Saturday, September 27, 2014

After the Quake, by Haruki Murakami

All the short stories in After the Quake are set in the month following the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1995. None of the stories involve people directly affected by the disaster; rather, the characters are among the many indirectly impacted--by watching too much news coverage, having nightmares, hoping an enemy was killed in the quake, or reexamining how they want to live their lives.

My favorite of the stories was "honey pie." The story opens with a man Junpei telling his friend's daughter Sala a story about a bear. The friend, Sayoko, has called Junpei in the middle of the night because Sala has awakened in a panic due to an earthquake-related nightmare; Junpei is the only person who can soothe her. The story then flashes back to the college friendship of Junpei, Sayoko, and Takatsuki. Takatsuki is a more aggressive personality than Junpei and he strikes up a romantic relationship with Sayoko (Junpei is also in love with her, but is too tentative to make a move). Sayoko and Takatsuki eventually marry, have Sala, and divorce--but the three remain friends. Takatsuki encourages Junpei to take his relationship with Sayoko to the next level, but Junpei still hesitates. Only after the earthquake does he decide to ask Sayoko to marry him; he also decides that he wants to write stories different from those he has previously written, focusing more on people who are hopeful.

In "ufo in kushiro,"  a woman spends five days watching earthquake coverage nonstop and then leaves her husband because he is essentially hollow. He decides to take a vacation and agrees to carry a mysterious package to Hokkaido for a colleague. In Hokkaido he meets two women; he tries to sleep with one but is impotent, an event that causes him to begin questioning whether he is indeed an empty man.  In "landscape with flatiron," a young woman and older man whose family lives in Kobe--he does not bother to check on them, however--build bonfires on the beach and talk. At the end of the story, they seem to be waiting to die, how we're not sure. "super-frog saves tokyo" has magical elements that are common in Murakami's work. In this case, a gigantic frog approaches a bank loan officer for help fighting a worm that will cause an earthquake that will destroy Tokyo.

I really don't know what to make of After the Quake as a collection. Murakami's stories offer an indictment of Japanese people as living rather empty lives lacking in meaning; while "honey pie" suggests that an event like the Kobe earthquake may shake people into action, "landscape with flatiron" offers a less positive perspective. And I really have no idea what a couple of the stories mean.

During the spring semester, I facilitated an online book group that focused on a collection of material written in response to the 3/11/2011 disasters in Japan. The stories in that book, titled March Was Made of Yarn (see my review at, dealt much more directly with the impact of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown; although some had fantastical elements, they had a greater impact on me than Murakami's! I should note that After the Quake was reviewed very positively and is often mentioned as an important title in the "literature of disaster"; for me, however, the collection did not work.

Favorite passage:
The short story is on the way out. Like the slide rule.

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