Title: The Elephant Vanishes
Author: Murakami Haruki
Translated By: Jay Rubin
ISBN: (trade paperback): 0-679-75053-3 (Vintage Books)


So. A friend recommended this to you, exclaiming how wonderful, magnificent, surreal, at-a-loss-for-words, lovely, bizarre this book is. Or maybe the title caught your eye. (A neat trick, elephants vanishing, you tell yourself, but no more difficult than say, giving birth to an angel.) Regardless, you plucked it off the shelf (or taken it out of your friend's hands), and are now examining the book. It holds no surprises: slim book, unassuming cover, straightforward text. Only the title is unusual, and how much more so than others?

So you open the book to the first story, and there - there it is.

I'm in the kitchen cooking spaghetti when the woman calls. Another moment until the spaghetti is done; there I am, whistling the prelude to Rossini's La Gazza Ladra along with the FM radio. Perfect spaghetti-cooking music.

And it begins, an ordinary introduction. The smell of spaghetti cooking, and a woman who calls.

"I want ten minutes of your time," comes a woman's voice out of the blue.

How do you answer?

"Pardon me, but what number might you have been calling?" I put on my most polite language.

"What difference does it make? All I want is ten minutes of your time. Ten minutes to come to an understanding." She cinches the matter neat and quick.

And what kind of understanding would that be? you ask yourself. Aha, they must know each other, or else what is a phone call for?

But reading the story, you find that they don't know each other at all. How bizarre you might say, but this is a story, and stories hold the answers. So you continue to read, curious. A stranger calls. A cat runs away. A girl is met on a porch, and a wife comes home. Things happen, each incident separate and distinct in this man's life. There must be something to connect them, you tell yourself. Or else why else do these things happen?

You finish the first story, and at its final words, "You can't keep counting forever," you realize that you have no more of an answer than the main character. There is that vague sense of uneasiness in you - what did I miss? what passed me by? - but you don't know the hows and the whys. But - ah, the but! - but there was that one line, that one thought the character has, that has struck you peculiarly:

Blind spot, eh? Well, perhaps the woman does have a point. Somewhere, in my head, in my body, in my very existence, it's as if there were some long-lost subterranean element that's been skewing my life ever so slightly off.

And you realize right there that you're treading a dangerous path; that you ought to close the book and put it away; that you ought to return to the proper Real World. But it's too late. You're caught, and down the rabbit hole you go. You'll read and read and read; and end knowing no more than you did at the beginning.

(Know that you are not alone. Know that even veterans of Murakami, even, will find it as equally as difficult to navigate through his world. The reader with Dance Dance Dance equipped in his arsenal, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World swimming through his head, and A Wild Sheep Chase in his heart will find himself no more prepared than the reader who comes in with nothing. At best, an experienced reader will only know that they will be walking the fine line between reality and... the Other.)

The Stories and My Thoughts

A pair of best friends rob a bakery, but settle instead for listening to Wagner in exchange for bread. A man who writes a letter to a stranger because he saw some kangaroos. A woman with insomnia spends her nights reading Anna Karenina. A wife who leaves her husband because of a pair of lederhosen. An elephant that vanishes into thin air. Each story is wildly different from the next. Ordinary events, sometimes; extraordinary events, in others. Names, if given, bleed silently into the unknown; if Murakami graces his characters with names, they are just as quickly forgotten. Nothing seems to point to a connection to each other - that is, nothing concrete. But something in you says - wait, yes, there is something. Not words; not emotions; just a vague feeling that yes, it's as if there was some long-lost subterranean element that's been skewing my life ever so slightly off. Your life, perhaps, and these characters' lives. Something not quite right. Edges not matching up perfectly. And with this knowledge comes an almost uncomfortable consciousness of one's own life.

Murakami's stories often garner the world "surreal" to describe them, an "oddly dreamlike" quality. There is a feeling of disconnection that runs throughout his stories, and their abruptness and lack of transition does bring to mind that of a dream. It's a good word, a sufficient word, but to relegate to describing his stories as being merely "dreamlike," as if you would dismiss his stories as you would your own dreams upon waking, would be doing him a disfavor. It's not the stories themselves that have the disconnected feeling, but rather his characters. And to dismiss the discomfort one has while reading Murakami's stories would be doing a disfavor to yourself as well; in many ways, aren't these lonely - disconnected - separate - alienated - characters of his are not that different from ourselves?

Murakami, unlike most authors, wisely leaves the decision up to the reader. His writing is straightforward and readable, which is rather unusual in most translated Japanese literature, but a large part of it is because Murakami's Japanese is colloquial and actually quite unusual for Japanese literature (as it reads more like a modern English novel). His prose gives no warning when events go from usual to the unusual and his characters maintain such deadpan and stoic attitudes that their reactions alone are somehow funny and touching at the same time. (It is an effect that is put into good use in "Super Frog Saves Tokyo" in his second short story collection, After the Quake).

I think his stories are heart-breakingly beautiful. I've always thought that his one talent was the way he made the very simple things into something extraordinarily beautiful - cooking spaghetti, cleaning a house, reading a novel - under his pen, they become things to appreciate. How do you not read his musings about the perfect girl in "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning" without simultaneously smiling and feeling oddly wistful at the same time?

The Play

In 2003, the play The Elephant Vanishes, originally a Complicite co-production with Setagaya Public Theater (Tokyo) and BITE:03 Barbican (London), was produced and directed by Simon McBurney (with Murakami's permission). Entirely in Japanese, the play is super-titled and currently touring. (In July 2004, the play was performed at Lincoln Center of Performing Arts during the Mostly Mozart festival.)

The play is inspired by the short story collection, and in fact features three of its stories: "The Second Bakery Attack"; "The Elephant Vanishes"; and "Sleep". The story centers around a salesman and a "kit-chen" appliance - the refrigerator, a thing of clean lines and proportions. This is important, asserts the man, for it leads to serene thoughts and isn't that important for the woman who spends most of her life in the "kit-chen"?

Oh, you want his opinion? Sorry, you'll have to find out after he gets off at work.

From there, the story segues right into the story "The Elephant Vanishes." Featuring minimal props (the centerpiece is always on this white refrigerator), and ambient electronica music, the play is lovely and absurdly amusing and heart-breaking all at once. The play brings with it a heightened awareness of a specific social issue in Japan today, called hikikomori, "withdrawn". It refers to people who feels that their interests or feelings are just so different from others that they shut themselves off from the rest of the world. They don't leave their room; they do not see anyone else; they disallow society from entering their castle gates. Though it was not an issue the time Murakami wrote his novels, his characters are an interesting reflection on this particular social phenomenon, and it is an issue that Murakami himself has commented on in a few interviews.

There are some things that translate very well in the play - the jarring, disorienting feeling of Tokyo is done well - and some that don't - "Sleep" takes too long, I think, to play out - but in some ways, the play is not important. What is important, in some ironic way, is the way that a few hundred souls - who probably felt the same way that Murakami's characters do (oddly out of place and disoriented in society) - sat in the theatre and watched a story together.

There must a kind of Murakami-esque beauty to that, don't you think?

Play information courtesy of Lincoln Center playbill. Blockquotes from first story "The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women", which some might recognize as being the start of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

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