The Elephant Vanishes

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Haruki Murakami is acclaimed as the “voice of a generation” in Japan. His first two novels to appear in English, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), won high praise from American critics. The Elephant Vanishes , his first collection of short...

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Haruki Murakami is acclaimed as the “voice of a generation” in Japan. His first two novels to appear in English, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991), won high praise from American critics. The Elephant Vanishes, his first collection of short stories, again demonstrates that Murakami’s is, indeed, one of the most exciting voices in international literature.

In The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami intermingles reality with fantasy, memory with illusion, and the physical world with metaphysical contemplation. His characters are ordinary people. They are homemakers, store clerks, paraprofessionals, business people, and college students. Many of these characters suffer from the modem syndrome of angst, ennui, emptiness, and loneliness. Their ontological relationship with reality appears to be defined by their ability to create unreality. For some of these characters, the ability “to be in two places at once” is what compensates for an otherwise boring, stressful, and monotonous life and what helps create meaning for an otherwise meaningless existence.

In “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” reality convolutes into fantasy. The narrator quit his longtime job in a law firm, partly because he did not find the job challenging enough and partly because the job did not allow him to be who he wanted to be. After being unemployed for three months, however, he becomes bored with the domestic duties he has to perform at home. A woman’s harassing telephone call on a Tuesday ushers him into a world where the distinction between reality and fantasy is blurred. In his search for the family cat, he passes through an alley that looks like “some abandoned canal.” At the end of the alley, he meets a high school girl whose smile is as seductive as the woman’s voice on the telephone. When the narrator closes his eyes, he is thrown into an Orphean trance in which history and fantasy are made possible to converge with reality.

“The Little Green Monster” is another fantasy story. The narrator is a lonely housewife. After her husband leaves for work, she cannot think of anything to do but stare at and talk to an oak tree in the garden. One day, she sees a small green monster crawling out of the ground near the base of the tree. The monster is very cordial and friendly. In fact, he has come to the narrator to propose marriage. After discovering that the monster can read her mind, however, she uses her telepathic power to torture and eventually slay him.

“The Little Green Monster” portrays a very complex situation: Even though the narrator’s relationship with her fantasy world is more intimate than her relationship with reality, accepting the monster’s proposal would finalize her situation of loneliness and make it permanent. It is therefore not hard to understand why she fights the monster so resolutely and vehemently.

Some of Murakami’s stories are “memory stories”; they study the paradoxical relationship between fiction and memory and between the past and the present. The narrator in “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon,” for example, does not believe that there is a difference between memory and fiction:

Memory is like fiction; or else it’s fiction that’s like memory.… Either way, no matter how hard you try to put everything neatly into shape, the context wanders this way and that, until finally the context isn’t even there anymore. You’re left with this pile of kittens lolling all over one another. Wattn with life, hopelessly unstable.

Where the distinction between memory and fiction fades, imagination comes alive. “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon” starts as a story about the narrator’s breaking up with his girlfriend but turns into a moving description of two lonely- hearts’ search for understanding and companionship. After the narrator finishes mowing the lawn for a stranger, he is offered a drink by the host. A visit to a well-preserved room of the host’s absent daughter reminds the narrator of his relationship with his former girlfriend. The visit makes him realize that a person can shape memory the same way he mows lawns, for both involve deliberate and highly subjective choices: “All I wanted, it came to me, was to mow a good lawn. To give it a once-over with the lawn mower, rake up the clippings, and then trim it nice and even with clippers—that’s all. And that, I can do. Because that’s the way I feel it ought to be done.”

“Barn Burning” portrays a man’s struggle with a piece of a memory that has left an indelible impact on his life. The narrator is married, but that did not stop him from falling in love with an advertising model. The model was also a pantomime student; she told him that the trick behind doing the pantomime of peeling an imaginary mandarin orange was “not a question of making yourself believe there is an orange there, you have to forget there isn’t one.” Through the model, the narrator met her new boyfriend, who announced that soon he was going to burn a barn in the narrator’s neighborhood. Failing to grasp the significance of the person’s talk about the possibility of simultaneity—being able to be at two places at the same time—the narrator became very excited about barn burning. He actually bought a map and studied which barns were most likely to be burned down in the area. In his imagination, the narrator envisioned himself striking the match several times. At the end of the story, although he finally realizes that no barns will be burned where he lives, he confesses: “Just now and then, in the depths of the night, I’ll think about barns burning to the ground.”

In several of Murakami’s stories, his characters express a wish to be able to live in two worids. The “barn burning specialist” in “Barn Burning,” for example, believes in simultaneity.” He explains it thus to the narrator of the story:

I’m here, and I’m there. I’m in Tokyo, and at the same time I’m in Tunis. I’m the one to blame, and I’m also the one to forgive. Just as a for instance. It’s that level of balance. Without such balance, I don’t think we could go on living. It’s like the linchpin to everything. Lose it and we’d literally go to pieces.

The narrator in “The Kangaroo Commumque” also yearns “to be able to be in two places at once.” He is a bored store clerk; his job is to check the merchandise to prevent collusion between the purchasing section and the suppliers and to respond to customer complaints. A visit to the local zoo inspires him to write a letter to a female customer who complained about a record she bought from his store. His reply deteriorates, however, into an interior monologue that reveals both his confessional impulse and his ability to fantasize. He admits that his work is boring and he is not happy with being who he is. In the theory of the Nobility of Imperfection, however, he finds both an answer to the customer’s complaint and an excuse to console himself. The theory gives the narrator the illusion of having choice. “To be able to be in two places at once” thus remains a dream that can be fulfilled only by his fantasy.

Murakami’s use of surrealism in The Elephant Vanishes is especially effective, bridging the parallel worlds of the visible and the invisible, the permanent and the impermanent, reality and fantasy. It enables the writer to make comprehensible what otherwise appears incongruous and thus turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Both “Sleep” and “TV People” epitomize how effective surrealism works with Murakami’s thematic concerns. “Sleep” follows a long line of literary tradition that challenges the conventional distinctions between night and day, life and death, reality and fantasy. The narrator was an avid reader of literature in both high school and college. After she was graduated from college, however, her family could not afford to send her to graduate school. In her search for financial security, she ended up marrying a dentist whose pet phrase was “It’s not my fault I’m so good-looking.” Everything looks normal in the family until the narrator discovers one day that she has lost the ability to sleep. To kill time, she starts reading Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1875-1877). Instead of making sleep come more easily, however, reading turns things upside-down:

It turns the narrator’s day into night and night into day, and it turns her husband and son into “strangers.”

Yet reading also renews the narrator’s old passion for books, revitalizes her, expands her, and gives her a new perspective on reality and life: “After I gave up sleeping, it occurred to me what a simple thing reality is, how easy it is to make it work. It’s just reality. Just housework. Just a home. Like running a simple machine. Once you learn to run it, it’s just a matter of repetition.”

At the end of “Sleep,” however, exhaustion has taken its toll. Under the influence of alcohol, Russian novels, and lack of sleep, the narrator starts to hallucinate. Her belief in her ability to work both day and night without sleep proves to be an illusion, and her relationship with her fantasy world becomes as mentally and physically detrimental to her as her relationship with reality.

In “TV People,” Murakami again uses surrealism to portray a person’s confusion about illusion and reality. The narrator works in the advertising department of an electrical-appliance manufacturer. He enjoys reading and does not own a television or a videocassette recorder. Yet he can feel the omnipresence and omnipotence of television. Under the pressure of work and his strained relationship with his wife, he starts to hallucinate about the invasion of TV People, a group of people whose surrealistic existence is more existentially meaningful to him than reality is.

Several American reviewers and critics, including Bruce Sterling and Jay Mclnerney, have pointed out that the appeal of The Elephant Vanishes to American readers lies in its recognizable landscape and in the universal significance of its thematic preoccupations. While The Elephant Vanishes indeed “captures the common ache of the contemporary heart and head,” as Mclnerney puts it, it also introduces American readers to conflicts and struggles that are indigenous to Japanese culture specifically and to Asian cultures in general. The conflict between a character’s aspiration for self- fulfillment and his or her sense of social and familial responsibility, for example, results from the enforcement of communitarian standards that require individuals to forfeit their claim to personal freedom in exchange for harmony. Murakami’s stories, therefore, revolve as much around the dialectical relationship between reality and fantasy as around issues such as the freedom of choice and having control of one’s life.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, February 1, 1993, p.955.

Boston Globe. March 28, 1993, p.39.

Chicago Tribune. March 28, 1993, XIV, p.6.

Library Journal. CXVIII, March 1, 1993, p.111.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 4, 1993, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 28, 1993, p.10.

Publishers Weekly. CXL, February 1, 1993, p.74.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Autumn, 1993, p. SS130.

The Wall Street Journal. May 5, 1993, p. A20.

The Washington Post. May 28, 1993, p. G5.

Style and Technique

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Although writers often use first-person narration to draw the reader more directly into the narrative, Murakami uses it in this story to underline the main character’s isolation from the outer world. Not only does the main character spend most of the story in solitude, but also he does so anonymously, giving the reader no more than the pronoun “I” when referring to himself. The narrator also leaves anonymous other figures who appear in the story. The woman to whom he is attracted, the mayor of the town, and the people opposing the mayor all go nameless. The sole exception is the elephant keeper. The one person in the story who has found stable companionship and comfort in life, unusual though that companionship and comfort might be, is the sole possessor of a name.

The author uses images of the external world to deepen his portrayal of the narrator’s isolation. Especially important are images linking the narrator, age thirty-one, to children. When the elephant was present, the others watching it were primarily children. From the time of the opening of the elephant house, school groups made regular visits to sketch the animal. The elephant house itself had once been the elementary school gym. The elephant’s food was even made up of school cafeteria leftovers. In contrast, once the elephant disappears, the narrator continues his lonely vigil on its empty house but now without youthful company.

The elephant itself, often used in folklore as a symbol of long life and wisdom, carries some of its traditional trappings in Murakami’s story. More important, it represents a sort of stability in life, a stability that proves elusive to the narrator, more so once the elephant disappears.

In addition to images, Murakami resorts to having the narrator directly address his own situation through abstract concepts. In his first conversation with the magazine editor at the promotional party, the narrator speaks of people seeking a sense of unity when equipping their kitchens. Unity is linked to being in balance with the surroundings, he tells her. When he later talks of the elephant and its keeper appearing to change proportions, he speaks of a balance being disturbed. At the end of the story, he invokes unity and balance once again, only this time as elements now permanently removed from his life.

Historical Context

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Murakami wrote and first published "The Elephant Vanishes" in Japanese during the 1980s, and the story is set in Japan during this time. At the time of the writing, Japan was experiencing economic development, as were many countries in the world, including the United States. Following its crushing defeat in World War II, Japan had the fastest growing economy in the post-war period from 1955 to 1990. During the 1980s, Japan became the leading industrial state of East Asia, and it continued into the early 2000s to support one of the most advanced economies in the world, with only the United States out-producing it. With rapid industrialization during this time, Japan also became a thoroughly technological culture, with city dwellers using modern conveniences such as commuter trains, cars, and appliances. However, along with embracing technological advances and other aspects of modern life, Japan as of 2005 maintains traditional customs and culture, with modern and traditional values coexisting sometimes uneasily side by side.

The story reflects the affluence of middle-class Japanese society during the 1980s, with the building of high-rise condos in the narrator's town and the narrator's own success in his public relations job for an appliance manufacturer. It takes place in a wealthy suburb of Tokyo, one of the largest cities in the world. However, as in other Murakami stories, this short story could theoretically take place in any number of cities in the world, as very few details in the story mark the setting as specifically Japanese.

Murakami is widely recognized as one of the most popular novelists of his generation of writers, who grew up in post-World War II Japan and who disregarded traditional Japanese culture in favor of embracing American Pop culture. The story reflects the overall sensibility of Murakami's generation of writers, who were seemingly more interested in stylistic invention than overt political themes and who eschewed traditional Japanese modes of storytelling. However, Murakami also uses satire and humor to critique the banality of the culture he evokes, with its emphasis on selling products, materialism, and ultimate failure to value or experience the deeper, more mysterious aspects of life. As Celeste Loughman notes in her review of the collection in World Literature Today, Murakami has remarked that "'Something has vanished in these twenty-five years, some kind of idealism. It has vanished, and we became rich.'" She comments that "His people are part of the get-rich society of mass production. They work in law offices, in quality control for department stores, in PR for appliance manufacturers. All are dissatisfied."

Literary Style

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Setting

The short story takes place in a suburb of Tokyo during the 1980s, when Japan was experiencing an economic boom. The town is affluent, and its inhabitants enjoy a relatively peaceful life, which is only occasionally disrupted by bizarre incidents such as the vanishing of the elephant. Prosperity has led to new developments such as the high-rise condos destined to replace old institutions like the zoo. The story also takes place at a time when the process of Americanization was well under way in Japan, as the narrator states that his company likes to use English words such as "kit-chin" to sell products.

Point of View and Conflict

The story is told from the first-person point of view, with an unnamed narrator relating the events. The primary conflict in the story is internal, with the narrator trying to make sense of the events immediately preceding the elephant's disappearance and the essentially strange but apparently normal world he inhabits. At the end of the story, the conflict remains mostly unresolved, as the mystery of the elephant's disappearance is never solved, and the narrator feels unsettled by a permanent sense of imbalance in the wake of the elephant's vanishing. The first part of the story is propelled by the narrator's recollections of the events leading up to the elephant's vanishing and his thoughts on how the case was handled by his town and in the newspapers. The last part of the story focuses on the narrator's recollections of his conversation with an editor and includes dialogue between the two characters.

Flashback

Several times in "The Elephant Vanishes," Murakami uses the device of flashback to present action that occurred before the beginning of the story. He begins the story in the past, and most of the story consists of the narrator's recollections of events in the recent past. Murakami begins the story with the narrator relating what he was doing when the elephant disappeared from the elephant house. He then uses flashback as the narrator recalls earlier events such as the elephant's relocation to the elephant house from the zoo that went out of business. This flashback gives the reader information about the town, its workings, and how the elephant and its keeper came to live in the new elephant house.

Dialogue

Murakami also employs dialogue to relate events that occurred prior to the beginning of the story. The last part of the story consists mostly of dialogue between the narrator and the editor. In this dialogue, the narrator reveals what he saw the night the elephant and its keeper vanished. The dialogue also serves to reveal the personalities of the narrator and the editor.

Motifs

Murakami uses the motif of water to reinforce readers' awareness of disappearance or a sense of dissolution. When describing how general interest in the elephant's disappearance waned after some months went by, the narrator states, "Amid the endless surge and ebb of everyday life, interest in a missing elephant could not last forever," thus likening daily life to the eroding action of ocean tides. The water motif occurs again several paragraphs later, when the narrator compares summer memories to water flowing "into the sewers and rivers, to be carried to the deep, dark ocean." Here too the water motif conveys a sense of things disappearing inevitably into a vast ocean. Since water can evaporate into air and is inherently unstable, this motif mirrors the vanishing, parallels the idea of impermanence, and suggests the narrator's sense of being unsettled by a world out of balance.

Murakami also specifically invokes the image of rain to convey a sense of sadness and gloom. Describing the empty elephant house, the narrator states that "A few short months without its elephant had given the place an air of doom and desolation that hung there like a huge, oppressive rain cloud." Later when he talks to the editor, the narrator notes several times the presence of a soundless, damp rain, again suggesting the presence of a persistent eroding and unsettling force. After their conversation takes a turn toward the weird, when the narrator starts talking about the elephant, the narrator compares ice melting in the editor's drink to a "tiny ocean current." With this image, Murakami again creates a feeling of things dissolving in some insidious, pervasive force.

Simile

Murakami uses similes or comparisons using "like" or "as" throughout the story to describe various states or situations, as when the narrator likens the atmosphere of the empty elephant house to "a huge, oppressive rain cloud." In another example, the narrator says that "a number of unremarkable months went by, like a tired army marching past a window."

Media Adaptations

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  • The Elephant Vanishes was adapted as a play by Simon McBurney and performed at the Setagaya Public Theatre in June of 2003. A description of the adaptation of the book to the stage appears online at http://www.ums.org under the title "An Elephant's Long Journey," written by Jay Rubin, one of Murakami's translators.
  • The publisher Random House maintains an official Murakami website at http://www.randomhouse.com/features/murakami which features ample information about the author, his books, and other online resources pertaining to Murakami.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Loughman, Celeste, Review of "The Elephant Vanishes," in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring 1994, pp. 434-35.

Mitgang, Herbert, "From Japan, Big Macs and Marlboros in Stories," in New York Times, May 12, 1993, p. L C17.

Murakami, Haruki, "The Elephant Vanishes," in The Elephant Vanishes: Stories, translated by Jay Rubin, Vintage International, 1994, pp. 308-27.

Review of The Elephant Vanishes: Stories, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 5, February 1, 1993, p. 74.

Ulin, David L, "Disorder Out of Chaos," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 4, 1993, pp. 3, 11.

Further Reading

Goossen, Theodore W., ed., The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 2002.

This anthology, which includes a version of "The Elephant Vanishes," comprises short stories from the end of the nineteenth century to the early 2000s.

Henshall, Kenneth G., A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower, Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Henshall, a New Zealander professor of Japanese studies, provides a sweeping and lively account of the history of Japan, focusing on both political and cultural history.

Ikeno, Osamu, and Roger Daniels, eds., The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Culture, Tuttle Publishing, 2002.

The editors, a Japanese professor and a British professor living in Japan, provide a guide to some aspects of contemporary Japanese culture, including rituals, myths, and ideas about social organization.

Rubin, Jay, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Harvill Press, 2002.

Rubin, a translator and Harvard professor of Japanese literature, combines biography and critical analysis to portray Murakami. Rubin chronicles Murakami's obsessions, such as his fascination with cats and other animals, as he analyzes Murakami's writings.

Varley, H. Paul, Japanese Culture, 4th edition, University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Now in its fourth edition, Varley's book has been praised as an introductory text on Japanese history and culture.

Bibliography

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Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, February 1, 1993, p.955.

Boston Globe. March 28, 1993, p.39.

Chicago Tribune. March 28, 1993, XIV, p.6.

Library Journal. CXVIII, March 1, 1993, p.111.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 4, 1993, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 28, 1993, p.10.

Publishers Weekly. CXL, February 1, 1993, p.74.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Autumn, 1993, p. SS130.

The Wall Street Journal. May 5, 1993, p. A20.

The Washington Post. May 28, 1993, p. G5.

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