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NA443212 - MURAKAMI, H.: After the Quake (Unabridged)

Haruki Murakami
After the Quake


On January 17th, 1995, at about a quarter to six in the morning, a major earthquake hit the city of Kobe. It came as a surprise because the city was thought to be sufficiently distant from any of the major fault-lines that scar the underside of Japan. Over five thousand people died, a further 26,000 were injured and some 300,000 were made homeless, including Haruki Murakami’s parents. The economic loss has been estimated at about $200 billion. Two months later, on March 20th, members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult placed canisters of nerve gas in the Tokyo underground. Over three thousand people were hospitalized, twelve died and some suffered permanent brain damage. Many still get headaches, breathing difficulties or dizzy spells. after the quake is a collection of six short stories set in the February between these two catastrophic events, and while each one makes a specific reference to the earthquake, not one is directly about it; and the underground attacks are even more elusive in these allusive, tangential tales. But this short work contains much that is typical of Murakami’s style, as well as significant differences; and for some, has proved his most moving and powerful work to date.

Haruki Murakami was not in Japan when the earthquake struck. In some senses, he had not been there for a very long time. He fell out with his mother and father from an early age, a symptom of the rebellion that was gathering momentum in Japan in the late 1960s as the new generation decided to turn away from what they saw as the stifling nature of traditional Japanese culture and society. For Murakami, this meant looking west—to American or European literature and music, and especially jazz. He married against his parents’ wishes, and established a jazz café where he worked until he decided that his true calling was to be a writer. Even here, however, he could not escape the sense of being suffocated within Japan’s booming, money-crazed society. He escaped to Europe for several years with his wife. When he returned to his home country, however, and produced a massive bestseller, he felt so overwhelmed by the attention and the criticism of the old-school literati that he had to leave again, finally stopping in the United States where he taught at two universities. He had turned his back on his homeland, its traditions, his parents and many of his contemporaries. He felt disenchanted, dissociated and disconnected from Japan.

But not from his readers. In his novels, he usually uses a first person male narrator, stuck in a vaguely unsatisfactory job, who is a good if ineffective person. Weird things happen to him, and he goes along with them. The narrative becomes a cross between fantasy and dreamland, a fabulous concoction of competing realities where the narrator strives to find something that he cannot define, and usually fails to find it—but is greater for the effort. There will be long disquisitions on art and philosophy, constant references to music and musicians (almost always Western ones), name-checks of brands like McDonalds, Coke and the like, almost always a cat or two, and references to food. Murakami’s audience was universal, and so was his popularity. He was not writing for the salarymen back home—the commuters who thronged the underground anticipating a lifetime’s employment for dedication to the hugely successful economy. He was writing for those who felt lost in the world where such things were expected. But something happened to Murakami when he saw the news reports of that earthquake; and after the quake is different.

Not unrecognisably so. Any reader of his earlier works will hardly be surprised by the appearance of a six-foot frog striving to save Tokyo, or the unresolved mystery of the contents of a little wooden box. There are plenty of references to jazz and the Western classical tradition. But there are significant departures from his usual style: no first-person narrator, for instance; storylines much more closely rooted in experiences the audience can share (giant frogs notwithstanding); a warmth towards the frustrations of daily existence and the depth of feeling hiding beneath the surface of almost every life.

There is also an unusually direct correlation between the subject of the book and its meaning. In much of his work, the meaning is quite deliberately kept beyond the reader’s reach, just as it is the protagonist’s, and Murakami delights in this tantalising opacity. But here there are levels of metaphor that he openly acknowledges. One is for the country itself. Japan’s economy had for several decades been extremely successful, and people felt that they could expect it to continue. They were convinced that the economic ground they stood on was secure. As it happened, it was not, and the economy had to deal with its own quake shortly after. At the same time, these subterranean rumblings are the external equivalent of the subconscious ones at the heart of the characters. Their hidden desire and fear and ineffectiveness are erupting in an all too physical way. The outside world is collapsing at the same time as they feel that they are; their demons and dreams of destruction are becoming all too real—are they in some way responsible?

But this metaphorical resonance should not distract from the humanity that holds the stories together just as much as their subject matter does. In Honey Pie, Junpei—an author of short stories—is away from Japan when the earthquake strikes. It hits the area his parents live in, but he has been estranged from them for a long time. However, the emotional aftershocks cannot be put aside:

The lethal, gigantic catastrophe seemed to change certain aspects of his life—quietly, but from the ground up. Junpei felt an entirely new sense of isolation. I have no roots, he thought. I’m not connected to anything.

The parallels between Junpei and Murakami at this point are too close to be ignored. This is not to suggest that Junpei is Murakami in any sense at all—he clearly is not. But it perhaps indicates how personally Murakami felt the impact of that earthquake in 1995, despite his distance from it. Allied to the gas attacks, it certainly led to a change of life for him—he moved back to Japan shortly afterwards, where he still lives. Part of his response to the two disasters was to interview the victims and some of the perpetrators of the gas attacks, and publish the results in a collection called Underground. In this, his sympathy is clearly with precisely those salarymen for whom he felt something like contempt in his past. Now, however, he found in them a depth of humanity he had not anticipated; but which he delicately and profoundly prefigures in after the quake.

Notes by Roy McMillan

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