Monday, March 21, 2011

after the quake by Haruki Murakami

The indelible pictures of devastation following this month's 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan continue to mesmerize - with YouTube videos of cars bobbing in the water, homes carried away on currents, and the smoldering ruins of nuclear reactors, with no one knowing where the devastation may end. The Japanese themselves struggle with not only how to rebuild, but what "meaning" they may attach to this parade of disasters.

The last time the nation went through a comparable catastrophe was the 1995 Kobe earthquake, which killed more than 6,400 people. It also inspired "after the quake," a short story collection by Haruki Murakami peopled with characters dealing with its aftermath.

But the effect is largely at a distance. The book's six stories do not feature even a single survivor of the quake, nor is there a description of the moment of devastation. The characters of the book tend to experience the disaster as much of Japan and the world did - secondhand, through television images and reports of the devastation. Komura, the main character of the opening story, "UFO in Kushiro," (which is being reprinted in this week's New Yorker) sees a morning paper of reports:

"He read it from beginning to end on the plane. The number of dead was rising. Many areas were still without water or electricity, and countless people had lost their homes. Each article reported some new tragedy, but to Komura the details seemed oddly lacking in depth. All sounds reached him as far-off, monotonous echoes."

The stories have common traits, common images, common themes. One is obviously a sense of loss. Komura's wife has used the earthquake to leave him. Another character has run away from his wife. One story takes place not in Japan but Thailand, with the earthquake only mentioned in passing, reminding a woman of a lost child. Still another character has what may or may not be a mystical experience that prevents a larger quake from striking Tokyo, but with the expectation he may lose his life.

Another element is the aftermath of sudden calamity. In all cases, the earthquake is only a far-off trauma that mirrors one closer to home. The death of loved ones, the loss of certainties in life, the suddenness of unwanted loneliness, the approach of death - all of these shake and shape our characters in ways far beyond that of trembling earth. The heart figures prominently in a few of them, as an image and the obvious stand-in as the seat of our emotions, our longings for freedom, and our insistence on love.

But the characters in these stories also deal with meaning, and the loss of meaning brought on by disaster. Komura, our hero from the opening story, does not know why his wife left and struggles with understanding how he can continue in her absence. Katagiri, in "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," believes he is being guided by a walking, talking frog who means to save the capital city. He is told that if he has faith in the frog, who has been watching him and silently admiring his integrity, then they will be successful. But even if they are successful, no one will know it has happened.

Yoshida, the main character of "All God's Children Can Dance," deals with the absence of the defining idea of his life, as his religiously devout mother raised him to believe, as part of her pseudo-Christian cult, that he was a Son of God. Consequently, as the years continue, he abandons his faith because of "the unending coldness of the One who was his father: His dark, heavy, silent heart of stone." In the face of so many losses, Yoshida asks the question why "if it is all right for God to test man, why was it wrong for man to test God?" Even Yoshida, in the end though, cannot totally abandon God anymore than he can abandon the faith he barely comprehends. Like our other characters, he struggles against a profound sense of loneliness that seems just as persistent as it is indefinable. More than one character struggles against a sense of personal darkness that threatens to overwhelm him or her.

The New York Times, in reporting on the response of the Japanese people to the 2011 earthquake, noted that at least one citizen mentioned tapping the nation's "hidden strength." "Implicit in the praise of Japanese traits of endurance, perseverance and grace - strengths evident in the orderly response to the unfathomable destruction up north - is a criticism of the perceived values that led to the nuclear accidents: the postwar blind pursuit of material wealth and comfort..."

The stories of "after the quake" illustrate that disasters sometimes serve only as the background music in the lives of individuals to illustrate the loss of control we all experience, even at our sanest and safest. We struggle for meaning because we do not want an accident to be responsible for carrying away all we ever knew, but we struggle against it simultaneously because we don't think the meaning we perceive may be one we wish to confront. We want to assign blame elsewhere, or we are too quick to attach it to ourselves. We want clarity, until we perceive it, and then we insist on ambiguity, with nothingness growing in our hearts, in order to preserve our all-too-fragile notions of who we are and where we think we are going.

A headline this week in the USA Today on the disaster read, "For survivors, daily struggle of life and death." Murakami, in evoking Kobe, reminds us that such a headline can deal with much more than the aftermath of an earthquake.

I also wrote about Murakami's "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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