Stories 1985-1986

“THE SECOND BAKERY ATTACK”  8/1985 (in EV, and The Second Bakery Attack)

A newly-married couple in their late 20s wakes up in the middle of the night with a staggering hunger and nothing in the fridge.  I tells about the last time this happened, when he was in college and he and his friend, abstaining from work on principle, tried to rob a bakery.  The owner instead gave the all the bread if they listened to Wagner.  They did.  Now he thinks that was the beginning of his selling out – he has a job now.  A straight life.  Wife says they need to rob a bakery together now.  They settle on a McDonald’s.  Successfully steal 30 Big Macs.  Their hunger goes away.

One of my favorite Murakami stories.  It glows with a wild but gentle humor (to be sure, it works a lot better in a country where midnight fast food robbery-murders are undreamt-of).  And it’s Murakami finally training his eye on married life.  It’s a wonderful depiction of newlywed anxiety and uncertainty, and bonding.  And yet another interesting commentary on the fallout of the ‘60s.  It’s left a bit unspecified, but the narrator’s principled aversion to work has to be a resistance to the System, and now he’s sold out.  But his relationship with his wife can redeem him – together they can make a small autonomous cell of resistance, the space of their marriage being one of not being coopted into the System.  At least, in their shared hearts.  Wonderful.

“THE ELEPHANT VANISHES” 8/1985 (in EV, and The Second Bakery Attack)

A somewhat overly punctilious I tells us about an elephant that vanished in his Tokyo suburb.  There used to be a zoo, then it closed down, but they couldn’t place the elephant, so the town reached a compromise with the zoo, the developer, and the town council that the town would adopt the elephant and care for it until it died.  It became a kind of town mascot.  But now it has disappeared – into thin air.  Then the I tells us about his job – selling useless kitchen appliances.  Once at a party he meets a woman, a women’s-mag writer, and they hit it off.  Then he tells her about the elephant – he’s a bit obsessive about it – and reveals that the night before its disappearance, after hours, he had seen it.  And it had shrunk.  He thinks it probably shrank out of existence.  It turns her off.  And ever since the vanishing, I has felt curiously remote from the world – it doesn’t matter what he does anymore.  Nothing matters.

A really memorable story – it’s stayed with me ever since I first read it nearly 20 years ago, when other stories totally left my memory.  And yet I don’t have a good schtick on what it means.  Is it about the useless but comforting things that disappear as towns get more and more urbanized?  Is it about the value of useless things in an overly pragmatic world?  Is it about the incommunicability of our private obsessions and symbolisms?  Is it about Alienation?

It’s worth noting, BTW, that this is the first time in any of Murakami’s translated stories that a character has a name:  the elephant keeper is Watanabe Noboru.

“LEDERHOSEN” 10/1985 (in EV, and Deat Heat on a Merry-Go-Round)

Friend of I’s wife (in original, this is “Murakami” – the frame device) tells him why her parents divorced.  Her mother traveled to Germany alone once (daughter already grown), went to buy lederhosen as a souvenir for her (philandering) husband.  Shopkeepers wouldn’t sell them without the wearer present, so she went out and found a man of identical build to try them on.  While he was doing so, she realized:  she hated her husband.  Never went back home – asked for a divorce.

The kicker is when the daughter insists that if it had only been a story of a woman traveling alone and finding herself, it wouldn’t be the same.  The whole point of it is the lederhosen, she says.  I agrees.

And it’s this kicker that makes it an interesting story, for me.  Without that, it is just a story about a woman finding herself and realizing she’s oppressed in her marriage.  Which is what happened – to insist on the importance of lederhosen isn’t to deny that, I think.  But in the end, what the lederhosen mean is something that nobody else can understand – only the woman herself, and then perhaps not consciously.  Why the lederhosen make such a difference is a matter of private symbolism.  We’re in Hard-Boiled Wonderland territory, in other words.  The particularity of things to people is more than just a simple summary of what they mean.

Of course, even as “just” a story of a woman finding herself and getting out of her marriage, it’s still a new thing for Murakami.  Up to this point, we’ve had narrator after narrator being left by his wife, never understanding it.  The leaving wife is a symbol of a hostile world that relentlessly victimizes I.  Here we get the other perspective:  the leaving woman, and the oblivious man.  And more than that:  we get, really for the first time, a woman’s point of view.  From about this time, women play a much larger role in Murakami’s fictional world:  they become characters, subjectivities in their own right.  They still often function as foils for the men, but he puts a lot more effort into realizing them as people after this.  Same thing’s happening in “The Second Bakery Attack,” actually.

“A FAMILY AFFAIR” 11-12/1985 (in EV, and The Second Bakery Attack)

I is a 27-year-old PR guy for an appliance company living with his 23-year-old sister in Tokyo, who works at a travel agency.  He’s a playboy, and she used to be as anarchic as him (but never a playgirl, we learn in the end), but has grown up.  Now she’s engaged – to an engineer named Watanabe Noboru! – and she’s trying to get her brother to sober up a bit and act like a big brother.  He rebels, then at the end he has yet another meaningless one-night-stand, gets so drunk he pukes in the street, hates his life, and comes home and has a heart-to-heart with his sister.  Nothing changes, but they understand each other.

What’s interesting, I guess, about this story is how utterly conventional it is.  Nothing fantastical at all, a relentless focus on family relationships, a narrator whose profligate ways and nihilism we’re encouraged to hate, and a subtle conclusion that leaves both parties sadder but wiser.  Could be a Raymond Carver story, in other words.

All of this is, of course, pretty new for Haruki.  First narrator ever to have a family, it seems.  First time we’ve really felt any antipathy toward the narrator’s drinking and womanizing.  First time we’ve seen a comparison with the straight life come out with the straight life ahead.  First narrator we’ve had who’s an unrepentant salaryman.

Not his best story by a long shot, but interesting that he tried this.  I’m not sure quite what he was trying.  Is it another way of indicting/deconstructing the boku persona?  But this boku is so unsympathetic that it’s hard to actually associate him with the I of the Rat books, for example.


On a Sunday afternoon, I is updating his journal for the week – every day he jots down a few facts, then on Sunday he fills in the blanks.  Suddenly a gale blows, disturbing the peaceful afternoon like the fall of the Roman Empire.  Next the phone rings, but he can’t hear a thing – there’s a din like an Indian uprising.  Filling in Saturday’s entry, he writes that he saw the film Sophie’s Choice, in which Hitler’s invasion of Poland figures.  Then his girlfriend comes over and makes an oyster hot pot and they talk about the wind, which has subsided as suddenly as it began. And for today in his journal he jots down four phrases – those of the title.  That’s his private system for journal-keeping – it never fails.

On one level I suspect Murakami came up with an awesome title and then wrote a story to match – and it works on that level.  On another level I think it’s yet another demonstration of how we each have our own private system of symbolism, and for the writer (at least Murakami), that’s the source of art.  Then too it’s kind of a satire of journal-keeping, a comparison of the trivia of every day life to the heroic events of history.

“THE WIND-UP BIRD AND TUESDAY’S WOMEN” 1/1986 (in EV, and The Second Bakery Attack)

I is an ex-salaryman – he lived the life (clerk in a law firm) for years, then one day up and quit.  He’s unemployed.  His wife says she’s fine with it – she makes good money, and he can take care of the house.  So he’s getting progressively more disconnected from society.  He’s a typical Murakami I, except that his withdrawal isn’t principled, but just on a hunch, or even an accident, and it comes in mid-life.

This story is a day in his life.  In the morning he’s cooking spaghetti when he gets a call from a mysterious woman who hints of a job, then starts talking dirty to him.  He hangs up.  Then his wife calls and asks him to look for the cat, which has disappeared, and do some errands, and oh yeah, you don’t have to get a job if you don’t want to.  Crazy.

Then he goes off to look for the cat, in the alley between the houses out back.  A forgotten place, filled with the detritus of modern suburban Japan.  He hears the bird he and his wife always call the wind-up bird because of its strange cry.  Encounters a weird teenage girl and takes a nap in her yard.  She’s recuperating from an accident, and whispers to him of death.  He never does find the cat – whose name is Watanabe Noboru! Just like wife’s brother in law.

That evening his wife weeps and blames him for the cat’s death – she’s sure it’s dead, and she says he always kills things, without even lifting a finger.  The phone rings.  Neither of them answer it.

This may be my favorite Murakami story of all.  It’s perfect just like this – although the novel he made out of it is pretty good, too.  Here the details are the perfect blend of absurdism and portent.  The wind-up bird – it takes on greater dimensions in the novel, but already here it’s got the metaphoric aspect of the bird that keeps the world going.  Something he’s no longer able to do.  The women – the perfect symbol of a world that mystifies and sometimes persecutes the hapless I, but also allures him, sometimes inappropriately.  And the I – a new twist on the I, a newly-made dropout I, experiencing for the first time the meaningless of modern life.  Seeing it with fresh eyes.  And – the wife is a crucial character here – letting people down with his inability to cope.  He’s not like the brother in “A Family Affair” – we pretty much sympathize with him – but we can also see his wife’s point of view, too.  His passivity is a problem.