The Elephant Vanishes (and other stories) by Haruki Murakami

This was my second shot at something written by Haruki Murakami – the first time, I abandoned Norwegian Wood after four pages, which is why I don’t tell people that I did not finish the book, rather I never started it. I picked up The Elephant Vanishes, against my better judgment, from the library for the Japanese Literature Challenge. I read five stories from the collection, before I gave up the effort. Or, put the book indefinitely on hold. These are the ones I read:

1. The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women

2. The Second Bakery Attack

3. The Kangaroo Communique

4. The Elephant Vanishes

5. The Silence

You know what the strange thing is? I quit reading because I actually liked the last story. I didn’t want to spoil the effect it had on me with another ‘The Second Bakery Attack’! If I’d only read The Silence, I’d have had a much more favourable impression of Murakami than I have now. The other stories just weren’t for me. I found the writing disconnected and pretentious in its annoyingly stubborn lack of purpose. Why do people love Murakami? Do you? There has to be something I’m missing here. I’ve never got a clear explanation from a fan of what it is, exactly, that I apparently don’t get.

But you know what, I don’t even want to understand. I don’t want to trudge through another slow story, told by another dull narrator, only to reach the most anticlimactic ending in the history of endings. Call me dumb, but I’d rather be dumb than pretend I got something out of this read other than complete boredom and mild confusion. I don’t want to have to try so hard to like something, which is proving so difficult to like. The Silence was a rare gem. Was it worth struggling through the entire book? Not according to me.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the story of Etsuko, a Japanese woman now living alone in England, dwelling on the recent suicide of her daughter. Retreating into the past, she finds herself reliving one particular hot summer in Nagasaki, when she and her friends struggled to rebuild their lives after the war. But then as she recalls her strange friendship with Sachiko — a wealthy woman reduced to vagrancy — the memories take on a disturbing cast.

I had a rather precarious feeling, perched on the edge of
that mountain looking out over such a view; a long way down below us, we could
see the harbour looking like a dense piece of machinery left in the water.
Across the harbour, on the opposite bank, rose the series of hills that led
into Nagasaki. The land at the foot of the hills was busy with houses and
buildings. Far over to our right, the harbour opened out on to the sea.

We sat there for a while, recovering our breath and enjoying
the breeze. Then I said: Wouldn’t think anything had ever happened here, would
you? Everything so full of life. But all that area down there,” — I waved my
hand at the view below us — “all that area was so badly hit when the bomb fell.
But look at it now.”

Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers.

I’ve grown oddly fond of Kazuo Ishiguro’s detached, melancholy writing style with the occasional snippet of wisdom. But I’m just not sure if I like this book. Ishiguro writes a very specific type of story. A Pale View of Hills has a lot in common with An Artist of the Floating World, it has the narrator who tends to ramble about the past, the exotic setting, the tragic lives of the people post-war and the you-knew-this-was-coming-but-BAM-anyway ending. Being his debut, though, A Pale View of Hills isn’t as refined as Ishiguro’s other books. It’s abrupt and though the author has relied on characterization for story-building, it is filled with clumsy dialogue. He seems to be trying hard to be unique, with the purposely incomplete title among other things. The good thing is that the story is very eerie. If you start reading it, do complete it despite all the absurdities; it is full of seemingly inconsequential details that all make sense at the end. While I wasn’t too impressed by the book, overall, there were parts that haunted me for hours after I finished reading.

I’d recommend A Pale View of Hills only to a seasoned Ishiguro reader. Otherwise, it’s best to try An Artist of the Floating World, or Never Let Me Go.

Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura

Summary (from Goodreads): Isaku is a nine-year-old boy living in a remote, desperately
poor fishing village on the coast of Japan. His people catch barely enough fish
to live on, and so must distill salt to sell to neighboring villages. But this
industry serves another, more sinister purpose: the fires of the salt cauldrons
lure passing ships toward the shore and onto rocky shoals. When a ship runs
aground, the villagers slaughter the crew and loot the cargo for rice, wine,
and rich delicacies. One day a ship founders on the rocks. But Isaku learns
that its cargo is far deadlier than could ever be imagined.
Who knew it was possible to be more depressing than Thomas Hardy! Shipwrecks by Akira Yoshimura is now the bleakest thing I have ever read. I really wanted to like the book and searched in vain for a silver lining. Isaku’s life was terrible and terrifying. Though some of the village customs were interesting, I would’ve been happier left in the dark. The dull repetitiveness of the villagers’ lives, which was supposed, perhaps, to be touching, simply bored me. I didn’t see a point to the book, however hard I tried, and found nothing I could learn from, mull over. The writing was disconnected, repetitive and reeked of translation. Almost all characters were one-dimensional, stick figures, whom it was impossible to emotionally connect to. The only good thing about this story was that it was short. Even then, my head hurt by the time it ended. 
I’ve read better books than this for the Japanese Literature Challenge.

Death in Midsummer by Yukio Mishima

Death in Midsummer and Other stories is a short story collection by Japanese author Yukio Mishima. The first story gives the book its title. I’ve only read the first story and I loved it. I’ll write about the other stories, updating this post as and when I read them.

Death in Midsummer is translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. On a family vacation at a beach resort, while Tomoko Ikuta is taking a nap in her room, her three children and their aunt Yasue are on the beach. A freak accident leads to the death of Yasue and two children. The story is about what’s left of the little family dealing with their sudden loss.

The story is frank and simple. It is more like a chapter out of someone’s life; without a real plot but in a way, complete. In contrast to the helpless feeling that Ishiguro’s stories brought, Death in Midsummer is precise. The way the characters deal with death and family is very real. The relationships between the characters, the husband and wife are at once delicate and strong. They aren’t always able to understand each other or are puzzled by how they both react to a same situation in two completely different ways. Their reactions are described with a calm lack of drama, that very few books about loss manage, and I could relate to it perfectly. The writing is shockingly vivid. I hope to read more stories from the collection soon. In the meanwhile, if you like Japanese Literature, check out this challenge.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Pictured: The library copy of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes with its beautiful blue cover and beside it, my favourite bookmark.

After really enjoying An Artist of the Floating World and recently, Never Let Me Go, I had certain expectations from this book. In a way, it’s very typically Ishiguro and in another, it’s really not what I had in mind.

Nocturnes is a collection of short stories, as the title says: five short stories of music and nightfall. I loved two, fairly liked another two, and was entirely confused and disappointed by one. The book has a nostalgic, almost silly romantic air to it and shows the way music intensely affects people and relationships. The stories are tied together by a sense of lingering regret. There are some recurring characters.
Crooner: This is the first story in the collection and one that I really loved. A Polish guitar player meets the once famous musician Tony Gardner at a piazza where he spends time playing for various groups, bored by the monotony of his life. After spending a day with Tony Gardner, our narrator realizes that his idol and inspiration is like every other man, lost and desperate. The musician is not really his music, just the way an author, I suppose, isn’t necessarily his book. In that one encounter the guitar player learns a lot, perhaps more than he wants to, about Mr. Gardner, his wife Lindy and the world they live in. He is surprised, shocked, touched and awed, but by the end, unsurprisingly, the encounter hardly affects his idea of the singer. The build up to the tragi-comic ending is nice and what could have been a rather wordy narration is delightfully conversational. The story is beautiful in its simplicity.

“..his voice came out just the way I remembered it – gentle, almost husky, but with a huge amount of body, like it was coming through an invisible mike. And like all the best American singers, there was that weariness in his voice, even a hint of hesitation, like he’s not a man accustomed to laying open his heart this way. That’s how all the greats do it.”

Come Rain Or Come Shine: This story was very weird and I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t understand it well, because if I did, then I don’t know why the hell it was part of this collection. A man visits his old friends and realizes that their marriage is falling apart, that he is meant to patch things up between them by making the wife see how miserable he is and how happy they are in comparison. I don’t like to watch physical comedy and even less to read it. So the scene where the woman walks in on the friend wrecking her house and chewing paper, while staging a fake dog attack was very awkward. And I get that the story was more than that: it was about the pathetic idea that the only thing this man’s friends appreciated in him was his taste in music and how, even though they had bonded over it so well, they didn’t think it mattered. That’s all I can think of. So I’m assuming I didn’t understand this story or why it was humorous: I do welcome explanations.

Malvern Hills: This is another story in the collection that I thought was just fabulous. It’s written in a lazy, meandering tone and lets on a lot more about the narrator than the narrator perhaps intends, which reminded me of Never Let Me Go. The book jacket describes this as the story of “a struggling singer-songwriter unwittingly involved in the failing marriage of a couple he’s only just met.” It’s about being a struggling artist and having to deal with people who don’t value art or understand why you want to be a artist, it’s about that odd connection and sense of belonging between complete strangers, who only having in common that shared passion, about music transporting you to a different place, about being cruelly snatched back to reality every time. Ishiguro has this knack of focusing on the little moments and making them big, vivid.

“A power cyclist, kitted out in what looked like a black wetsuit, went speeding by us, and for the next few moments, we all watched his frantic receding shape.”

Nocturne: The title story is odd, nice, though not my favourite. The characters are pitiable and funny; the story features Lindy Gardner from Crooner, in a hotel room with her face wrapped in bandages following a plastic surgery. Starring alongside her, in the room next-door, is our narrator, a talented but underrated jazz musician, who has convinced himself that plastic surgery will bring him the fame he deserves. It’s a sad story about shallow artificiality, about groping blindly in the dark, about jealousy and all those little emotions that blur out the rest of the world and make us do the craziest of things. It drags on a bit, though, and gets confusingly, abruptly surreal in the middle. What I liked was seeing Lindy Gardner through another perspective.

“Maybe it was because I’d become so bored by this point; or just that my mood was on the up again; or that the thought of having a fellow prisoner to swap stories with was extremely appealing. Or maybe I wasn’t so immune myself to the glamor thing. In any case, despite everything I felt about Lindy Gardner, when I read this, I felt a tinge of excitement, and I found myself telling Gracie to let Lindy know I’d be over at five.”

Cellists: This was perhaps the most wittily crafted story of the five and being the last, it did have the most lasting impression. Had the book ended with the second story, I wouldn’t have liked it. This was a good ending and it was almost as if it completed the point the writer was trying to make throughout the book, and quite perfectly, I must add. According to the book jacket, this story is about ‘a young cellist whose tutor promises to “unwrap” his talent.’ That tells very little about the actual story, which is about the innate aptitude for music, the need for recognition, the ego and its inability to deal with failure, about the metaphorical muse and about being scared even, and well, I think from the whole collection, this is one story that is truly unique and that could stir something in you. It should be read not summarized, so I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“He resolved, out of politeness, to endure this uninvited tutorial for at most another five minutes. But he found himself staying a little longer, then longer again. He played some more, she talked again. Her words would always strike him initially as pretentious and far too abstract, but when he tried to accommodate their thrust into his playing, he was surprised by the effect.  Before he realized, another  hour had gone by.”

Overall, this isn’t a book I would normally read. It’s about music, art and life; none of which I quite understand. It’s something to enjoy and be sad about on a quiet afternoon and wonder about late into the night. I’m not completely done wondering just yet. Meanwhile, I need to get The Remains of the Day from the library, I have heard far too much about the book in the past couple of days and while some stories from this collection did puzzle me, I’m starting to develop a kind of vague fondness for Ishiguro’s writing.

 This wasn’t read specifically for the Japanese Literature Challenge, but it fits, so why not.