that are efficient, predictable, and mechanical to create the illusion of purpose and meaning. At the same time, inside they are saying "This is no place for me" and often escape into their interior worlds of fantasy and dream, where imagination runs free. The relationship between the reader and the narrator varies among the stories. Sometimes the reader knows that what the narrator is experiencing is simply an imaginary projection from within himself. At other times the reader is asked to accept nonrational or metaphysical experiences as objectively true. And in still other instances the reader is left in doubt about what is physically experienced or what is imagined. An example of this last situation is "The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday's Women." Of the three "Tuesday's women," the reader can be sure only of the wife's physical presence. The second woman is a pornographic telephone caller who knows the narrator's personal history and, in a sequence of calls, tries to arouse him sexually through descriptions of her erotic poses and behavior. Later, as he wanders down the alley behind his house in search of his lost cat, he encounters the third woman, actually a precocious teenager who invites him to sunbathe with her. She begins talking to him about death as a concrete entity:
I think about what it would be like to cut the thing open with a scalpel. Not the corpse. The lump of death itself. There's got to be something like that in there somewhere, I just know it. Dull like a softball—and pliable—a paralyzed tangle of nerves. I'd like to remove it from the dead body and cut it open.
The only hint that the gruesome conversation has not actually taken place is that the narrator has been dozing, and the girl speaks the words in a whisper after she awakens him. The reader is left speculating whether the encounters with the strange women were imagined, a projection in the first instance of his desire for sexual vitality, which could be viewed as an impulse to life, and in the second instance a contrary fascination with death. Viewed as a projection from within, the encounters reveal desires that he cannot express directly and openly.
No such ambiguity exists in "The Little Green Monster," one of the two stories in The Elephant Vanishes that have a female narrator. Here is a housewife who is left alone all day and well into the night with nothing to do but look out at the garden. Hearing a sound, she thinks at first that it comes from within herself, as pointedly it does. The ground breaks open, and out of it comes an ugly creature with claws, a long nose, and green scales that then makes its way into the house. The creature means no harm, however. It seeks only her love. Its ugly exterior "masked a heart that was as soft and vulnerable as a brand-new marshmallow." She responds to its expression of love by torturing it with cruel thoughts until it withers and dies. The images of the soft Japanese wife with the underlying desire for cruelty and the beauty of heart that lies beneath an ugly exterior link the story to others in its contradiction between interior and exterior selves.
Unlike the narrator of "The Little Green Monster," the "I" of "The Elephant Vanishes," the title story, is rooted in objective reality and questions his uncanny experience, which, however, would be accepted within the cosmic view of early Shinto. He is the conventional Japanese "salaryman," successful in his PR role promoting the sale of kitchen appliances. In his leisure time he occasionally peers into the elephant house from a cliff to watch the elephant and its trainer during their private time. When the zoo is closed to make way for a high-rise condo development, the elephant is transferred to a special house, where he is secured by a cuff and chain on his leg. As the narrator watches, he witnesses the unusual affinity between the two in which their sizes are mysteriously balanced. The narrator has the feeling "that a different, chilling kind of time was flowing through the elephant house—but nowhere else." The feeling is reinforced when, without the cuff or chain being broken or unlocked, the elephant and his trainer vanish. Although the narrator becomes more successful than ever in his job, the elephant episode has left him with the sense that the world in which he lives is somehow out of balance and that whatever he does or does not do makes little difference. He knows that the relationship he believes he witnessed is incredible, like something from a primordial time; yet it is consistent with the world view of the early Japanese, who "took it for granted that they were integrally part of the cosmos, which they saw as a 'community of living beings,' all sharing the kami (sacred) nature" (Kitagawa, 12). In such a world view the magic that the narrator witnessed would not be incredible at all.
The connection with Shinto beliefs is more direct and obvious in those works in which Murakami uses spirit possession as the fantastic element—for example, the sheep in A Wild Sheep Chase and the dwarf in. "The Dancing Dwarf." In Shinto, kami (gods or spirits, sometimes spirits of animals), good or evil, could possess human beings (Kitagawa, 14), controlling them completely. The implied reader in both works is asked to accept, along with the narrators, the reality of spirit possession. In both instances, the fantastic experiences occur at a point of extreme dissatisfaction with day-to-day life. In A Wild Sheep Chase the narrator's wife has divorced him; he is about to give up his partnership in an advertising business and, like other Murakami characters, does not know what he wants or what to do next. Unlike the realistic, conventional society which frames A Wild Sheep Chase and "The Elephant Vanishes," the fantastic elements in "The Dancing Dwarf" occur in a society already made absurd by its business of manufacturing elephants. The narrator is bored with his job making elephant ears when the dwarf comes into his dream and dances to a miscellany of music—Rolling Stones, Mitch Miller, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra—in a sylvan setting while the narrator watches, eating grapes. He learns the history of the dwarf, who had been given a room in the palace after the king, a lover of music, had watched the dwarf dance. The rumor was that "the dwarf used an evil power on the palace," causing a revolution that resulted in the king's death and the dwarf's escape into the forest. To get a beautiful girl to sleep with him, the narrator allows the dwarf to possess him temporarily so that he can lure the girl with his dancing, the arrangement being that if the narrator utters a sound during the experience, the dwarf will possess him permanently. Like a perverse fairy tale, as he makes love to the girl she turns into a corpselike creature being devoured by maggots. By not uttering a sound, the narrator wins—but only temporarily. Being chased by police who have heard of his connection to the dwarf, the narrator is driven into the forest, where it is assumed the dwarf will eventually take control of him, because, as the dwarf told him, "No one has the power to change what has been decided." Human powerlessness is also an issue in A Wild Sheep Chase, as one of the characters commits suicide to free himself from possession by a sheep which has inhabited and left several persons at will.
Suicide is the choice also of the female narrator of "Sleep," which brings together several key ideas already presented: the emptiness of contemporary Japanese life, the search for a lost self, and especially the problem of the divided self and its echoes of Shinto and Buddhism. The narrator is a conventional Japanese housewife but with no discernible reason for complaint. Indeed, she can be regarded simply as a malcontent. She lives a comfortable middle-class life with her son and dentist husband, who doesn't drink or socialize and who is faithful, kind, and attentive but whom she doesn't like very much nevertheless. An insomniac for seventeen days, she welcomes sleeplessness. She feels no physical fatigue and performs her marital duties with detached efficiency during the day while at night her mind "floated in its own space," alive and free. A typical Murakami character, she wonders, "Where had the old me gone, the one who used to read a book as if possessed by it?" As if to reclaim that lost self, in her wakeful hours she eats chocolates and reads Anna Karenina with intensity, as she had done as a teenager.
Her insomnia began when she awakened from a bad dream, and in what she thinks is either a trance or a dream, a gaunt old man appears at the foot of her bed and pours water ceaselessly over her feet from a seemingly bottomless pitcher. She has no idea what the ritual means, but it may easily be seen as a purification rite that can be connected to Shinto, of which purification is a central characteristic: "What concerned the early Japanese was not moral sins but physical and mental defilements, which had to be cleansed ceremonially by exorcism and abstention" (Kitagawa, 13). The narrator has concluded that people live in the "prison cells of their own tendencies," hers being "those chores I perform day after day like an unfeeling machine." "The same physical movements over and over" are like an accumulation of dirt over her essential self, so that death becomes for her a drastic but necessary rite of purification. Her nocturnal activities take her to the waterfront, where a policeman warns her that a man had been killed there recently and his companion raped. Courting death, she dresses like a young man and returns to the waterfront, where her car is attacked.
The basic conflict in the story is the narrator's mind-body split. She refuses to sleep because she is resentful that her mind must also rest to repair her body, which is being consumed by its "tendencies": "My flesh may have to be consumed, but my mind belongs to me." Her attitude is better understood if considered in the context of the subject-object bifurcation of ego consciousness in Zen Buddhism. Ego consciousness or awareness "is expressed as affirmation of itself," which "includes itself both as affirmer and as affirmed" (DeMartino, 143)—that is, both as a subject and as an object. The ego as subject has only "conditioned subjectivity," because it "is forever bound to itself and its world as object" (DeMartino, 144). While not understanding fully the nature of her problem or her quest, the narrator of "Sleep" in her reference to "prison cells" recognizes her bondage to herself as object. Her attitude and behavior actually express her desire "to overcome the divisive inner and outer cleavage separating and removing the ego from itself—and its world—in order that it may fully be and truly know who and what it is" (DeMartino, 154).
The desire to be freed from the subject-object dichotomy is even more explicit in "The Girl from Ipanema," in which the narrator imagines that his heart is somehow linked with that of the Ipanema girl, "probably in a strange place in a far-off world" (quoted in Rubin, 496). He then conjectures about another link in his consciousness:
Somewhere in there, I'm sure, is the link joining me with myself. Someday, too, I'm sure, I'll meet myself in a strange place in a far-off world…. In that place, I am myself and myself is me. Subject is object and object is subject. All gaps gone. A perfect union. There must be a strange place like this somewhere in the world.
The subject-object division in ego consciousness is everywhere in Murakami. With its dual stories and dual narrators, the novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is in fact an allegory of the divided self and the struggle of the ego toward self-realization. Nothing other than the state of complete subjectivity, or sunyata, is being described when the narrator is told, "It's a peaceful world. Your own world, a world of your own makin'. You can be yourself there. You've got everythin' there. And at the same time, there is nothin'. Can you picture a world like that?" The narrator's answer is "Not really," the same one that the narrators in any of the stories could give.
Murakami's breezy tone, his hapless people with their empty centers, and especially his catalogues of Western popular culture often make his work appear trivial. However, as in a detective story (a genre of which Murakami is fond), these characteristics are a red herring leading the reader away from the author's essential Japaneseness and his serious intentions that are found in the innermost world of his stories. He has said: "I want to reconstruct a morality for this new world, this economic world. My generation, we are in a way disappointed, but we have to survive. We have to survive in this society, so we have to establish a new morality."
No doubt in part because of his popularity, critics have questioned Murakami's seriousness as a writer. One formidable detractor is the distinguished writer Kenzaburōōe. ōe does not classify Murakami's work as serious literature, junbungaku, which he translates in English as "sincere or polite literature." In a discussion of the decay of Japanese literature, ōe says that "any future resuscitation of junbungaku will be possible only if ways are found to fill in the wide gap that exists between Murakami and pre-1970 postwar literature." His standard for judgment is literature produced between 1946 and 1970 "that strived to provide a total, comprehensive contemporary age and a human model that lived it." ōe's dismissal of Murakami is unjustified, but he has a point. In spite of Murakami's expressed goal of creating a new morality for the contemporary, economic world, his works do not show what that moral ideal is, nor has he created characters who would be capable of recognizing it. The many allusions to Japan's early religions function not as an idealism envisioned by Murakami but rather as primal memory, an intimation of the longing to be fuifilled in oneself and to live in harmony with one's world. His composite narrator, however, is "caught between all that was and all that must be" and can say only, "This is no place for me." Reading Murakami's work, one senses that the best is still to come.
Source: Celeste Loughman, "No Place I Was Meant to Be: Contemporary Japan in the Short Fiction of Haruki Murakami," in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1-Jan, Winter 1997, pp. 87-94.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1233
In the following review, Ulin calls The Elephant Vanishes "one of the most consistently universal volumes of fiction you'll ever come across."
For better or worse, we live today in an atmosphere of cultural cross-pollination, where words and images are transmitted across continents at the speed of television, and the writing of one society can influence the writers of another until the idea of boundaries becomes nearly irrelevant.
In some circles, it's fashionable to lament this process, to see it as responsible for a kind of mass homogenization that will ultimately render all of us, no matter where we live, as mostly the same. But such laments neglect the basic fact of imagination, the human race's great saving grace. After all, if, as E.M. Forster once said, the purpose of literature is to record "the buzz of implication" of a specific time in history, then perhaps we are on the threshold of some sort of global writing, one that will emphasize our commonalities rather than the differences between us, and allow us to reimagine our relationships with the world.
This intention seems to be central to the work of Haruki Murakami, whose collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes, has just been published in the United States for the first time. One of Japan's best-selling authors, Murakami grew up reading American paperbacks in the port city of Kobe and claims Raymond Chandler as his biggest influence, although his stripped-down, off-handed prose seems more akin to that of Raymond Carver—which makes sense, since he's Carver's Japanese translator.
But the 17 stories here also reflect strains of literature and popular culture ranging from classical fairy tales to The Twilight Zone, making The Elephant Vanishes one of the most consistently universal volumes of fiction you'll ever come across, a book that reflects the often disassociating experience of living at the end of the 20th Century, even for those who've never been within 5,000 miles of Japan.
Part of the way Murakami pulls this off is by ignoring the most obvious markers of his Japanese settings, minimizing the importance of place in driving his narratives along. Thus, while much of the material in The Elephant Vanishes takes place in the suburbs of Tokyo, it's a Tokyo that's been essentially deracinated, that, except for certain surface details of geography, could be any city in the industrialized world.
"The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women," for instance—the first story in the collection—opens with the narrator cooking, spaghetti and "whistling the prelude to Rossini's 'La Gazza Ladra' along with the FM radio." Even when he goes outside to look for his missing cat, we have no clear indiction of where it is exactly that he lives. And in "The Second Bakery Attack," a newlywed couple, looking to assuage "an unbearable hunger" in the middle of the night, ends up at McDonald's, where, "[w]earing a McDonald's hat, the girl behind the counter flashed me a McDonald's smile and said, 'Welcome to McDonald's.'"
"The Second Bakery Attack," actually, works as a signifier for the entire collection—starting off with a situation that's relatively mundane, then slowly and irrevocably getting out of hand. The couple, it turns out, are not going to McDonald's to buy anything; they are there to hold the place up, as a way of exorcising a demon from the husband's past. What's more, the whole thing is the wife's idea, and the husband goes along with it as if in a dream, at once a part of the action and slightly detached from it. Even after the fact, the only thing he can do is to wonder passively about-what's occurred. "I'm still not sure I made the right choice," he explains. "But then, it might not have been a question of right and wrong. Which is to say that wrong choices can produce right results, and vice versa. I myself have adopted the position that, in fact, we never choose anything at all. Things happen. Or not."
All in all, it's a rather amoral perspective, but, we can see the essential truth behind it, the way things do tend to happen without much conscious control. In fact, this may have a lot to do with why the work in The Elephant Vanishes seems so accessible, so reflective of how so many of us live our lives. For, like us, Murakami's characters inhabit a universe that is morally and socially ambiguous, and often go through the motions of their day-to-day existence at somewhat of a loss. In contrast to most Japanese literature, his narrators—all of the pieces in this collection are written in the first-person—are outsiders, if not exactly loners, then on their own, people who have jobs, not careers. And their disassociation gives Murakami's writing an ironic, quizzical edge that really hits home—because it seems like the most intelligent response to so much of what's going on.
It also opens these stories up to a striking sense of playfulness, a feeling that if "Things happen. Or not," anything can happen at any time. Murakami makes the most of this, allowing reality to veer off its tracks again and again, much to the quiet amazement of his characters. There's "Sleep," in which a housewife stops sleeping for 17 days, and discovers that "[p]retty soon, reality just flows off and away." Or "TV People," in which a man's apartment is invaded by reduced-size human replicas—"slightly smaller than you or me…. About, say, 20 or 30 percent," who first bring him an "ordinary Sony color TV," then slowly disconnect him from his life until "the words slip away." Even the collection's title piece, with its account of an elephant that disappears from the elephant house, assumes a kind of magical realist tone when the narrator admits that he was the last person to see the animal in captivity and that it appeared to have shrunk.
Of course, not all of the writing in The Elephant Vanishes is so phantasmagoric. The exquisite and affecting "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning" explores the thoughts of a man in the few brief seconds that it takes him to pass his "100% perfect girl" on "a narrow side street"; "Was it really right for one's dreams to come true so easily?" he asks himself as she goes by. And "The Silence" recounts the experience of a man who was tortured with the silent treatment during his final term in high school; the whole point of this saga is to express the man's conviction that "it's impossible, in my own mind, to believe in people…. When I think of these things … I wake my wife up and I hold on to her and cry. Sometimes for a whole hour, I'm so scared."
Whether offbeat or down-to-earth, what all of Murakami's stories have in common is the idea that we live in a world without equilibrium, which may be the most universal thing about them at all. For who among us hasn't felt that life is somehow out of whack, that if we could just see better it might all make more sense? As the narrator of "The Elephant Vanishes" puts it, "I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance…. Some kind of balance inside me has broken down."
Source: David L. Ulin, "Disorder Out of Chaos," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, p. 3, 11.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2056
In the following interview with Elizabeth Deveraux, Murakami expounds on how he wants "to test Japanese culture and writing from outside Japan."
Forget about cherry blossom time, the crags of Fujiyama, tea ceremonies; most especially forget about exquisitely penned haiku. Today Haruki Murakami is Japan's premier novelist, and he's earned that rank by breaking all the rules.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, due this month from Kodansha (Fiction Forecast, Aug. 2), shows off this iconoclastic style. Its plot is a feat of what seems to be a double-jointed imagination. Dizzying and dazzling, it involves an intelligence agent who can "launder" and "shuffle" data in his brain, and a drama simultaneously playing out within the agent's unconscious. Like Alice, the agent embarks on a fantastic journey that begins when he travels down an impossible hole, and his adventures are conveyed with the glittering and mutable energy of kaleidoscopic images. Only gradually do broader patterns emerge, and the novel becomes a terrifyingly urgent tale of survival and surrender.
If the story is strange and startling, the setting is just as surprising: the geography is of a modern Japan, but the heritage is Western, the prose awash in references to American and European culture. From a bottomless reservoir come allusions to The Wizard of Oz, Bogart and Bacall, Star Trek, Ma Bell and Jim Morrison, discussions of Turgenev and Stendhal, Camus and Somerset Maugham. The only thing distinctly Japanese is the food.
"I might like Japanese food," says Murakami, meeting PW in Kodansha's New York offices, "but I like Western literature, Western music." His fusion of Japanese language and Western sensibility represents a turning point for Japanese literature.
"Most Japanese novelists," Murakami explains, "are addicted to the beauty of the language. I'd like to change that. Who knows about the beauty? Language is a kind of a tool, an instrument to communicate. I read American novels, Russian novels; I like Dickens. I feel there are different possibilities for Japanese writing.
"At first, I wanted to be an international writer. Then I changed my mind, because I'm nothing but a Japanese novelist: I was born in Japan and I speak Japanese and I write in Japanese. So I had to find my identity as a Japanese writer. That was tough.
"You have to know that the writing in Japan for Japanese people is in a particular style, very stiff. If you are a Japanese novelist you have to write that way. It's kind of a society, a small society, critics and writers, called high literature. But I am different in style, with a very American atmosphere. I guess I'm seeking a new style far Japanese readership, and I think I have gained ground. Things are changing now. There is a wider field."
Most would agree that Murakami has indeed gained ground. More than 12 million copies of his books are in print in Japan, he's received a string of prestigious awards and been translated into 14 languages. A prolific translator himself, he has introduced writers as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and Raymond Carver, Paul Theroux and John Irving to Japan. A self-described "wanderer," he has lived all over the world, from Greece and Italy to a current stint as a visiting fellow at Princeton University.
"I want to test Japanese culture and Japanese writing from outside of Japan. It is very hard to explain that," he says, and pauses to deliberate. "It's a kind of translation. When I translate from English to Japanese, the story is the same, but the language is different. Something has changed by translation. I like to do the same thing for my own writing. I want to write a Japanese novel with a different material, with a different style, but in Japanese. I think it would help change Japanese literature from inside."
The son of a teacher of Japanese literature, Murakami, who was born in 1949, grew up reading American fiction. He learned English in junior high and high school. "My marks in English weren't so good," he says in the first of a series of deceptively modest remarks and disclaimers, an unprepossessing style matched by his casual dress and careful, slow speech. "But I enjoyed reading in English," he continues, "it was quite a new experience." Raymond Chandler was a favorite. When he went to Waseda University, he studied drama, everything from Greek tragedy to contemporary works. "I tried to write when I was a college student, but I couldn't, because I had no experience. I gave up my writing when I was 22 or 21. I just forgot about it.
"I didn't want to, you know, get into a company." (Neither do his characters.) "I wanted to do something by myself, with myself. I started a small jazz club in Tokyo. It was fun. I owned that club for seven years.
"One day I found I wanted to write something. I was so happy that I wanted to write again, and that I could write this time. It's a blessing. Since then I've been happy all the time, because I can write."
Back then, he says, "I had only nighttime for writing. I would be at the club until one o'clock or two o'clock in the morning, and then I'd come back, sit down at the kitchen table and write my story."
He produced Hear the Wind Sing, published in Japan in 1979, which he describes as a "a young-man, things-are-changing kind of novel," set in 1970, the "age of the counterculture." The story, he says, is realistic, but the style is "not conventional, a Kurt Vonnegut style. I was strongly influenced by Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. They are so lively and fresh."
He doesn't want to see Hear the Wind Sing translated, however, and labels it (and his next book, Pinball 1973, which appeared in 1980) "weak." Not too weak to win the Shinjin Bungaku Prize? Ah, replies Murakami, "you have to know there are many prizes in Japan."
The prize so easily dismissed was from Kodansha, which, like other Japanese houses, has an award for newcomers. Kodansha was first to see the novel ("There are no agents in Japan," the author explains), and Murakami chose the publisher because it "is the biggest, very prestigious." He has remained with Kodansha ever since, and enjoys his relationship with editor Yoko Kinoshita. "It's not the usual thing, a woman publisher," he adds. "In Japanese companies it's mainly men who get good jobs. My editor is doing well."
A Wild Sheep Chase, which he calls a "fantasy/adventure," was Murakami's third book, published in Japan in 1982, and shares its protagonist with the earlier two. "I feel somehow that Wild Sheep Chase is my first novel," he says now. "It's the first book where I could feel a kind of sensation, the joy of telling a story. When you read a good story, you just keep reading. When I write a good story, I just keep writing."
That joy propelled him to produce four collections of short stories between 1982 and 1986 (a fifth was published last year, as was a volume of travel pieces). "I like storytelling. I don't find it difficult to make a story." In 1985, Hard-Boiled Wonderland appeared and captured the celebrated Tanizaki Prize. Nevertheless, the suceess of his next novel took everyone by surprise. Norwegian Wood (1987), titled after the Beatles song, is a love story, "quite different" from his other books, "totally realistic, very straight"; it sold two million copies. In 1989 came Dance Dance Dance, which is a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase and slated to follow Hard-Boiled Wonderland into English.
Kodansha decides which books to bring to the U.S. "They ask my advice," says Murakami, "but I think they're right in their decisions."
The first book to appear in English was A Wild Sheep Chase (published here in 1989) which drew rave reviews. Like Hard-Boiled Worderland, it has an unusually intricate and inventive plot. Readers may well be surprised to learn that Murakami creates the plot as he goes along. "I write one chapter and then the second chapter, and so on … It comes out automatically.
"I don't know what's going to happen—but it's going to happen. I have fun when I write."
The fun spills into his prose, which is so playful that the New York Times Book Review called Murakami "a mythmaker for the millennium, a wiseacre wise man." Murakami is quick to credit the translator of his novels, Alfred Birnbaum: "He's a good man, a good guy. His translation is so lively." Birnbaum, for example, came up with the English title for A Wild Sheep Chase; the original was The Adventure of the Sheep. "I have another translator, Jay Rubin," Murakami continues. "He's good as well. Alfred is more free, Jay is more faithful to the original." Americans will have a chance to sample Rubin's translation in a September issue of the New Yorker, where a story by Murakami will appear.
Murakami describes his own translations as "very faithful." He began translating at almost the same time as he began writing fiction, and first approached stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. How does he select a work for translation? "Sometimes a book appeals to me because I want to introduce it to Japanese readers. That's one reason. Another reason is that I want to learn something from this book, and translation is the best way. You can read every detail, every page, every word. You can learn so much. It's my teacher.
"I want to try many different styles. Translation is a kind of vehicle. One time you can write F. Scott Fitzgerald and one time Raymond Carver. It's a transformation."
These days Murakami's schedule at Princeton is flexible, and he defines his role there as a kind of "observer." He speaks contentedly of his carrel at the university library, where he has been researching material for his new book, "about politics, about history, love, everything. I've been researching the war between Japan and the Soviet Union in 1939 in Manchuria. I'm interested in prewar history in Japan, in China."
Princeton holds a number of attractions beyond the library. He originally visited the institution in the '80s, lured by his interest in Fitzgerald. It also affords him the quiet he seeks. Almost shyly, he says, "You know, I'm pretty famous in Japan. I don't like that, the social life. I like jogging. I jog, and I work six hours a day. I take a walk with my wife [Yoko Takahashi; they got married while both were students at Waseda University]. I listen to music, I read. I have no time to meet people, to go somewhere to have dinner. But they expect me to do it, because I'm famous.
"I lead a very quiet life, it's my kind of life. We lived on a Greek island [from 1986 to 1989]. It was a perfect place to be a writer."
Murakami and his wife, who have also resided in Rome and Athens and traveled extensively, like living in the U.S. "In Europe, they are stiff, and we are always foreigners. But in America they accept us. America is a very special place, very accepting of other cultures."
His sojourn at Princeton will end next June, but he and his wife would like to stay in the States for another few years, perhaps relocating to Boston. "I like moving. If you are a writer, you can live anywhere. We have no children, and we are free to go everywhere. I like to move every two years or so. I feel it's time to go, and we move. It's so simple."
At the moment, Murakami is contemplating a translation of Grace Paley's work. He also cites Tim O'Brien, whose Nuclear Age and The Things They Carried he has translated. "I like him best … these days," he qualifies.
He calls John Irving "a good story-teller," and has translated Setting Free the Bears, which, he says, Irving doesn't particularly like. Because it's an early work? "Yes," says Murakami. "He likes his latest book. That makes sense, of course. But I like Settinq Free the Bears because it is so young and fresh."
Does Murakami have a favorite among his own books? "My latest one, the next one! The one that I am writing now."
Source: Elizabeth Deveraux, "PW Interviews: Haruki Murakami," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 228, No. 42, September 20, 1991, pp. 113-14.