Friday, July 08, 2005

After the quake, a giant frog

Have been reading/rereading Murakami a lot recently (partly because I might soon be doing a column on contemporary writers; partly because his treatment of the outsider appeals to me a lot these days). Highly recommended: after the quake (he insisted the title be in lower-case in the English translation), a collection of six short stories related, mostly indirectly, to the Kobe earthquake in 1995. Many trademarks of Murakami’s writing can be found here: plenty of surrealism, deadpan humour, malcontents trying to make sense of the world and of splintered relationships (which fits in with the earthquake theme), long philosophical conversations.

Just a couple of days ago I was having a blog argument with a friend - won't reproduce it here but my stand was that fantastical/supernatural creations can be allowed to exist in "realistic" settings, amidst real people; it isn’t necessary to restrict them to their own "otherworlds". At the time I was thinking in terms of SFF literature and graphic novels, but reading after the quake reminded me that this applies to the best of surrealistic writing too. Murakami recognises that sometimes the best way to make sense of our lives is to hand them over to the fantastical, and to sit back and watch what happens. Few writers are as good at making the everyday and the phantasmagorical coexist; the shifts in perception often happen so subtly that one doesn’t even realise it - I’m not going to try to describe it (Murakami’s work usually defeats such attempts) but read his novel A Wild Sheep Chase and you’ll see what I mean. (BTW, previous post on Murakami here.)

In after the quake there is a story, "Super-frog saves Tokyo", in which a bank executive returns to his apartment to find a six-foot-tall, Dostoevsky/Nietzsche-quoting frog (called Frog) who plans to save Tokyo from an impending earthquake by going underground and battling a a huge worm (called Worm). Now you can accept this story on either literal or allegorical terms ("I am, indeed, pure Frog, but at the same time I am a thing that stands for a world of un-Frog," says Frog with studied seriousness) - but what matters is that Murakami takes absurd premises like this one and somehow weaves them into moving stories about the fragility of human relations; about people mustering the courage to face their greatest fears and trying to make sense of the shifting tectonic plates in their own lives.


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  2. That was a nice review. after the quake is one of the few Murakami books I haven't read but will go out and buy it. You're right that few writers are as good as Murakami at making the everyday and the phantasmagorical coexist. After a while, the shifts in perception seem totally normal - par for the course. In Kafka on the Shore, he takes it to new levels and maybe too far. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle remains my favourite - even people who aren't so keen on surrealism will love this book.

    On the previous post, I found it interesting that you found Norwegian Wood to be for the most part uplifting. I found it to be predominantly sad, dark, and powerful but not really uplifting. You can tell that Murakami really understands suicide, pain, and love. And I also didn't find Watanabe to be a passive narrator - "as blank sheets on which things are being inscribed." You're right that Watanabe is rarely explicit about his feelings but that is the genius of Murakami's style. The pain which Watanbe feels fills the whole book without him having to say it.

  3. Thanks, Kafka... What I meant when I said Norwegian Wood was uplifting was that it's uplifting in the sense that any great novel is - because of the joy of reading it. In terms of its subject matter it is quite melancholy. And I felt Watanabe's pain too - but I still thought he was passive: much the same way Kazuo Ishiguro's protagonists tend to be.

  4. I first discovered Murakami when I read a short story called "The Second Bakery Attack" in a Playboy compilation of short stories, and was immensely moved by it. It's part of a compilation of short stories he wrote called "The Elephant Vanishes", which is wildly good. His novels are uneven, though, and I think the reputation he's got for bring that surreal/magical element in his stories hurts him, because he seems to be trying too hard sometimes. But he's great fun to read.

  5. It's not just that Murakami makes the phatansmagorical coexist with the everyday, he demonstrates that it is perceptually and experientially integral to the human world. Just one coruscating face of his art.

    I don't believe that you have ever referred to "Underground", his only non-fiction work, which is an exploration ofthe sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system launched by members of the Aum cult and its aftermath. Through a series of interviews with the victims and survivors of the attack, as also with the present and former members of the cult, Murakami points out that the modern self is often dreamed up in endless repetition and when society does not make space for certain of these narratives, it drives them underground, whence their destructive energies are unleashed.

    "Underground" is a masterwork, deserving of serious meditation, for it's easy enough to see that the RSS, for example, is based primarily on an unarticulated, subterranean narrrative incompatible with the aspirational secularist radiance of our Republic.

    I wish "Underground" was at least as well known as his other, sad tales of thwarted love in a gloomy, post-industrial universe.

  6. you are right in pointing out that fantastical imagination should be allowed to exist in realistic settings and amidst realistic people.

    That's why writers like Gogol, Kafka, Marquez or even Murakami, who use fantasy as a way of looking at the same world that we inhabit, belong to the tier one unlike normal genre writers like Tolkien or Pratchett who appear to be totally disengaged with the real world and as a result, whose books work mostly as lazy entertainments.

    Tolkien fans, please don't spam by saying that LOTR is about the eternal-battle-between-good-and-evil....:)

  7. Just found your blog. I was in India a few months ago, and loved your country.

  8. Hi apostle. Did it feel like a Murakami story?


  9. Alok: I disagree with Tolkien/Pratchett's works being nothing more than 'lazy entertainment'. Those works are, after all, written by human beings who have doubtlessly grappled with "real" issues in the "real" world over the course of their own (real) lives; it's inevitable that their writings will reflect some of those concerns, even if in tangential ways. And even if the works only reflect the authors' escapism - their inclination to evade real-world issues - well, surely that tells you something equally important about the human condition, doesn't it?

    (Oh well, there's your first spam by an LOTR fan :)

  10. I think Pratchett's discworld is a lateral satirical examination of the human condition - each and everyone of his settings, plots and sub-plots is a direct take on events that have either occurred recently or sometimes in the dim past.

    He does precisely what Kafka and Gogol did and does it rather better on occasion.

    He deals, not very subtly, though with a great deal of humour, with issues like racism, feminism, the uni-polar world, political chicanery and other moral aspects of the human condition.

    I could take each of his settings and characters and connect them to the specific historical settings including the contemporary ones.

    It would be a waste of time.

    If you haven't read enough Pratchett or enough history, or current affairs, to figure this out for yourself, you shouldn't be commenting on him or on the use of literary devices such as fantasy.

    Please start jumping up and down Alok,
    please, please pretty please!



  11. Thanks, DD! Badly needed a comment like that to support my own rather vague, inarticulate reasoning.

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