Thursday, December 31, 2015

After the QuakeAfter the Quake by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“You know something?" she said.
"I'm completely empty."

This is my second book by Haruki Murakami; over two years ago I read and reviewed Kafka on the Shore . I have read After the Quake in a Polish translation as I do not have access to the English version right now. This is a collection of six short stories, linked together by references to the tragic 1995 earthquake in Kobe. All stories in the set are compulsively readable, yet - in my view - of quite uneven literary value.

UFO in Kushiro tells a story of a man whose wife left him, after the quake, and who was asked to deliver a package - a small box - to someone in a distant part of the country. This enigmatic tale poses many questions to which it gives only oblique and indirect answers. What was in the box? Why did the wife leave the man? Why did Keiko say that the wife had died? And most importantly, what do we really know - if anything - about other people? I quite like the story, probably because of the last question: our guesses about other people's motives are usually wrong. (Also, being a connoisseur of bad jokes, I appreciate Mr. Murakami's use of the famous joke about bears and bells, without spoiling the punch line.)

Landscape with Flatiron is ostensibly about the human atavistic fascination with fire, but this moody and melancholic story really focuses on the feeling of emptiness in human life. Nice but not particularly memorable.

The Polish translation uses the title of the third story, All God's Children Can Dance as the title of the entire collection, probably because it is a catchy phrase, yet to me this story of a man in search for the father he has never known is by far the weakest story in the set. It is pretentious, superficial, and it fails in its attempts to titillate the reader with religious and sexual references. (By the way, there is nothing wrong with explicit sexual references in literature as long as they make at least some sense in the context of a story; Yoshiya's huge penis does not).

The quiet and reflective fourth story is about a medical researcher, divorced from her husband, vacationing in Thailand (which is the title of the story), and trying to cope with memories of her painful past. This "secrets and lies" sort of tale is enlivened by the character of Nimit, a Thai driver and guide, who speaks with a Norwegian accent. The piece would have a greater impact if the author were not so insistent on explicitly telling us what he wanted to convey through his prose. There are subtler ways of portraying human loneliness.

The title of the next piece - Super-Frog Saves Tokyo - succinctly summarizes the plot of this amusing yet lightweight story. The highpoint here is a funny reference to Anna Karenina, especially coming from the mouth of a frog (sorry, the Super-Frog). On the other hand, its low point is pretty low in my opinion: the showy claptrap bit about suppurating abscesses, oozing pus, worms, and bugs.

The last story, Honey Pie, is clearly the best: the author manages to refrain from cheap literary tricks and does not try to dazzle the reader with showiness. Here we can see a good writer at work, telling us about the ways in which love changes our lives and brings some sense to our otherwise meaningless existence. This story is the only reason that my rating of the entire collection is higher than "Fair".

In the review of Kafka on the Shore I wrote: "In a sense, the novel is a beautiful, yet empty shell." I have a similar feeling - minus the "beautiful" bit - after reading this set of stories. With the exception of the excellent last piece and the fourth one where the author explicitly tells us what we are supposed to think, the stories read as empty textual structures that the readers can fill with any interpretation they want - not that there is anything wrong with it, in my view, as long as the structures are constructed of engaging prose.

Two and three quarter stars.

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