Feeling the Tremors
A collection of short stories written after the Kobe earthquake helped me feel some solidarity with the Japanese in the wake of last week’s earthquake and tsunami.
My reaction to the earthquake that took place 5,000 km away was visceral. I couldn’t help but watch the televised footage, say nightly prayers for Japan and click on all the videos of the tsunami on the BBC website. While I was browsing the National Library for books on Japanese resilience, I chanced upon a gem.
Haruki Murakami’s “after the quake” was written in response to the Kobe quake and the sarin gas attack of 1995. It is a collection of six short stories set in the February between these two events. The quake came without warning as Kobe is far from the fault lines that riddle the underbelly of Japan.
The first story of the six, “UFO in Kushiro”, is about a man whose wife leaves him suddenly, without warning. She sums up the fault lines in their marriage in a note which said: “The problem is that you never give me anything. Or, to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air.'' To get his mind off his failed marriage, he takes up an errand to deliver a small box to a stranger in Hokkaido and true to his bland character he does not even wonder what is in the box until he has passed it on.
“Landscape with Flatiron” is about a young woman and a middle-aged painter who abandoned his wife and children in Kobe. They make bonfires on a beach in Ibaraki, talk about each other’s fears, then come to a Nihilist conclusion.
There is the flavour of Jeannette Winterson’s “Oranges are Not the Only Fruit” in “All God’s Children Can Dance”. It traces the growth and coming-of-age of the son of a misguided Christian fundamentalist engaged in post earthquake relief work.
The effect of bitterness on the human spirit is explored in “Thailand”. The main character feels that she brought on the earthquake because of her unforgiveness. Her driver/guide leads her on the road to spiritual recovery.
“Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is a story about a six-foot-tall Nietzsche-spouting frog which appears in the home of Katagiri, a loan collector. Frog tells Katagiri that he wants his help in the battle against a huge worm that lives beneath Tokyo which is planning to create an earthquake. Katagiri is hospitalised a day before the earthquake is supposed to strike. A badly injured Frog visits him after that. It is an engaging magic realist tale about the precariousness of life in a crime-filled city.
The message in “Honey Pie” is that one has to take hold of life and not let opportunities pass by. A writer named Junpei gets a second chance to marry a woman he's been in love with since college. He hesitates. Then the earthquake hits, sending shockwaves to his system: “He hadn't set foot on those streets since his graduation, but still, the sight of the destruction laid bare raw wounds hidden somewhere deep inside him. Junpei felt an entirely new sense of isolation. I have no roots, he thought. I'm not connected to anything.”
As I lay in the dark listening to the audio book I was transported to Japan with all its quirkiness.
I have visited Japan three times in my life always around cherry blossom time. In the spring of 1999 I remember walking through Tokyo’s huge Yoyogi park at night and getting lost. I panicked but then I remembered that when I was walking through the park towards Shibuya earlier on I had seen a circle of bongo drum players beating out a rhythm in unison near the entrance to the park.
Thankfully, they were still practising so I finally managed to navigate my way out of the park by using the sound of the drums as a reference point.
I have always admired the Japanese love of self expression and this was one time it led me to safety.
In a similar way, listening to the short stories helped me feel solidarity with the suffering Japanese and helped me find peace.
My prayer for the Japanese is that they will navigate their way out of the dark soon and that this cherry blossom season will lift spirits as it has done for centuries.