After the Quake – Haruki Murakami

November 5, 2013

After the Quake: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami wrote After the Quake in response to the 1995 Kobe earthquake.  In his characteristically unconventional memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he states that the short story collection was a turning point in his fiction, when his writing become less introspective and more outward-looking.  His new perspective is evident in the greater range and depth of his characters, the third person narratives, and the more mature themes which he explores.

It deals with the earthquake very indirectly.  Rather than exploiting the tragedy for drama, he explores it as a psychological phenomenon. In most of the stories, it is ancillary to the main story, but pivotal.

Still present are all the things I love about the writer – the championing of mundane courage, the conversational prose, the off-beat sensibility.  My personal favourites in the collection are the last two stories, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie.  In the latter, the main character, also an author, ends on a note that I suspect is autobiographical:

‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far, Junpei thought: I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’

From now on, I’ll be reading Mr Murakami’s later works with this in mind.


Sarajevo Marlboro – Miljenko Jergovic

August 17, 2012

Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergovic

Twenty-nine stories from besieged Sarajevo.  Mr Ivo rips up his rose garden to dig a well that provides water to his whole neighborhood.  A family sits in their small candlelit apartment waiting for a young man to return.  A gravedigger uses a pack of cigarettes to try to explain why life under siege is like a festival.

The stories are very short, often as little as three of four pages, and written in simple, accessible language.  They are almost all from civilian perspectives, and though the war is often the catalyst for conflict, it is not always central.

Jergovic shows admirable restraint in his use of violence and horror, often a crutch for war writing.  Instead, he engages the reader by exploring universal themes on human nature, and making one of the greatest tragedies of recent history shockingly mundane and relatable.

Obabakoak – Bernardo Atxaga (Part 2)

June 5, 2012

Basque Country

Click here for Part 1

The second section of the collection, Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villemediana, has the weakest plot but best communicates the reality of life in a small Basque village, and makes for very pleasant reading.

The unnamed narrator has taken refuge in Villemediana to clear the “ferns and mosses” from his heart.  He occupies himself by getting to know its inhabitants with a Louis Theroux-like inquisitiveness and equanimity, collecting portraits of village elders, shepherds, lonely woman, squalid men, and even a pretentious dwarf.  It continues the focus on the outcasts or discontents, defining the society by its borders.

But for all its apparent foreignness, there’s something universal about the setting that reminded me of writing on country Australia, with its insularity and toughness, and its lonely, quirky characters.

The third, last, and longest section, In Search of the Last Word, has a wonderful rambling structure as many of the characters tell tales, both true and imagined, and discuss literature.

The narrator, a writer, perhaps Atxaga himself, develops a fixation with whether a classmate was sent crazy by having a lizard put in their ear.  The fixation leads him to the potential culprit’s bar, his home town of (where else) Obaba and to a meeting of his uncle’s literary circle.

Many of the stories in this section have no relation to the central plot, so much so that Atxaga could be accused of shoe-horning them, but I enjoyed reading them all so much that I didn’t mind the paper and string framing device.

However, the story that had the biggest influence on me, and sent me on a spree of trying to write something similar, probably does not even belong to Atxaga.  It is called The Rich Man’s Servant, and is a fable in which a servant on a trip to the market receives a threatening look from Death, and tries to escape his apparent fate.  It takes up only half a page and can only really be read on one level, but I loved it for its simplicity and depth, its broad-stroke style and the clarity of its rising and falling action.  There is, maybe, too much of a focus on realism and clever description in modern literature at the expense of equally effective techniques from traditional tales.

In Search of the Last Word also includes chapters that venture into the realms of non-fiction, discussing what constitutes a good story, how to write a story in five minutes, and a very cheeky and accurate section on how to plagiarise.  Hint: you steal the plot and call it a homage.

My biggest criticism is with the twist at the end of the main story.  It is cheesy, and uses a device on which Atxaga is overly-reliant.  I’m not saying he’s M. Night Shyamalan, but this is why, despite all his experimentation with form, I earlier accused him of being formulaic.

It’s possible I’m missing something, though, and the twist is a warning about the degeneration of the Basque language.  This could be supported by the epilogue/autobiography, in which the author’s passion for his mother tongue is made clear.  If anyone has done a closer reading and can enlighten me, I’d appreciate it.

Obabakoak – Bernardo Atxaga (Part 1)

May 29, 2012

Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga

A volume of stories loosely tied together by their relationship to the tiny Basque town of Obaba and the themes of language and storytelling.  Good enough to read twice, once for fun, and the second time to suck out all the juicy literary marrow.  “One of only a hundred or so books originally written in the Basque language during the last four centuries.”

The first section is titled Childhoods, and the first short story:

Esteban Werfell

Esteban Werfell sit at his desk writing the twelfth volume of his memoirs, which he writes only for himself.  This time he is focusing on the end of his childhood in Obaba, his first love, and the choice he had to make between the parochial, Catholic values of his hometown and the bohemian secularism or his German-emigrant father.

About fathers and sons, religion and culture, lies and illusions.

Atxaga’s writing is clear and functional, adorned only by similes and truisms.  Skilled with storytelling conventions, he sometimes treads dangerously close to being formulaic, but mostly avoids this by greatly varying his subjects and style.  Without getting bogged down by being overly descriptive, he creates a strong sense of atmosphere, especially in the church scene.

Good weighting of the conflict between the father and the son.  Uses the good old trick of having the weather and environment reflect the character’s mental state to give some dynamism to a static scene of someone writing.  There’s also a neat twist at the end that adds some delicious moral ambiguity.

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman-Thief – Maurice LeBlanc

May 11, 2012

Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Burglar by Maurice…

Arsene Lupin!  Gentleman Thief!  Hyperbole!  Ridiculous plot contrivances!  Exclamation points!  But fun!  Fun!  FUN!

A good holiday read, especially if your holiday is in France.

The Elephant Vanishes – Haruki Murakami

May 30, 2010

review by Gabriel

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

It’s Murakamipalooza!  By which I mean, I’ve read two Murakami short story collections in a row.  That probably doesn’t qualify for a palooza suffix, but I’m going with it anyway.  The Elephant Vanishes, like Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, is a random collection of short stories, being neither chronologically nor thematically linked.  It is probably more consistent in quality than the latter, and contains everything you’d expect of the author – readability, weirdness, a sense of playfulness and gratuitous references to jazz, classical music and cats.  But it also contains a few stories that surprised me with their characterisation and perspective, and showed me that Murakami can be more flexible than I’d thought. Read the rest of this entry »

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman – Haruki Murakami

May 9, 2010

Review by Gabriel

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

This collection includes the short story The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes, in which an unnamed narrator enters a contest to win a two million yen prize by inventing a new kind of confection.  To win, he must gain the approval of an unusual panel of judges – the Sharpie Crows, revered birds that live deep in the bowels of the company, and who feed only on genuine Sharpie Cakes.  When he presents his invention to the crows (*spoilers on*), they tear each other apart trying to decide if his product is the real deal.

 In the introduction to Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami states that The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes was his reaction to the Japanese literary establishment.  When the narrator of the story walks away from the prize due to the savagery and ridiculousness of the judges, he says, “From now on I would make and eat the food I wanted to eat.  The damned Sharpie Crows could peck each other to death for all I cared.”  This pretty much sums up Murakami’s attitude to writing, and it’s what makes his books so damn enjoyable. Read the rest of this entry »