Friday, 22 April 2011

Foreign Language Friday: The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

Dear Blog,
another anthology review, even though because it's so late here it's almost Foreign Language Saturday.

Original Language: Japanese
Translated by: Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin
Summary (from Goodreads): When a man's favourite elephant vanishes, the balance of his whole life is subtly upset; a couple's midnight hunger pangs drive them to hold up a McDonald's; a woman finds she is irresistible to a small green monster that burrows through her front garden; an insomniac wife wakes up to a twilight world of semi-consciousness in which anything seems possible - even death. In every one of the stories that make up The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami makes a determined assault on the normal. He has a deadpan genius for dislocating realities to uncover the surreal in the everyday, the extraordinary in the ordinary.

The Wind-up Bird And Tuesday's Women- turned out later on, much revised, to be the beginning to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which I haven't read yet.  However, it certainly is a winning idea for a book, and certainly a strong opening to an anthology like this. 
The thing I like most about Haruki Murakami is the way that he manages to make the most ordinary, everyday things absolutely unputdownable reading. The narrator's cat disappears. If this was any other author, you'd be like, "It's okay, he'll turn up when he's hungry."  But in Murakami's writing you're like "Oh noes!  The cat!  He has to be found!"  Not just because of the writing style, but just because you care about the characters so much, you need the subtle balance to their lives to be restored now. 

The Second Bakery Attack- Is about (in my opinion) the most badass married couple in literature, who how after suddenly becoming ravenously hungry in the middle of the night, decide to hold up a MacDonalds in order to break a curse set on the husband. On one hand, taking a step back and saying to yourself "Hang on.  What are they doing..?"  it's quite hilarious, but on the other you can't help but take it seriously as you read it.

 The Kangaroo CommuniquéI don't really have very much to say about this one.  One thing I do know; it was weird.  Even for this anthology. It didn't really make sense, it was shrouded in mystery; the narration sort of jumped about from one place to another. 

On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning-is only five or six pages long, but one of my favourites nonetheless.  It's short and sweet and the sort of thing that puts a smile on your face when you've finished, and seems to make your whole day brighter for having read it.  Even though you know it's just a story, it's utterly enchanting. It's kind of like a fairy-tale.  

Sleep-Would have been another favourite, had it not been for the ending, which seemed to let down what would have otherwise been a truly, truly fantastic story.  The ending was very sudden and didn't really seem to fit with the rest of the story, which left me kind of disappointed.  However, up to that point it was unputdownable.  I'm something of an insomniac, but not...not in the creepy sinister way of this story.  It gave me chills.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, The 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler's Invasion of Poland, And The Realm of Raging Winds-  Was another short one, and all the better for it. For all its length, it was pretty incredible in the way that it managed to weave in time and space to such a short piece. The writing style is beautiful; so clear and precise.   "I let out a short, maybe 30% sigh."    "The things on the line were all aflutter, whipping out loud, dry cracks, streaming their crazed comet trails off into space."

Lederhosen- Was a bizarre story; a woman goes to Germany, tries to buy some Lederhosen for her husband and then ends up divorcing him.    It was kind of "Oh.  Okay."  No real explanation is given for why she does this; the mind boggles.   But this is Haruki Murakami, dear blog, and if anything slightly out of the ordinary happens, you just nod and accept it.  Because thou shalt not question the master.

Barn Burning - Was quite a delightful escapade through the Japanese countryside, in which the narrator meets a young man who likes to burn barns out in the country.  It was around this point in the book that it started to strike me how similar the main characters are in all these short stories.  They're about thirty or so; they smoke, they drink, they listen to music.  Is that it?  Surely there's more to them than that.  Admittedly it's pretty hard to write full personalities with just twenty or thirty pages to play with; but they seem to be the same characters over and over, in different situations but with the same basic mold.

The Little Green Monster - This is a weird comparison, but The Little Green Monster reminds me somewhat of Andy Riley's Bunny Suicide books;  It's quite sweet in a mean sort of way, having you both laughing and going "aaw, no!  The poor rabbit/little green monster!"  at the same time.  So you do feel kind of guilty when you've finished it for finding the undersized verdant  lusus naturae's infatuation with the narrator amusing.  But you do anyway. 

A Family Affair- Was quite a "normal" story compared to some of the others; just the story of a brother, a sister and the sister's new boyfriend, whose name is Noboro Watanabe, a character who seems to appear in a fair few of the stories in the book.  There doesn't seem to be a link between all these people with the same name; they just are.

A Window- Is a beautiful story about letters, a part-time job and hamburger steaks; all are linked.  It's another short one that's quite similar to On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl.

TV People -  Is bizarrely apathetic.  A man is sat in his living room late one night when suddenly little people appear in his apartment and set up a television.  Mysteriously when it's turned on, the television doesn't show any channels, and then the aforementioned TV People turn up at his office to install a similar television, which nobody else seems to notice.  It's...just so weird.  The narrator never mentions the TV people to anyone, nor do they mention them to him.  He just sits there and watches them go about their makes no sense. But then, I don't think it's meant to.

A Slow Boat to China- Is absolutely beautiful.  It's poetic in a way that none of the other short stories are; it seems calm and flowing; like the narrator is stood still while the rest of the world keeps going. 

The Dancing Dwarf - Imagine that The Little Mermaid and Stephen King had a baby. The Dancing Dwarf is the result, some sort of fairy tale set in a different world which gets darker and darker with every page, until the ending which is slightly horrific and entirely disgusting. 

The Last Lawn of the Afternoon- Another...strange one, in which when you think about it not an awful lot happens.  Outwardly, it seems like another one of the more "normal" stories, but on another there are still a lot of questions that feel like they need answering.

The Silence- Is quite touching and powerful in a simplistic sort of way.   I've read a couple of reviews that have mentioned how this could be seen as quite political, referring to the way that herd culture works in Japan.  I hadn't really thought about this the first time I read it; so I suppose in that respect it's one of those books that works on many different levels.

The Elephant Vanishes- Seems to pretty sum up the whole book; how surreal every story is, the quirkiness behind the every day. It's like the disappearance of the elephant represents everything else about the other short stories in the book; situations or relationships that have vanished, or could have been but aren't, if that makes any sense.

In Three Words: sufficient Murakami awesomeness.  
Recommended for: fans. 
Rating: 3.5

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