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Review by
Mike Philbin
Author: Haruki Murakami

Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 0375413901

It's never easy reviewing the work of Haruki Murakami, without merely figurizing your delight in rolling fields of poignant adulation and Nobel-Prize-worthy rhetoric - his work garners such respect from the literati.

AFTER THE QUAKE is short-ish book of long-ish stories. Anyone who has read AN ELEPHANT VANISHES will already be familiar with Murakami's patented 6-8,000 worders.

There are six stories in this collection. They use, as their title would suggest, the fallout from the Kobe Earthquake as their setting. Not the act itself. Not the pain and suffering of the victims, but the spiritual and emotional reaction of people with connections to victims of this terrible natural catastrophe.

In UFO IN KUSHIRO, Komura works in a hi-fi store in the Akihabara district if Tokyo. He is tall and slim, a stylish dresser. Following the Kobe earthquake and after 5 years of marriage, his dumpy, scowling wife files for divorce. A work colleague, who suggests he take a long vacation up in a place called Kushiro on Hokkaido island, asks if he'd deliver a small package to his sister while he's up there. But what is in this mysterious package?

In LANDSCAPE WITH FLATIRON, painter Miyake is a master bonfire builder. He collects driftwood that washes ashore and invites his soul mate Junko to watch the fires he so professionally makes. Miyake has family in Kobe. Why is he avoiding them? What is the special link between the young Junko and the old Miyake?

In ALL GOD'S CHILDREN CAN DANCE, 25 year old Yoshiya still lives with his God-fearing mother. Hardly a virgin birth, Yoshiya was preceded by two abortions - though stringent contraceptive practises were applied before all three pregnancies. What convinced the mother that little Yoshiya was worth saving?

In THAILAND, thyroid specialist Satsuki takes a four-day vacation in the eponymous land of the title. She is chaperoned by her guide and driver, the enigmatic Nimit. Satsuki believes she has secret knowledge about the cause of the Kobe earthquake, but will she be allowed to bear her soul?

In SUPER-FROG SAVES TOKYO, a giant frog saves Tokyo from total destruction.

In HONEY PIE, the love triangle is secondary to the telling of a children's story about two bears Tonkichi and Masakichi and to a 4-year-old girl, Sala. Remember, when you tell tall stories to 4-year-olds, you gotta get the ending just right or all Hell breaks loose and the very foundations of the city will dissolve to shadow.

AFTER THE QUAKE is not merely six short stories connected by the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake. These stories read like the work of one soul skipping between the separated narratives, linking them and making the reader double back to check he hasn't uncovered a secret about one story by the collusion of another. 'Heart of stone', 'bears, polar + brown', 'serpents/worms', 'Super-frog' and 'half dead already' are iconic devices that Murakami peppers this collection with. Of course, he could have done it on purpose, either pre-planned or post-produced these stylistic and syntactic synchronisations to lend this collection a sense of implied, even dependant, unity. And it works.

Yes, you did read that correctly. Story #5 is about a giant frog that saves Tokyo from destruction. This story is the scene stealer, the star of the show, the gem shining on the shore. What other writer would inject such a surreal set-piece like this into what is overall a five-part psycho-drama, a soap if you like, dealing with people's reaction to the Kobe earthquake in a generally naturalistic way? It is played so straight and with such warm conviction that you can't help but want to wrap your arms around it, kiss it and give it a big hug. This would make a perfect short film - imagine the bank collection officer Katagiri confronted by over-sized and undoubtedly computer-generated Super-frog crammed into his tiny apartment croaking at the top of his voice and politely telling how they were going to save Tokyo from the evil Worm. It's a great and refreshing addition to this wonderful collection.

AFTER THE QUAKE attempts to show how Death permanently changes those it touches. That skull-cloaked fellow is no longer the assigned civil servant who whisks you away to the afterlife, he is merely a teacher bound to give you the ultimate social lesson. This book is a reminder of everyone's morality. We are all victims.

5 OUT OF 5

This review copyright 2004 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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