Title: After the Quake
Author: Haruki Murakami
Genre: Fiction, short stories, magical realism, contemporary
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Bokkilden.
My rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: Satsuki fears her hatred towards one man might have caused a natural disaster. Four-year old Sala has nightmares about the Earthquake Man, who is trying to stuff her inside a little box. Katagiri returns to his apartment to find a giant frog on a mission to save Tokyo from a massive burrowing worm. This collection of six short stories are all written in response to the catastrophic 1995 Kobe earthquake.
“Strange and mysterious things, though, aren’t they – earthquakes? We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. We even talk about people being ‘down to earth’ or having their feet firmly planted on the ground. But suddenly one day we see that it isn’t true. The earth, the boulders, that are supposed to be solid, all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid.”
– “Thailand” in After the Quake, Haruki Murakami
Murakami takes on a slightly different approach with this short story collection. These stories explore the Japanese national identity and conscience – much in the same vein as his non-fiction piece “Underground“, which is a collection of interviews about the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attacks, and the novel “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle“, which largely deals with Japan’s modern history.
There isn’t as much use of magical realism in this collection as I might have expected. Except for one story (“Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”), all of them are pretty much ordinary, but to some extent they all have a subtle element of magical realism to them. The usual storytelling is also a bit different, as the stories are written in 3rd person, a viewpoint that Murakami doesn’t often write in. Still, both the straightforward writing style and a few plot elements are familiar, even in the form of short stories.
None of the characters in these stories find themselves in the midst of the disaster. In fact, their daily lives are only distantly affected by the earthquake, which remains a connecting theme, and I think that is my favorite thing about this collection as a whole. The disaster is something that uproots these characters, even though their experience of everything is different and the degree of its influence varies. The earthquake indicates change and the brutal elimination of safety. It’s a reminder that anything can end at any moment, and that life is full of uncertainty and events that we cannot predict or control. It’s an exploration of the human condition that I really enjoyed reading about.
It was a bit hard for me to rate this collection as my rating changes depending on the story. I’m putting down 3 stars as an overall assessment because there are only six short stories and they’re all pretty short. Though a couple of them were 5-star reads, or very close to 5 stars, the rest were simply just alright for me. The writing in itself in these is solid, but they weren’t really anything special and remains a bit on the vague side (even for Murakami). However, “Thailand”, “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”, and also to an extent “Honey Pie”, were all stories I really enjoyed. “Thailand” introduces a subtle element of an alternate reality, or a parallel world, and explores the emptiness and loneliness experienced by an individual. “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is undeniably the most surreal story, and it deals with bravery as well as haunting dreams and hallucinations. “Honey Pie” is the most hopeful story of the bunch, and with its unifying message it’s a great one to end the collection.
This was my first Murakami short story collection, and I enjoyed it overall even though I only found half of them truly memorable. I’m looking forward to reading more Murakami shorts!