The Elephant Vanishes
The Elephant Vanishes
Haruki Murakami's "The Elephant Vanishes" was first published in English in the New Yorker in November 1991 and is found in his short story collection The Elephant Vanishes: Stories published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1993. Jay Rubin translated the story from Japanese into English. The short story was also included in the anthology The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Theodore Goossen. The Elephant Vanishes: Stories consists of seventeen short stories told in first-person point of view.
Like other stories in this collection, "The Elephant Vanishes" focuses on a strange incident that leaves its protagonist disoriented. An unnamed narrator tells the story of how an aged elephant and its keeper mysteriously disappear one night from his town's elephant house. The narrator, who is the protagonist of the story, recalls the events leading up to the elephant's sudden vanishing, the news coverage of the incident, and the futile efforts of the townspeople to find the elephant and the keeper. He also discusses the strange circumstances of the elephant's disappearance, which indicate that the elephant apparently vanished into thin air. After meeting a magazine editor who is a potential love interest, the narrator ends up talking about how he witnessed the elephant shrinking or the keeper becoming bigger or both on the night of their disappearance, and the story concludes with the bewildered narrator lamenting the loss of the elephant and the keeper. Like other Murakami stories, this one is imbued with a sense of things being out of order in urban, contemporary society, which leaves its characters feeling alienated, disillusioned, and unable to make choices about their lives.
Haruki Murakami was born on January 12, 1949 in Ashiya City, Japan, a suburb of Kobe. The son of two high-school Japanese literature teachers, Murakami became fascinated with American pop culture as a teenager and began reading works of American literature in English as an adolescent. In 1968, he began studies at Tokyo's Waseda University, eventually graduating with bachelor's degrees in screenwriting and Greek drama in 1975. In 1971, he had married fellow Waseda student Yoko Takahashi. With Takahashi, Murakami opened a jazz bar called the Peter Cat in a Tokyo suburb in 1974, and together, they managed the club until 1981, when Murakami began devoting himself full-time to his writing.
In 1979, Murakami published his first book, a novel entitled Hear the Wind Sing, which he first wrote in English and then translated into Japanese. Hear the Wind Sing won the prestigious Gunzo Award, a first-novel prize, and the book launched Murakami's career as the leading fiction writer of Japan's post-war generation. Following this novel, Murakami published two more novels, Pinball, 1973 (1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), which was the first of Murakami's works to be translated into English. In 1981, Murakami also began publishing his translations of works by modern American writers from English into Japanese, including writings by Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Ursula K. Leguin, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1985, Murakami published his fourth novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which garnered major critical and commercial success in Japan and won the coveted Junichiro Tanizaki Prize.
Murakami's fifth novel Norwegian Wood (1987) sold over two million hard-cover copies in Japan. He published his sixth novel Dance, Dance, Dance in 1988 and his seventh novel South of the Border, West of the Sun in 1992. From 1985 to 1995, Murakami lived abroad, first in Greece and Italy and then in the United States where he held positions at Princeton University, Harvard University, and Tufts University. While at Tufts, Murakami wrote his three-volume novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–1995).
Although primarily known as a novelist, Murakami has also written several volumes of short stories, seventeen of which were published in his English-language collection The Elephant Vanishes (1993), in which the short story "The Elephant Vanishes" appears. Some of these short stories, translated into English by his regular translators Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum, appeared originally in the New Yorker.
Following his return to Japan, Murakami published a two-volume non-fiction book Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (1997–1998) and, following that, novels Sputnik Sweetheart (2001) and Kafka on the Shore (2005), as well as another short story collection After the Quake: Stories, translated into English by Jay Rubin in 2002. Murakami's works have been translated into over twenty languages, and his many awards include the Noma Award for new writers in 1982, the Yomiuri Literary Prize in 1996, and the Kuwabara Takeo Award in 1999.
"The Elephant Vanishes" begins with the narrator recalling how he read in the newspaper about the disappearance of an elephant from his town's elephant house. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story, describes his daily routine, which includes reading the newspaper from start to finish. He then describes the article that tells about the elephant's mysterious disappearance the day before. He notes that according to the article, both the elephant and its keeper have vanished leaving authorities baffled.
The narrator interrupts his description of the newspaper article to relate how the elephant had come to be adopted by the town a year earlier. He recalls that when financial problems caused a private zoo to shut down, the zoo's other animals had been placed in various zoos throughout Japan. However, because the elephant was so old, other zoos would not take it, so the elephant remained in the abandoned zoo until an agreement was reached among various parties in the town. The parties included a high-rise condo developer who had bought the land where the old zoo had stood, the mayor of the town, and the former zoo's owners. The narrator describes the negotiations among the parties, as well as opposition to the plan by opponents of the mayor, who eventually accepted the new plan.
The narrator notes that the debate about the elephant problem concluded with the town's taking charge of the ancient elephant and relocating it to an elementary school's old gym, which was located in a clearing in a wooded area. The elephant's aged keeper from the zoo also came to live in a small, prefab house next to the elephant, so he could continue to tend to the animal's needs.
The narrator goes on to humorously recall the elephant-house dedication ceremony. He describes in detail how the elephant was secured to a concrete slab by a heavy steel chain and shackle around its right rear leg. He describes the keeper as "not an unfriendly" old man who maintained a close, mysterious bond with the elephant that the narrator futilely tried to understand.
The narrator then says that after a year of living in the new location, being visited by elementary school children and others, the elephant completely vanished without warning. Resuming his description of the newspaper article about the elephant's disappearance, the narrator says how odd he finds the article to be. He attributes the article's strangeness to the reporter's efforts to maintain a neutral, objective tone, while clearly being confused by the absurdity of the situation.
The narrator then gives three reasons why the elephant could not have escaped—in spite of the reporter's use of this wording—but instead had to have vanished. The narrator points out that the steel cuff binding the elephant had been found still locked in the house and that this improbable event had occurred in spite of the fact that the keys to the cuff were kept in locked safes in police headquarters and the firehouse. The narrator notes that both keys were found in their respective safes after the elephant's disappearance.
The narrator also points out that the elephant house had been surrounded by a massive fence consisting of heavy iron bars almost ten feet high. In addition, the only entrance to this enclosure had been found locked from the inside after the elephant's disappearance. The third strange circumstance the narrator describes is the lack of elephant tracks. He notes that a steep hill occupied the back of the elephant house, so that the only route of escape would have been a path at the front of the house, which completely lacked elephant prints in its soft earth. Following his listing of these circumstances, the narrator reiterates that the elephant could not have escaped but had to have vanished.
- 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.
The narrator adds, however, that the mayor, the reporter, and the police would not openly admit that the elephant had vanished and that the police were investigating the incident. He recalls how the mayor held a news conference defending the elephant security system and denouncing the persons responsible for the elephant's disappearance. The narrator describes news coverage of the event, which called for citizens knowing anything about the incident to come forward. As he drinks his second cup of morning coffee, the narrator thinks about telling the authorities what he knows but decides against contacting the police, as he thinks they would never believe him.
The narrator then recalls how he cut out the elephant article and pasted it into a scrapbook he fastidiously keeps of all the articles about the elephant. He relates how he watched the seven-o'clock news, which showed hunters with rifles, Self-Defense troops, police, and firemen searching for the elephant in the woods and hills of the Tokyo suburb where the narrator resides. The narrator states that although the search took several days, the authorities were unable to find a single clue concerning the elephant's whereabouts. As he recalls reading and pasting all the news clippings into his scrapbook, the narrator talks about the pointlessness of the articles, which reveal nothing substantial about the incident. He states that over many months, interest in the incident waned as the elephant case fell into the category of "unsolvable mysteries." In spite of the reduction of general interest in the elephant story, the narrator says that he continued to visit the old elephant house whenever he got a chance. He describes the thick chain around the gate and "the air of doom and desolation" that hung over the empty space.
In the final part of the story, the narrator recalls meeting an editor of a magazine for young housewives several months after the elephant's disappearance. The narrator meets the editor at a party his company is throwing to launch its new line of kitchen appliances. Since the narrator is in charge of the company's publicity campaign, he shows the editor around the display, and he explains the principle of unity governing the design of the kitchen appliance line. The editor questions the importance of unity in a kitchen and asks the narrator what his personal opinion of the matter is. He declines to answer until he's off work and says how "things you can't sell don't count for much" in the pragmatic world in which they live.
After debating whether the world is indeed pragmatic, the editor and the narrator continue to flirt and talk over champagne and later over drinks in the hotel's cocktail lounge. Although the conversation flows smoothly at first and the narrator recalls being drawn to the editor, he notes that things took a turn when he brought up the topic of the elephant. He immediately regrets bringing up the subject, but the editor presses him for more details when he says he was probably not shocked by the elephant's disappearance. After balking a moment, the narrator tells the editor what he knows about the elephant.
He tells the editor that he is probably the last person to see the elephant before it disappeared, as he saw the elephant after the zoo closed that evening. The narrator explains that he had sometimes watched the elephant and the keeper through an air vent in the elephant house's roof, which was visible from a spot on a cliff behind the house. He recalls how impressed he had been by the obvious trust and affection the elephant and the keeper displayed when they were out of the public eye.
When the editor asks him whether he always liked elephants, the narrator admits that he did, although he is not sure why. The editor also asks him if there was anything unusual about the elephant or the keeper on the night of the disappearance. After hesitating, the narrator says there was and there wasn't. He goes on to explain that although the keeper and the elephant were doing the same things they always did, the balance in size between the two of them had changed. He tells the editor that either the elephant had shrunk or the keeper had gotten bigger or both simultaneously. When asked, he also admits that he did not tell the police, because he thought they would not believe him and that he would have become a suspect in the case.
When pressed further about the occurrence, the narrator states that he can only say he probably saw the change in appearances, since he does not have any proof of the change actually happening. To himself, he notes that he had the feeling that "a different, chilling kind of time was flowing through the elephant house—but nowhere else."
When the editor asks him whether he believes that the elephant either shrunk until it was small enough to escape or dissolved into nothing, the narrator again hesitates and says he does not know what happened and that it is impossible for him to imagine events beyond what he thinks he saw. Following this revelation about the elephant, the conversation between the editor and the narrator becomes awkward, and they part outside the hotel.
The narrator says that that was the last time he saw the editor. Although he considered asking her out for dinner, he ended up not doing so due to a sense of emotional paralysis that he experiences after the elephant's vanishing. The story ends with the narrator describing his unease following the incident and how in spite of succeeding more than ever in his job, he feels bewildered and permanently unsettled. He comments that the papers print almost nothing now about the elephant and that the elephant and its keeper will never return.
An unnamed editor of a magazine for young housewives appears in the second part of the story as the narrator's potential love interest. She meets the narrator at a party to launch an advertising campaign thrown by the manufacturing company for which the narrator works. An intelligent and curious twenty-six-year-old woman, the editor talks to the narrator about the kitchen appliances his company is selling, the idea of pragmatism, and other topics at the party and afterward while they are having drinks in a hotel bar. Although they seem to enjoy an initial connection, after the narrator recounts his witnessing of the bizarre circumstances leading to the elephant's disappearance, the conversation dead ends and after leaving the lounge, the editor does not see the narrator again.
The unnamed elephant is a symbolic character in the story, representing an old way of life. Although its exact age is not known, the elephant arrived in the town from East Africa twenty-two years before it disappeared. The elephant is so old that it cannot be relocated to another zoo when the town's zoo closes. The elephant maintains a close bond with its keeper, and the two characters mysteriously vanish at the same time.
The mayor negotiates the agreement among the town, a real-estate developer, and the zoo's former owners to relocate the elephant to new surroundings after the old zoo closes down. A minor character, the mayor is a kind of stock figure of a suburban politician who holds ineffective news conferences following the elephant's disappearance.
An unnamed narrator tells the story of the disappearance of an old elephant and its keeper from the Tokyo suburb where he lives. A thirty-one-year-old man who works for the public relations section of a major electrical appliance manufacturer, the narrator obsessively tracks the elephant's story from the time of its relocation to an old elementary school gym through its mysterious vanishing. He meticulously keeps a scrapbook of articles on the elephant's disappearance and witnesses the strange circumstances that may account for the occurrence. Like many of Murakami's characters, the narrator is an isolated and quirky person who seems bewildered by the absurdity of his daily life. He also meets and thinks about courting a young magazine editor. However, following the elephant's disappearance, the narrator finds that he has become so unsettled by the loss of balance in the world that he cannot act, and he never bothers to ask the editor out.
The only named character in the story, Noboru Watanabe is the sixty-three-year-old zookeeper who has tended the elephant for over ten years. The narrator describes the keeper as a "reticent, lonely-looking old man," who faithfully takes care of all the elephant's needs and lives next to the elephant after it is relocated from the old zoo. The keeper and the elephant enjoy a special bond, which the narrator notices as he spies on them through an air vent in the elephant house. The keeper is generally kind to children who come to see the elephant, and the zoo authorities describe him as knowledgeable and dependable. However, the keeper remains a mysterious character throughout the story, and in the end, he disappears along with the elephant.
One of the major themes of the story is the idea of things being out of balance. This theme is introduced when the narrator tells the editor about the importance of unity in kitchen design, as he states, "Even the most beautifully designed item dies if it is out of balance with its surroundings." The narrator later emphasizes the importance of balance between a creature and its environment when he talks about witnessing the change in the elephant's size in relation to the keeper's size. He states that the balance in size between the two has become more equal, because the elephant has shrunk or the keeper has gotten bigger, or both. Following the disappearance of the elephant and the keeper, the narrator again expresses the idea that "things around me have lost their proper balance." He is no longer able to take action on his own behalf, as he is haunted by this sense that the urban world is out of balance, and he feels that a kind of natural balance has broken down inside him.
Appearances and Reality
Related to the theme of imbalance is the difference between appearances and reality. The narrator points out that the article covering the story of the elephant's disappearance is strange, because the reporter tries so hard to maintain that the elephant escaped, when the facts indicate that the elephant had to have almost magically vanished. The characters in the story try to maintain an appearance of normality in the face of an event that defies logic, leading to pointless acts that do not address the nature of the situation. The discrepancy between reality and appearances also arises in the narrator's job as he basically just goes through the motions, trying to maintain a professional, pragmatic approach although he does not personally believe that a kitchen has to have unity or any of the other maxims his company invokes to sell its products. The narrator finds that he cannot reconcile the differences between appearances and reality, and as he questions his own perceptions, he experiences a sense of disorientation and confusion.
Topics For Further Study
- Read the scene in the story in which the narrator meets and talks with the editor. With a partner, re-enact this part of the story as a scene in a play. You may want to work in small groups to create scenery and adapt the dialogue.
- Imagine that it is 1985, and you are living in a major city such as Los Angeles, New York, London, or Tokyo. Write a short journal entry that describes what your life is like on a typical day. Be creative, and use details that show what daily life is like, including your daily habits. You may want to research what was going on in the city of your choice before you write.
- Pick a Japanese or American company and research the products that company sells. Then, imagine you are a public relations executive for that company and write and give a speech to persuade people to buy that company's products. Create a slogan and use supplementary photos, charts, or other graphics in your presentation.
- Take a trip to the zoo and observe the elephants and find out how the elephants are cared for, what they eat, and what their habits are. Then, write an article about the elephants. You may also want to include details about where the elephants originally came from, how they came to live in the zoo, and arguments against confining animals in zoos.
- Explore the ideas of balance and imbalance by creating a work of visual art that shows both states. Think about using color, shape, and size to heighten your effects. You may want to consult an art instructor or book to learn more about balance as a principle of art.
- Rewrite the ending of the story by telling it from the keeper's or the elephant's point of view. Tell that character's version of what happened on the night the narrator observed the elephant shrinking and explain what happened to the elephant and the keeper and where they are after they disappear from the elephant house.
Another theme of the story concerns how modern developments have supplanted old ways of life. The story takes place in an affluent Tokyo suburb during the 1980s, when Japan was experiencing an economic boom. The event that sets all the other events of the story in motion is the construction of high-rise condos, which literally take the place of the old zoo, forcing the elephant to be relocated to the new elephant house. The old elephant and its aged keeper are emblems of former times, ways of life, and longstanding intuitive relationships, which have been pushed aside by commercial ventures. Throughout the story, Murakami lightly satirizes the absurdity of modern life, particularly when the narrator describes the town's reaction to the elephant's disappearance. The reactions of various townspeople such as the mayor, a "worried-looking" mother, the police, Self-Defense Force troops, an anchorman, and the reporter show how inept and illogical conventional urban responses can be. As the narrator puts it, the newspaper articles were all "either pointless or off the mark." Police response is ridiculous and futile. In all, the absurd civic response to the bizarre situation of a misplaced elephant shows, in almost a comic way, how urban mindset fails to imagine, much less comprehend, the fantastic or intuitive.
Throughout the story, Murakami subtly reveals how the vanishing of the old ways leaves people feeling disoriented and how the new ways of being create a sense of disconnection and unease. The narrator, for example, performs his job as a public relations executive successfully by espousing the commercial viewpoint that "things you can't sell don't count for much." Because in truth he does not necessarily believe this statement, saying it and operating from this pragmatic mode seem to confound the narrator, confusing him about his purpose in life. Like other Murakami characters, he is also a loner, a single person, living alone with no apparent ties to family or friends. The narrator watches the elephant and the keeper and marvels at their closeness, their special bond. In the wake of the elephant's disappearance, the narrator feels despondent, more isolated and alone than ever.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
The Elephant Vanishes: Stories, the collection in which "The Elephant Vanishes" appears, has received much acclaim from American and Japanese critics, who have lauded Murakami's originality and cosmopolitan style. Herbert Mitgang writing in the New York Times notes: "There are 17 charming, humorous and frequently puzzling short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, some of which first appeared in The New Yorker. Nearly all bear the author's special imprint: a mixture of magical realism, feckless wandering and stylish writing, often ending at a blank wall." Similarly, an anonymous reviewer writing in Publishers Weekly praises Murakami's unique talents, concluding that "In both his playful throwaway sketches and his darkly comic masterpieces, Murakami has proven himself a virtuoso with a fertile imagination."
While acknowledging that Murakami has his detractors in Japan with some critics dismissing Murakami's writings as not serious enough to be high literature, Celeste Loughman in her review in World Literature Today, notes that the author remains "immensely popular in Japan." She also praises Murakami's subversive satirical techniques and his ability to critique contemporary Japanese society in fresh ways, as she notes, "Dissatisfaction with life in a depersonalized, mechanistic society is an overworked theme. Murakami's stories rise above the cliché by the inventiveness, the fantasies and dreams, with which the characters respond to their situations."
Like other reviewers, David L. Ulin writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review applauds Murakami's renderings of a strange, supremely international world: "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."
Anna Maria Hong
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.
What Do I Read Next?
- Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: A Novel (1994–1995) traces the story of Toru Okada, an ordinary Japanese man who experiences a strange, unsettling journey when his cat and his wife disappear and he goes searching for them.
- In Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (1997–1998), Murakami gives a riveting factual account of the tragic events that took place in Tokyo on March 20, 1995, when followers of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo unleashed deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing and injuring many commuters on their way to work.
- Murakami's two-volume novel Norwegian Wood (1987) tells a realistic love story of a man who falls in love with two women. This book catapulted Murakami to fame, as it sold over four million copies in Japan.
- Murakami's novel Kafka on the Shore (2005) follows the strange paths of two characters: fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home in Tokyo to a town called Takamatsu, and Nakata, an elderly man who cannot read or write but who can speak with cats.
- Japanese American historian Ronald Takaki's Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (1989) provides a comprehensive history of the contributions and struggles of different Asian Pacific Islander American groups, including Japanese Americans in the United States from the early 1800s through the twentieth century.
- Cynthia Kadohata's novel The Floating World (1989) tells the story of a Japanese American family traveling around the United States during the 1950s in search of work and home. Narrated by the twelve-year-old Olivia, the novel depicts family dynamics against a backdrop of the so-called floating world of menial jobs and shifting locales.
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.
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.
David L. Ulin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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