after the quake
Haruki Murakami

I’m in a book group again and this is our first book. Funnily enough when we all brought our picks to the first gathering there were two Murakami suggestions - the other being A Wild Sheep Chase. We chose after the quake as our first book (it was short and a short story collection - a slightly commitment-phobic book group) and A Wild Sheep Chase was pushed to the end of the list with a strong suggestion to find a substitute. And now the suggester has left the group! Oooh - scandal!

For all that after the quake was fantastic. It’s a collection of short stories each following a single person’s life after the Kobe earthquake. None of the characters lives were directly affected by the quake: they didn’t live in Kobe, they apparently didn’t lose anyone from their lives - but for each of them the quake was there, this huge background event that has shuddered through them all.

The writing is spare, brief, highly evocative and, ultimately, beautiful. Reading this very short collection was an unusual reading experience: it was relaxing, peaceful. There was no urge to understand what was going on, to read deeper - there was just a peaceful journey. Apparently Murakami is to be read very literally and that’s how I saw this. It seems to be full of allegory and deeper intent, but I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to read. It felt like a series of beautifully told stories about ordinary people. People whose lives had been massively disrupted - even though nothing actually happened to them. And thinking on that, there is a strange undercurrent of guilt: as if they should not be feeling pain while there is so much suffering on TV.

I have a theory that there is something that connects together all the stories told in this book. An earthquake is a sudden event following a long build-up of pressure, after the quake the seismic fault lines settle into a new state, one that is hopefully more stable. Unfortunately, for us, it requires this sudden release to jump to the new state. This is reflected in all the stories: the characters’ lives were flowing along and suddenly the earthquake kicks them into a new state. With an upheaval of their life. The book as a whole is tied together by the final story, where the characters end up living the life they had always intended. It may sound corny, but hope from the change. And, as it is told quite subtlely, both in message and style, you don’t feel the urge to cringe.

Some final comments: I read this immediately after Midnight’s Children, the difference in style was very striking. Throughout the book group this was a hit. Even those who initially skeptical (due to cat torture, or overly trendy covers) were won over. I’d recommend it, but don’t expect to be grabbed by the collar and hauled on a ride. This is a slow, contemplative book. Read for the enduring feeling of peace.