The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
Published by Random House Pty (Ltd), Vintage in 2003
Quite often, my husband thrusts a book into my hands saying "Stop reading your fantasy rubbish and read something real."
This little gem is a quick-to-read collection of some "slice-of-life" tales set in the author's native Japan. Although translated from Japanese into English, they read well and are, in my mind, reminiscent of some of the Kafka that I ploughed through when I was younger.
Murakami's protagonists appear mostly as individuals who exist within modern society and yet seem somehow apart from the general flow of things, acting as almost objective observers that don't appear to have any impact on their environment. I feel that they watch the world go past them and, although not unable to act in it, they are unwilling, realising that all actions are, inevitably futile. At least that was the general gist that I picked up from this collection. At once depressing, these tales are, in some way also quite refreshing. There are no happy endings. People, places and occurrences are reduced to sparseness, echoing the minimalist approach to design that Japanese culture has made so famous.
Murakami reduces the human condition to something that illustrates how ridiculous it can be. He shows capably how the majority of us are so wrapped up with our many distractions that we lose meaning in existence, trapped in mind-numbing, repeated action. His characters are marooned, surrounded by world that is an uncaring sea of activity and many of them fill their lives with activities that appear to be done just to pass time. Very few of them have predefined goals and very few of them actively seek to escape this ennui that seems to have sucked them into a direction-less mire of mundane living. Strange things happen around Murakami's characters. There is the appearance of the little green monster, or the slightly smaller-than-normal TV people. An elephant vanishes into thin air. A man is possessed by a dancing dwarf. Murakami's characters accept these phenomena without any ill grace, as if they were just a normal part of living.
As a Westerner, these stories were a fascinating voyeuristic peak into Japanese culture, which is so close to our own, yet at the same time holding aspects that are pronouncedly foreign.
A few of the stories jumped out at me. These included "Sleep" that follows the change in life that an insomniac woman who'd always been a good wife faces. Playing with metaphor was "The Dancing Dwarf" that was more than a surreal dreamscape but hinted at darker aspects that are inherent in human society. "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon" was a poignant, voyeuristic slice of life about a student who used to mow lawns for extra cash and his interactions with his last client before he quit his position with the garden services he was working for. "The Elephant Vanishes" was a little more difficult to understand, yet Murakami's touching illustration of the relationship between the chained elephant and his keeper and how they existed in relation to the rest of the town also struck a chord within me.
Murakami writes about the human condition. At many points I wanted to slap his protagonists upside the head from pure frustration at their lack of motivation. However, I meet people like this every day and am, on a daily basis, grateful for the fact that I have ideas and goals that I've set myself and that I'm not mired in a bog of the mundane. This book has left me feeling a bit odd and yes, it is well written, but it's not an easy read, even if the stories themselves are quirky. It's left quite a bit of food for thought.