Warning: Super Long Review! Skip to ‘TL;DR’ after the first two paragraphs if desired/in order to avoid spoilers.
The Elephant Vanishes is a collection of short stories by one of my top favourite authors, Haruki Murakami. Known to make the ordinary extraordinary and to coerce (without trying to reach beyond the words in his stories, really) the reader to look underneath the underneath’s underneath, Murakami’s novels works never fail to either take away one’s breath with its unique brilliance or befuddle one’s brain with its lack of conventionality. However, while some authors are practically Merlin with novels, they lack the expertise in expertly transfiguring a limited amount of words into a short story that has equal brilliance to their novels. And so, it is with profound sadness that I have to say that Murakami belongs to this category.
For me, Murakami’s novels are equivalent to that one person whose air is thickly shrouded with mystery. With them, you are the moth to their fire. Perhaps you don’t know why but you’re enthralled—so deeply that all you can do is allow yourself to get as close as possible, risking singed wings and melted antennae…maybe you’ll even allow yourself to be wholly consumed by the flame. On the other hand, with Murakami’s short stories, I’m constantly left unsatisfied. My wings are singed and my antennae has melted but I don’t feel the desire to completely hand myself to the flame that is the short story. I can’t get close enough to the core of fire because there’s something in between of us.
The Elephant Vanishes begins with ‘The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women’, a surreal tale about the apathetic protagonist looking for his wife’s missing cat, their gone-stale marriage, the strange women who keeps calling him and the stranger encounter he has in the lot of an abandoned house—a combination (though not a hundred percent exact for his other works) Murakami is famous for with stellar examples being South of the Border, West of the Sun, A Wild Sheep Chase and Kafka on the Shore. This short story is a slightly varied version of the first chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and is also one of the best here for it is the closest to the brilliance Murakami emanates in his novels—a definite favourite for me.
‘The Second Bakery Attack’ is the second story in this collection. Centring around a couple who wake up ravenous after midnight and decide that the only way to satiate that hunger is by robbing a bakery, this tale is one of the quirky (Symbolic? Metaphoric?) ones about escaping from responsibility. In a way, it’s like the modern version of folktales—the ones you continuously read because the moral in each story remains intact without losing in the humour department—only with no gore.
As the third story in this collection, ‘The Kangaroo Communiqué’ sadly lacks the strength to increase the momentum of punches delivered by the stories prior to it. It’s an open letter of sorts and even for a huge fan like me, it’s definitely one of the odder works of Murakami. It’s like that wacky little dish you get at fancy restaurants, only this is slightly bit rant-y and a lot I-don’t-get-how-this-is-relevant.
‘On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning’ is a combination of wistful and beautiful, bringing some caresses of nostalgia with it—a story of strangers briefly meeting and one feeling as though he has finally found the other end of his red thread of destiny. It’s refreshing after the previous short story—saddening even, reminding me of the moments I spend, glancing at the profiles of strangers in life and picturing how the story of our lives would possibly unfold once we’ve reached a solid intersection for it. This one is also a favourite for me.
The fifth story for The Elephant Vanishes is ‘Sleep’. It’s a pleasant little surprise since the protagonist is a female, the first of all the Murakami books I’ve read. However, the pleasantness stops there. After a huge scare, this protagonist loses her ability to sleep and doesn’t face any health-related repercussions for it. The build-up of this story is pretty good for a crime/thriller/mystery/horror story so I can’t say that I’m that disappointed in the abrupt ending. Still, that doesn’t mean that this story doesn’t lack anything—honestly, since the build-up took so many words, I think that the ending shouldn’t have arrived so quickly…but after reading it again, I guess that this abruptness is perhaps done on purpose. In fact, ‘Sleep’ starts off like its namesake, comfortable at first, before descending into this sluggish haziness and then, ending with the sudden scare-you-awake we get from a terrifying nightmare. My feelings for this piece is definitely mixed.
‘The Fall of the Roman Empire, the 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler’s Invasion of Poland, and the Realm of Raging Winds’ is one of the most long-winded titles I’ve ever come across—even for a Japanese work. Though, this is with the exception of (light) novels like I’m a Successful Light Novel Author at a Boy’s High School, but I’m Being Strangled by a Female Classmate who’s a Voice Actress and is Younger than Me [男子高校生で売れっ子ライトノベル作家をしているけれど、年下のクラスメイトで声優の女の子に首を絞められている] and I was Reincarnated as an Evil God and My Subordinate Demon Army is on the Verge of Collapsing… What Should I Do? [邪神に転生したら配下の魔王軍がさっそく滅亡しそうなんだが、どうすればいいんだろうか]. Honestly, the long-winded titles do work at times (My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU [やはり俺の青春ラブコメはまちがっている] is an acceptable example) and the title of this short story isn’t completely akin to the two longer-titled ones in terms of practically becoming a blurb/book summary itself. Still, I hope this trend of long titles doesn’t extend to the Western or other Eastern writers. I’ve read a lot of long titles in the Japanese publishing area—half of which works for them, half which doesn’t—and there are quite a number popping up in writing communities like Wattpad as well. In Severus Snape’s words which I believe can also be applied to writing: “You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion-making. As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic.” Potion-making would be word-weaving (into tales) and wand-waving would be unsavoury titles, but I digress. Anyway, I found this short story as unimpressive as its title. The narrative is rather disjointed with too many skips in between for a short story, giving it the feel that it hasn’t been expanded properly. Its long-winded title is actually names—which don’t really make sense to me as well—of the mini “chapters” put together. However, the final two lines were gold to me.
The seventh short story in this collection is ‘Lederhosen’ which is German for leather breeches. Basically, this short story has another short story within it and it’s about a wife finding herself while buying lederhosen on a trip in Germany for her husband. It’s a rather typical story and I found it quite bland as well. There’s not much of Murakami’s unique style here.
‘Barn Burning’ is the next one and out of all the short stories so far, this one excites me the most as my eyes eagerly devour each word. There’s the apathetic main character, the strange sexual female, the distant man, metaphors/symbols/allusions and perhaps to a degree, politics—elements which my favourite Murakami novel A Wild Sheep Chase share as well. The pace for ‘Barn Burning’ is good and the plot is solid. Truthfully, at this point of writing, my mind’s still churning the words over and over, drawing up possible conclusions to the missing links in the ending.
As one of the shorter short stories here, ‘The Little Green Monster’ centres around a woman whose house is suddenly intruded into by a small, scaly green monster. By her perspective, it’s incredibly ugly—even though all it wants is just to love her, and ultimately, it dies because of her violent rejection. The language (or it can simply be just the translation of this text) here is simple and doesn’t actually hold any of Murakami’s unique style. It’s really different compared to the others. I can’t say I like how this has been written, but the potential meanings it hold is a good one.
On the other hand, ‘Family Affair’ revolves around the life of a brother—a “good-for-nothing” man who fools around, drinks a lot and is rather “narrow-minded” as well. He shares an apartment with his sister who is on the path of getting married—of becoming an “actual adult” where else he remains in a standstill. I have to say that I actually enjoyed reading this a lot, especially considering the protagonist has a little more bite and sass to him than the usual Murakami main characters do. However, I also feel that this story is just too short. It has the potential to be expanded into a novel of its own right, but that may be just me feeling a little unsatisfied at the soft of open ending.
‘A Window’ is one of the simplest short stories here. It starts off with a letter—like the ‘The Kangaroo Communiqué’ but better because it’s not some kind of weird rant of a letter some weirdo decided to send to you for no utter reason other than that your complaint letter somehow caught his attention. In fact, there’s a plot which you can immediately locate and I like the wistful ending which kind of makes it similar to ‘On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning’.
The twelfth short story is ‘TV People’ is the one where translator Alfred Birnbaum annoys me. I don’t know if he’s trying to stay true to the original Japanese version of this short story or if he dictated the writing style for this piece but how on earth is one supposed to read, much less pronounce “KRZSHAAAL KKRZSHAAAAAL KKKKRMMMS”? I’m pretty certain that this written in Japanese would elicit confusion as well because there’s nothing that goes entirely “KRZSHAAAL”, kuruzushaaaru (クルズシャール) maybe but definitely not “KRZSHAAAL”. In fact, I haven’t even come across a sound like this in anything originally Japanese that I’ve read! Not even in manga, light novels or Japanese literature. (Note: I should invest in the original Japanese version of ‘TV People’ to see how this sound effect thing presents itself.) I also don’t think ‘ditto’ is something Murakami would write in his works—unless perhaps when his protagonist is a young adult or younger. Other than that, this piece is rather interesting, though it doesn’t make it any more enjoyable for me to read. The characters who give their name to the title of this work, are like little robots or aliens and it seems that no one but the protagonist acknowledges their existence—or well, he’s the only one who doesn’t pretend like they don’t exist. Maybe it’s because having TV People invade your life means that you’ll be abducted and turned into one of them hence why the pretending, or maybe it’s something else. I’ll have to reread this one at a later time to arrive at a clearer opinion.
The following piece is ‘A Slow Boat to China’ makes me feel like my race is some kind of specimen or a harbinger of doom or something along those lines. I’m not offended but rather, really curious on how the Chinese would be portrayed by Murakami. Will we be shown as the harsh traditionalists—the conservative who screams and practically throws a fit when an ignorant breaks a taboo? Or will we be the cunning snakes, swindling you out of your money without your knowledge? The clever economic-minded business people or the fierce mafia members? The mathematical geniuses? The wise philosophical men/women? The robots with the importance of education drilled into their minds since birth? There are a multitude of stereotypes and prejudices, and many times I get so pissed off because someone has decided that another race’s culture is a “convenience”. So here, I’m rather pleased at how Murakami has portrayed the Chinese characters as simply characters—human beings of the fictional world. They aren’t all forced into one exact mould. In comparison to the previous piece, this one is lighter as well and certainly not as distracting.
‘The Dancing Dwarf’ is a fantasy that perhaps should come second last in this collection since the protagonist works in an elephant factory (Yes, you’ve read this right. He works in a factory that makes “one-fifth genuine and four-fifths imitation” elephants). It’s a lot like a fairy tale where a man dreams about some magical being whom then, assists him in getting the girl he desires under the variant of ‘do this and you’ll get what you want or disobey that and I’ll keep your body (part)’. In this case, the dwarf isn’t good as you’ve probably already guessed and so, you should have a gist of how this tale goes. However, even though it’s a little cliché, I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading this either.
On the other hand, ‘The Last Lawn of the Afternoon’ is a rather boring read. It has a nice beginning, a solid middle and a good ending but that’s all it is. Nothing really jumped out to me here, especially since there wasn’t really much of a variety of elements which makes Murakami’s style unique.
The second last short story is ‘The Silence’ which is also stagnant in terms of excitement. Yes, I liked it but it feels more like a slice of an actual novel chapter than a short story of its own right—like the backstory of a secondary character which leads up to a huge plot drive for something else that the protagonist is involved in. Plus, the main character here doesn’t say much as well since it’s his friend whose story is being told through this piece.
‘The Elephant Vanishes’ is the final short story and the one that gives its name to this collection. Although both works feature elephants, this is definitely different from ‘The Dancing Dwarf’. In the other short story, elephants are manufactured in a factory while in here, there is only one elephant that used to belong to a zoo and has become the town’s mascot of sorts. This elephant and its keeper disappears one day, no trace to be found even years afterwards. I’m certain that this occurrence is a symbol/metaphor/allusion to something scientific but of what exactly I’m unsure.
The majority of the short stories in this collection tilt from the okay-average to excellent. And considering the amount of time I actually took to read this entire collection (two months! This is definitely my slowest read of all time), I think that this book is best left for 100% Murakami enthusiasts, put aside for later or to be read one story by one story over a certain time. It’s a bit too much Murakami yet also not complete enough for my tastes, making the entire experience a little disconcerting—but, I’m only saying this because although I enjoy reading a lot of his works, they take a lot of energy out of me since I’m constantly looking for the subtext of the subtext.