Man without a Fridge

Thomas Jones

  • After the Quake by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin
    Vintage, 132 pp, £6.99, March 2003, ISBN 1 84343 015 0
  • Earthshaking Science: What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Earthquakes by Susan Elizabeth Hough
    Princeton, 238 pp, £17.95, May 2002, ISBN 0 691 05010 4

On the morning of Tuesday, 17 January 1995, shortly before 6 o’clock, the city of Kobe was hit by the largest earthquake to strike Japan since 1923. During the twenty seconds of shaking that followed, more than five thousand people died, tens of thousands were injured and three hundred thousand were made homeless. At least £100 billion of damage was caused. Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most popular living novelist, whose parents’ house was destroyed in the earthquake, wasn’t in the city. He had left the country in the late 1980s, uncomfortable with the fame that accompanied the huge success of Norwegian Wood (1987), and gone to the United States. The protagonist of each of the six stories collected in After the Quake is someone who wasn’t there, but whose life has been profoundly affected by the event, and by their absence from it.

In ‘UFO in Kushiro’, the opening story, a woman watches TV coverage of the disaster continously for five days before leaving her husband, without saying a word. In her letter of explanation, she writes: ‘You have nothing inside you that you can give me. Living with you is like living with a chunk of air.’ They divorce, and after signing the papers Komura (the husband) takes a week off work. A colleague suggests he go on holiday to Kushiro, in the north, and offers to pay if Komura will deliver a package for him, to his sister. Komura is met at the airport by the sister and a friend, Shimao. Komura and Shimao end up in bed together, but ‘after several failed attempts to have sex with Shimao, Komura gave up. This had never happened to him before.’ The package he brought with him turns out to have been empty or, rather, to have contained the ‘something’ – i.e. nothing – ‘that was inside’ him. He feels as if he’s ‘come a very long way’. Many of the motifs in the story – the disappearing wife, the mysterious box with nothing in it, the sexually pliant young woman – will be familiar to readers of Murakami’s previous work. Echoes and uncanny recurrences feature prominently in his writing, so this shouldn’t be surprising, but the story still feels a little tired, as if Murakami himself is tired of reworking the same old themes.

The rest of the collection is better, however, and ‘Landscape with Flatiron’ is perhaps the best of all. Mr Miyake’s obsession is bonfires. He left his wife and children in Kobe to move to a ‘dead-end’ town on the Pacific coast, north of Tokyo, ‘because this place gets more driftwood than any other beach I know’. Junko is a teenage girl who has also run away: ‘She was sick to death of school and couldn’t stand the sight of her father.’ (‘Most Japanese novelists,’ Murakami said in an interview in 1991, ‘are addicted to the beauty of the language. I’d like to change that. Who knows about the beauty? Language is a kind of tool, an instrument to communicate.’ His flat style, which in translation often verges on cliché, is apparently much more remarkable in Japanese, because the flatness itself is more striking.) Junko has a boyfriend, who she’s moved in with, and a job in a convenience store. Miyake visits the shop at least three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and supper. Eventually Junko asks him why he doesn’t shop less often and stock up his fridge. He doesn’t have a fridge, he replies; he doesn’t like them. This is an in-joke of sorts: Murakami’s always telling us what his characters have in the fridge. Miyake and Junko become friends (a platonic relationship between a middle-aged man and a teenage girl is much less rare in Murakami’s work than a man without a fridge) when she finds him one evening making a bonfire on the beach. ‘Whenever she had the chance after that, Junko would join Miyake for his bonfires . . . Sometimes he would make two a week, and sometimes he would go a month without one. His pace was determined by the amount of driftwood that washed ashore.’ His careful technique is carefully described:

Miyake had done a skilful job of interlacing the bigger logs and smaller scraps . . . Stepping back a few paces, he would examine in detail the form he had constructed, adjust some of the pieces, then circle around to the other side for another look, repeating the process several times. As always. All he had to do was look at the way the pieces of wood were combined to begin having mental images of the subtlest movement of the rising flames, the way a sculptor can imagine the pose of a figure hidden in a lump of stone.

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[*] Panther, 336 pp., £12.99, March 2002, 1 86046 952 3.