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The Elephant Vanishes is Haruki Murakami’s first US released collection of short stories. It consists of 15 short stories showing his work at its finest, from magical lands with dancing dwarves, giant elephants, and a man searching for his cat. Every thing is uniquely Murakami though, and every single one of these stories is worthy of your time to read, and some of them to read the novel to which they are attached. Here are some notes I jotted down while reading the collection and some thoughts on his work as a whole.
– Murakami uses a singular human feeling or emotion for each of his stories, then he expands and distorts, contracts, and expands that emotion to his pleasure. Use of loneliness, Hunger, and Tiredness come to mind.
– His concepts on reality are very interesting. He is constantly letting the characters recreate it for themselves, the way they want it. The presence of dual reality is consistent, wherein there lies a layer below actual reality that the character must come to terms with.
– He uses the journal and memory as a common device. The narrator’s memory and how it is utilized is consistently brought up and analyzed. His use of a journal repeats as a means of organization and structure in the dynamic and chaotic lives of his protagonists, lending a much more structured manner to their lives
The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women
The first story was really odd. Mainly because it’s not actually a story, but the first chapter of his most famous book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. After being unable to find the cat, he travels out into the blocked off alley to look and ends up in the back yard of a young girl sunbathing, where he falls asleep in a lawn chair. A series of inappropriate phone conversations with a stranger, and the weird girl in the alley set up one of his greatest stories in that novel, but here are a little out of place as all you get is the first chapter. In typical Murakami fashion though, any chapter from any of his books could be read stand alone and make sense, as very little tends to happen in the physical reality of his characters. Instead, something more that you feel more than observe occurs here. It heartily establishes the tone for the rest of the book, and sets up the reader for the oddities to come.
The Second Bakery Attack
The second story was odd too, in its execution. The hunger curse is interesting to me in that it seems to be the result of a more psychological problem. His wife is an inherently violent person here and that doesn’t seem to make much sense. What purpose is there to her violence? Why is she struck by the curse as well and why has he not felt this hunger otherwise since the time at the bakery. I think it might be that he needs a companion to feel this hunger. His best friend was around the last time it happened, and then he left. Without a conspirator it doesn’t matter how he feels. The hunger appears though, only 2 weeks after his marriage, and she takes up the matter quite efficiently. Her apparent knowledge on the subject is interesting though. It rouses suspicion in the narrator. Something that Murakami does in the first story as well. A sort of underlying suspicion from this man towards his wife.
The Kangaroo Communique
The third story was very cool to me. The way he starts it off, completely off topic, explaining his 36 steps of though–which we never actually get to hear–and then goes on, the various tangents in his conversation are brilliant. The man works a horribly boring and depressing job and when he finds a gem in his pile of coal he grasps it without abandon. He wants to talk to this girl. He wants to get to know her. He goes on about his wish to be alive in double state. He wants to exist in two places at once. A desire to overcome the monotony of his life and yet not abandon it at the same time. He’s afraid of change and this is his way of dealing with it, by not changing. Thus he records this letter to the girl and tells her things that are probably not appropriate. But they are his other self acting. The reclusive, department store self is put aside and this second self, the self that wants to sleep with her and write her this letter is brought out without fear of consequence.
On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning
This is another brilliant story that I couldn’t get over. It was short and to the point, offering no plot, or development. Just a very cool series of thought and a seed of doubt left in the reader as to what really happened. Murakami’s narrator sees a girl on the street that he knows is perfect for him. Doesn’t know how or why, she just is. Love at first sight. He doesn’t do anything though. Conjecture develops the ultimately tragic or ultimately romantic story that exists below the surface. If he had told her his story and they got together the reader is left thinking how horribly romantic this is. However since he doesn’t talk to her, I’m left to wonder if this story might be true. How horribly sad that would be. This is a story about chances. About taking chances in life and making the most of them. Not letting fate kick your ass. Twice the narrator leaves his 100% perfect girl. Once in his story and once in real life. She will never return to him
This is a very interesting story. It tackles a bunch of different little things about her life. She seems to be lost in a world of her own creation. Lost to the arrogance of her husband’s family, she has lost everything in her life that made her her. When she stops sleeping she is denying reality to regain that part of her. She is going against her fate that has been constructed and is creating a new reality for herself. In doing so she must confront death and in that ends up meeting it. Her perceptions of reality are skewed completely. In this she creates a new one. One where she maintains her own identity. Not the one that her husband gave her. She is having a mid-life crisis and her way of dealing with it is as such.
The Fall of the Roman Empire, The 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler’s Invasion of Poland, and the Realm of Raging Winds
This piece uses key events to mark the narrator’s own personal history. It follows a simple day of events for him and marks small normal events as big events with historical metaphor. It’s as if he’s saying that one’s entire life can be marked and remembered by key points and words without all the details. A certain linearity to our lives exists that makes life easier to remember.
The lederhosen act as a catalyst for her to have stepped back and see the world and her life for what it was. She had to that point built up an illusory world that she lived in. She was unable to step out of it and see how much she didn’t want. She was to ensconced in it to do so. When she finds the guy that looks like her husband but isn’t, she is able to view what she has from an outsider POV. This is disturbing to her and because of it she is able to work through her emotions and forget about her husband.
This is a pretty horrible little story. The man from Africa is either a murderer or a truly horrible person that scared her off. I lean toward the former in the way he described how the barn was calling to be burned. The narrator’s closeness to the girl is important here because is counters the man’s statement of the barn needing to be burned. His whole idea is that the barn is old and useless and it won’t hurt anyone, but this last barn is such that the narrator is the one affected by it. Thus it wasn’t harmless. He isn’t aware of the correlation though and continues to seek out the barn and the girl. This leading to the dual existence matter again in which he is trying to seek out the literal object that hasn’t been burned and inside his mind seeks out the figurative object, the girl that he misses, that has been removed from his life. Very Poe like and quite disturbing.
Little Green Monster
She rebukes love. In doing so, her every move, every bad thought and ill manner hurts the creature. Seems like a metaphor for rejection. She rejects the creatures unrequited love and in so doing destroys him. She sees him only for what he is, a horribly ugly creature, ignoring his love and calm manner. She, instead of figuring out what he wants to say or how to get him to return to his home, destroys him, mercilessly. His passion draws him into her home, unwanted, and because of that her malice is unleashed, almost by reflex. The author seems to be making a statement on women here and how unforgiving they can be for a man’s love. Also a statement on the blindness of love and how the male will react without thought and not weight the choices involved.
This story struck me as being fairly laced with subplots and hidden meanings. All of it was done in a very subtle manner, true to Murakami’s style and it really struck well, especially at the end, with its blunt, matter-of-fact manner of storytelling. Firstly, the narrator and his sister are just what he says, “partners”. Partners in living a pointless lifestyle. She has grown out of it though. In the 5 years they have lived together she has grown and developed a sense of responsibility and place in the world. He however, is still trapped in his own little world, his separate reality. This is demonstrated often by how he says things that don’t affect him don’t concern him, such as who wins the baseball game. It doesn’t matter. “I’m not playing, they are.” The differences in the narrator and Noburo Watanabe are extensive. An important thing to point out at first, is the fact that Watanabe has a name at all. Very few, if any characters even receive names in Murakami’s stories. This name is important in that it symbolizes a place in reality. His place in reality is marked by his name and he conforms via that name. His sister will become a part of that reality when she takes this manes name. Thus, as the representative of reality, Watanabe begins to destroy the narrator’s fantasy world. In the end of the story, after talking to this man and hearing how pathetic his life really is, he first feels the pointlessness of his life. His night out with the girl at the bar is miserable and that is the first mark of the destruction of his fantasy, drawing him into Watanabe’s reality.
There’s not much here that I could discern that the author doesn’t say straight out. So, I’ll just quote the last paragraph.
“Should I have slept with her?
That’s the central question of this piece.
The answer is beyond me. Even now, I have no idea. There are lots of
things we never understand, no matter how many years we put on, no matter how
much experience we accumulate. All I can do is look up from the train at the windows in the buildings that might be hers. Every one of them could be her window, it sometimes seems to me, and at other times I think that none of them could be hers. There are simply too many of them.”
Life has many possibilities. The simple place of her window is such that it could be anywhere, or perhaps even nowhere at all.