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April 29, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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The Elephant Vanishes – Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami has been a significant figure on both the English-language and Japanese literary scenes for decades, but while his novels—Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84—have been well-read and -loved, his short stories must be considered of equal value. With a charming surrealism and a whimsical, slightly troubled logic, the stories in The Elephant Vanishes are condensed bursts of Murakami—but not at all diminished for this.

The sense of surrealism pervading the domestic—a hallmark of Murakami’s work—suits the short story well; at times these works are reminiscent of Vonnegut’s short stories or Jorge Luis Borges’s seminal collection Labyrinths. Through the consistency in tone and the understated way Murakami manages his prose, there is a suggestion that the surrealism contained herein may be symptomatic of small disturbances in the world at large. The most unsettling stories end up being the ones which are most grounded in reality; Barn Burning, which procures much of its mystery and momentum through narrative gaps, is incredibly troubling for how little grasp we have over the events in the story.

This surrealism is even expanded to cover the collection as a whole. Various elements—not themes or motifs, but actual names and places—are repeated in various guises, disguised and distorted. Several characters work for the same company, or in a similar profession and the figure of “Noboru Watanabe” is simultaneously the protagonist’s cat which is named after his wife’s brother, his sister’s fiance, the town’s elderly elephant keeper, and several other people. This contributes to the subtly unnerving nature of The Elephant Vanishes; due to its similarity in tone (all the stories are written in first person, from the perspective of a character whose life has been profoundly disturbed in some small way) the reader tends to run the stories together, acknowledging but not really accepting the autonomy of these stories as separate beings.

The placement of stories in The Elephant Vanishes is rather cruel. The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women, which then became the longer novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, is the first story in this collection, and this almost derailed my enjoyment of the whole book, as I was seriously tempted to abandon it in order to search for a copy of the novel. Thankfully, I persisted: although The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women is brilliant—its central mystery is never explained, and this ends up working in its favour—so are the other stories, and they work incredibly well together.

Although it lacks the cohesion of plot and character that a novel requires, The Elephant Vanishes is novel-like in giving a sense that we are working towards something. Never in reading it did I feel lost; I was often troubled by seemingly inexplicable mysteries, but the skill of Murakami’s writing and the confidence this imbues reassures the reader that if we read long and hard enough this will all make sense. More power to him, then, that it doesn’t; we are only left with “some kind of balance … [which] has been broken down.”

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