A writing lesson I’ve taken from Murakami is that of withholding—not playing coy, but allowing certain mysteries in a story to remain so. I read this in a class taught by Samantha Hunt called “Surrounding the Ghost,” in which we explored the use of seemingly unrelated events to write the unwriteable. ‘UFO in Kushiro’ contains a literal mystery box, one that protagonist Komura is asked by a colleague to hand-deliver to a woman in a town in Hokkaido. At the same time as he carries this package, whose contents we never discover, Komura tries to come to terms with a larger mystery. In the wake of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, his wife abruptly left him. In her goodbye note, she wrote, “you have nothing inside you that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.”
The recipient of the package, a young woman, tells Komura a story about a UFO sighting and another wife who left her husband following this inexplicable event. “I wonder if things like that aren’t connected somehow,” she muses. But the deepest mystery of this story, to me, is not the box, the missing wife (that Murakami standby), or the UFO. It’s the fleeting moment, toward the end, when Komura suddenly finds himself “on the verge of committing an act of incredible violence.” That act is not realized —but what was the passing impulse? Where did it come from inside him, that supposedly empty place?
First published in The New Yorker, March 19, 2001, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in After the Quake, Vintage, 2003
I sometimes get a bit bored of all the men lying around on sofas, drinking beer, thinking about baseball and listening to Jazz, and I don’t like to mix mediums (I did it again, sorry) but Wong Kar-wai just does a better job of showing boredom and crisis mixing into one. Murakami’s stories, however, are unique in how they flit around between seemingly random events, like dogs getting distracted by squirrels, and manage to draw them together into gold.
There is a successful and married writer who meets a flighty younger woman at a wedding party. Despite having nothing to talk about they have something of an emotional affair, then the girl goes away to North Africa. When she returns to Japan three months later the writer meets her at the airport, she’s transformed and has her new lover in toe. He learns that the lover is rich and cares for nothing, and his favourite pastime is burning barns—a glimmer of recognition flares between the two.
The writer takes to running and looking for the charred remains yet, being independently wealthy himself—similar to the lover—can’t see them. There is something of exploitation in the images of barns burning in the night, some needless destruction against a lower class, and both men seem to forget about the woman who’s future they have also set to flame. Murakami’s men come across as quirky fools, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be creeps.
First published in The New Yorker, 1983, and available for subscribers to read here. Collected – in a different translation – in The Elephant Vanishes, Harvill Press, 2001
In ‘Superfrog Saves Tokyo’, Katagiri, assistant manager at the Tokyo Security Trust Bank, is summoned underground by a six-foot frog. Superfrog is in mortal combat with a giant worm, which threatens to cause an earthquake that will destroy Tokyo, and now requires the unwilling Katagiri’s assistance. This collection is centred on the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the story contains classic Murakami themes: katabasis (a journey to the underworld), urban loneliness, and the imagination as a battlefield where we experience victory and defeat. If you’re interested in translated fiction, do also watch the delightful documentary, Dreaming Murakami, in which Superfrog makes a cameo appearance.
First published in GQ in 2001, and available to read here; collected in after the quake, 2002, Harvill Press
It was literally impossible to pick one short story from Murakami Haruki. I thought about picking just 12 from him alone. Thinking about it, I should’ve picked ‘Silence’. But I didn’t. Whoops.
First published in Japanese 1986. Included in The Elephant Vanishes, Vintage 2003. Available to read online here
Cryptic, elliptical, with unanticipatable details such as the girl who mimes peeling a tangerine. (There is a separate anthology to be compiled on works using tangerines.) Unlike the swollen folly of Murakami’s later works, this is a breathy, beautiful and mysterious tale, exemplifying in some ways the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi. A masterful performance, doing what every story should – keep you turning the pages, wondering what happens next.
First published in The New Yorker, October 1992. Collected in The Elephant Vanishes, Vintage, 1994. Adapted for a 2018 South Korean movie, Burning. Read the story online here