At a little over a hundred pages, this may be the slimmest short story collection I’ve read. It’s also my first taste of the prolific and hugely influential Haruki Murakami, a successful Japanese writer whose reputation precedes itself (‘IQ84’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’). Murakami’s work is commonly considered speculative fiction or magical realism. This collection, however, falls more in line with traditional literary fiction, though it’s not without the odd surreal twist.
Ostensibly, these stories are moody, evocative character studies that deal with the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Some stories deal closely with the disaster, while others mention it in passing. Even in the more removed stories, the earthquake’s effects are still evident. It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t a survivor’s account: it does not deal with struggling families digging through rubble or boarding in civic centres. More so, this is about affluent, middle-to-upper class Japanese folk coming to terms with their own mortality. This theme is evident in every story, though sometimes it is more of an abstraction.
Murakami has a gift for creating rich, three dimensional characters. His prose is sparse and deceptively simple, yet it teems with energy. Such is the power of suggestiveness. Murakami’s language — even here, at its most grounded — has this whimsical sensibility that is hard to articulate. It’s clear by his playful dialogue and clever framing devices that he is a born storyteller. I struggle to comprehend that he’s made his name as a novelist when he’s so adept at the short form.
It’s worth mentioning that some of these stories, such as ‘Landscape with Flatiron’ and ‘All God’s Children Can Dance’, have a bit of a philosophical bent to them. Ordinarily, this isn’t my thing. I mean, nobody wants to feel they’re being preached to. Murakami’s narratives, though, are so wildly unconventional that the diversions into philosophy don’t feel imposing. His characters and ideas are closely connected; when he invites you to come along explore them, the tendency is to jump right in.
I don’t think there are any true weak links in this collection, but there are some obvious standouts. The latter stories, the quirky ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’ and the heartfelt ‘Honey Pie’, left the greatest impressions, though maybe this is because they’re contextually the most distinct. ‘Thailand’, a meditation on materialism, social classes and life’s many contrasting directions, was another standout.
Maybe this collection isn’t the truest representation of Murakami traditional ‘style’, but it is a quick and thought-provoking read. Consider me invested in Murakami’s journey.