The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami provides a different point of view in “The Elephant Vanishes,” his first collection of stories. (He is also the author of the novels “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” and “A Wild Sheep Chase.”) These stories, ably translated by Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum, show us Japan as it’s experienced from the inside. What is exotic to foreigners — oyster hot pot or pillows filled with buckwheat husks — is here the stuff of ordinary life; but so are McDonald’s, steak and Julio Iglesias. Indeed, Mr. Murakami’s Japan is such an unquestioned hybrid of tradition and export that one has to read 11 pages into the first story before the most casual reference to a “Tokyoite” signals that we aren’t in America. His narrators — young, urban, downwardly mobile — are as likely to eat spaghetti as soba noodles. They listen to Wagner and Herbie Hancock, but disdain “stupid Japanese rock music. Love songs sweet enough to rot your teeth.” They read Len Deighton novels and “War and Peace,” not Kobo Abe and “The Tale of Genji.” Their universe is Japanese, but their cultural reference points are almost exclusively Western.
This is a Japan characterized by a peculiar spiritual torpor. Bizarre events take place regularly, but fail to generate much reaction or curiosity. In “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” for instance, a young man’s search for a missing cat leads him into a closed-off alley that passes between the backyards of parallel houses, a path “neglected and untrafficked, like some abandoned canal.” There he encounters a sunbathing teen-age girl who, like the alley itself, seems both of the ordinary world and strangely apart from it. But their rambling conversation is too lazy to be truly flirtatious.
Most of Mr. Murakami’s stories have a fabulistic edge. “The Dancing Dwarf” takes place in one of those impressively efficient Japanese factories we’re always hearing about, only in this case the factory manufactures elephants: “Assigned to the ear section that month, I worked in the building with the yellow ceiling and posts. My helmet and pants were also yellow. . . . The month before, I had been assigned to the green building, where I wore a green helmet and pants and made heads.”
In a suburb of Tokyo, a private zoo is slated for demolition, to be replaced by a high-rise apartment building. Homes are found for all the animals, except for an aged elephant. The local government agrees to take charge of the elephant, building an elephant house for it, hiring a longtime keeper from the defunct zoo, and supplying food left over from the lunches of schoolchildren. One day, the elephant and its keeper–Noboru Watanabe, 63, from Tateyama, in Chiba Prefecture–disappear.
This event seems physically impossible: the elephant house was heavily secured, and the thick metal ring that circled the animal’s leg is intact. The press report the disappearance as if the elephant might actually have escaped. The narrator believes that he is the last person to have seen the elephant and its keeper. He observed them on the evening of the disappearance, from a hill overlooking the elephant house.
Believing themselves to be unobserved, the elephant and its keeper seemed more affectionate than they were in public, and they seemed to become the same size. The narrator is not sure if this actually happened, or if it was an optical illusion. Months later he tells this story for the first time, to a woman he’s flirting with. He immediately realizes that he’s committed a terrible faux pas by speaking of something so inexplicable. He doesn’t see the woman again.
It’s as if a kind of social schism has taken hold in this culture so intent on efficiency and productivity, a schism between the visible street and the hidden alley that resists simple resolution. In Mr. Murakami’s view, “people are looking for a kind of unity in this kit-chin we know as the world. Unity of design. Unity of color. Unity of function.” The problem, as he notes in a story called “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon,” is that “no matter how hard you try to put everything neatly into shape, the context wanders this way and that, until finally the context isn’t even there anymore. You’re left with this pile of kittens lolling all over one another.”
No metaphor could suit more exactly these stories in which animals — elephants, kangaroos, windup birds, even a tragically mistreated “little green monster” — figure so crucially. These stories, like the kittens themselves, are “warm with life, hopelessly” — and, I would add, wonderfully — “unstable.”