Author: Haruki Murakami, 1993
Genre: Short Story, Magical Realism
Format: Ebook, 312 pages
Reading my fifth Murakami wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I picked up The Elephant, because I really liked his After the Quake anthology, and thought breezing through a few short stories would be a good change from the novels I’ve been reading lately. Well, it turned out that unlike After the Quake, this tome contained much more material than I could chew in one sitting. Don’t get me wrong, these stories are fascinating and unique just as any Murakami work, but there was something about reading one fantastical tale after another in such close proximity that made it feel like I was having too much. In the end all these realities, carefully bent and warped by Murakami, began collapsing on each other, sometimes not making any sense, sometimes feeling repetitive. Perhaps reading them in original format, as in published as quick stand-alones in magazines, would work a bit better.
I have a bit of a problem with Murakami’s male protagonists. I can totally see the author in every one of them, because one after another they are just the same nihilistic character convinced that life is void of meaning. They are not depressed or anything, but they just take life as it comes at them, lack any kind of ambition, and have strange non-committal relationships. The author must either be the same type of person, or at least consider such outlook on life cool to put it in every single story. Because of that the borders between a few of them got so blurred I couldn’t really distinguish between the old characters and the new ones introduced.
On the other hand, most of Murakami’s short stories are connected in some way anyway, and reading them becomes a new fun game of distinguishing those connections and solving subtle puzzles. You start wondering, Why do so many female characters drink daiquiris? Why is there always a cat mysteriously missing or leisurely passing through scenery? Why does Murakami always include some minor character named Noboru Watanabe? Why do his protagonists so often work in marketing department of a large electronics company? How come every time somebody is trying to make spaghetti, they end up uneatable? Are these the same people Murakami is talking about, or are they just mirror images of each other from some kind of parallel universe? Asking these questions, even if I’ll never find out the answers, is probably the biggest reason why I read Murakami’s fiction.
As for my favorite pieces in the anthology, I must award the title of best short stories to The Second Bakery Attack, Sleep, The Dancing Dwarf, and On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. The Bakery made me laugh out loud. Imagine that you and your wife are suffering from a strange combination of intense hunger and insomnia one night, while the fridge is absolutely empty and you are too lazy to even move. For some reason, probably out of hunger pains, you confess to her an odd incident from your boyhood, when you and a couple of friends unsuccessfully tried to rob a bakery. Your wife, instead of scolding or shaking her head at your stupidity, offers to try another bakery robbery to complete some kind of karmic cycle, so that you both can finally go to sleep. As if going for another grocery trip, you both calmly get a gun and some masks and drive into the night in search of a bakery that is still open for business. Hilariousness ensues.
Sleep is another amazing tale of extreme insomnia, when an otherwise ordinary woman suddenly seizes to sleep. She stays up all night, unbeknownst to her family, and spends her time sipping liquor, eating chocolate and indulging in Anna Karenina. Being a reader myself, I have to admit to feeling a bit jealous for the woman to have so much extra time to devote to reading, while my silly brain demands something as useless as rest :).
I would classify The Dancing Dwarf as a mixture of dystopian sci-fi and a dark fairy-tale. The main character is working a factory, assembling real-life elephants. He meticulously explains that there are departments for making ears, head, trunk, body and legs, and that ears are probably the easiest to make. He has a crush on a girl working in the leg department, who apparently isn’t interested in dating. One night a strange dancing dwarf appears in his dream and offers him a deal he finds hard to resist. There is always a catch though. This is probably my most favorite story in the entire book thanks to its originality and dark twist.
The 100% Perfect Girl reminded me of a quick piece I myself wrote a long time ago, and I thought Murakami did a far more superior job than my awkward pen could ever produce. It’s short and effective, its main theme being true love. Murakami explores the possibility of every person having their perfect other half somewhere in the world, and offers his character a chance to finally meet her. Unfortunately, he is too shy and unsure about approaching the girl, and the chance is wasted, never to return. This is a somewhat hopeful and at the same time sad little story. Its length is perfect to compliment the theme it’s exploring.