Uncertain Ground: Haruki Murakami's “After the Quake”

Right now, the big news (albeit old news) is that a huge earthquake will strike the Pacific Northwest. It's just a matter of when -- we are currently living in the indefinite period of time before the quake. Coincidentally, I also just finished reading Haruki Murakami's After the Quake, a slender collection of short stories set after the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake, which displaced over 300,000 people. One of the questions that this book asks is the same one that fuels my own anxieties: how do we live well in a world where very few things are certain? 

 

In After the Quake, the earthquake functions as the stories' backdrop rather than their epicenter. What affects and unites the characters are personal, metaphysical upheavals: rifts in their ties to others that leave them feeling disconnected, rootless and empty. The first story, "UFO in Kushiro," begins when a woman who is fixated on the television coverage of the earthquake abruptly abandons her husband Komura. In her farewell letter, she writes: "living with you is like living with a chunk of air." Komura faces the emotional aftershocks of his wife's sudden departure when he travels to another city to deliver a mysterious package for a friend. In "Thailand," a disenchanted doctor on vacation secretly wishes that her ex-husband, now in Kobe, has died in the earthquake. Her faith in rationality and justice is incompatible with the wrongs the world has inflicted upon her. But our entire foundation is unstable, as her tour guide observes: 

"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 isn't true." 

The most surreal story in the collection is the penultimate "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," which begins when a lonely bank officer named Katagiri returns home to discover a six-foot-tall, anthropomorphic frog in his kitchen. While making tea and quoting Nietzsche, Frog requests Katagiri's help in saving Tokyo from destruction. A giant worm lives underground, Frog explains, and Worm's pent-up hatred will cause another earthquake if it is not stopped. In "Super-Frog," our disbelief is stretched, suspended and snapped back into place until the boundary between dream and reality is difficult to ascertain. For instance, after Frog and Katagiri discuss corruption within the bank where Katagiri works, we (like Katagiri) have almost adjusted to the "new normal" of human-amphibian conversations when this happens: 

"With a big smile on his face, Frog stood up. Then, flattening himself like a dried squid, he slipped out through the gap at the side of the closed door, leaving Katagiri all alone. The two teacups on the kitchen table were the only indication that Frog had ever been in Katagiri's apartment."

The ensuing events are comical, affecting, and disturbing. Katagiri finds meaning and purpose in his encounter with Frog, who insists upon his realness ("I am not a product of your imagination"), only to realize that the entire encounter may have been a dream. Through dreams, premonitions, and stories within stories, Murakami examines the role of the imagination in the search for identity and meaning. In one story, a dream is prescribed as the cure for a stony heart; in another, a nightmare expresses a painter's fear of being trapped. On his deathbed, one character tells another: "This life is nothing but a short, painful dream." The imagination terrifies, delights, heals, and fills the voids in the characters' lives, offering a counterpoint to reality that seems equally significant.

Fittingly, the final story "Honey Pie" opens with one imagination comforting another. Junpei, a hesitant, introverted writer, tells bedtime stories to his friend Sayoko's daughter, who has nightmares about a monster called the Earthquake Man. We soon learn that Sayoko has separated from Junpei's best friend, giving Junpei his long-awaited second chance to declare his decade-long love for Sayoko. In "Honey Pie," a broken relationship and years of biding time offer a possibility of rewriting one's role in the world. The last paragraph of the story (and the book) is stunning. 

Though each story is self-contained and the last two are my favorite, I'd recommend reading them in order. The stories and their characters reveal prismatic reflections of one another; recurring motifs like bears, boxes, shadows and stones contribute to the stories' quiet cohesion. I also feel that as the stories progress, it is increasingly easier to occupy the same headspace as the characters. Komura's surge of emotion at the end of the first story takes us by surprise. In the final story, we follow Junpei's emotional compass as it points in an ever-clearer direction, despite the catastrophic uncertainty of the times. 

 Have you read After the Quake or anything by Murakami? Please share your thoughts and recommendations!