I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance, though it could be that my perceptions are playing tricks on me. Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair, and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way. It’s probably something in me.
The fall semester of my ESL class kicked off last night, and we began with a discussion of Haruki Murakami’s “The Elephant Vanishes,” which is, quite frankly, one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read. This year I assigned The Art of the Story: An International Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern. My hope was that, by reading an occasional story from his or her home country, each student would have an opportunity to be the “expert” for a week, to provide us with the context or insider’s perspective we might lack. Our one Japanese student sat quietly last night, unfortunately, but the rest of the class was eager to discuss Murakami’s tale, which is a kind of urban, magical realist fable — the kind of story that Tsai Ming-liang might write if he wrote stories.
The narrator is obsessed by the recent disappearance of an elephant and its keeper, both of whom had come to live in his Tokyo suburb when the local zoo was bought out by a real estate devloper. He lives a life of mundane ritual — the alarm goes off at 6:13, he reads his paper front-to-back over two cups of coffee — and is a PR man for a manufacturer of kitchen appliances. His latest assignment is convincing retailers and consumers that the new line of stovetops and ovens brings perfect “unity” and “balance” to the modern kitchen. When pressed by a magazine writer on the ultimate importance of “unity,” he replies:
A kitchen probably does need a few things more than it needs unity. But those other elements are things you can’t sell. And in this pragmatic world of our, things you can’t sell don’t count for much.
“The Elephant Vanishes” never explains exactly what those “few things” are, but, by showing us the world through the narrator’s wonder-seeking eyes, they become obvious: nature, beauty, mystery, communion, all the things we ignore in our mad dash to purchase order for our lives. (We went with Jenn-Air products in our recent remodel, by the way.) The narrator has a bit of Binx Bolling in him. He’s also on “the search.” “The Elephant Vanishes” has a perfectly sad, perfectly satisfying ending. Great stuff.
Can anyone recommend other writing by Murakami?