After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

“I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 132 pages.
Read from August 12, 2021 – August 19, 2021.

On January 17 1995, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake rocked Hyōgo Prefecture in Japan. This earthquake was the first-ever recorded earthquake to top the charts of the Japan Meteorological Agency. Nearly 6500 people lost their lives that day, around 4600 of them from the city of Kobe. Around 200,000 buildings collapsed that day. Even now, the Kobe earthquake still holds as one of Japan’s deadliest earthquakes. A few months later, Japan with hit with another tragedy with the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. These two events altered the Japanese people and will forever be imprinted in people’s minds and history books.

A damaged highway in Kobe as a result of the earthquake. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

I picked up this novel shortly after reading Underground by Murakami, which is suiting considering how close these real events occurred. While Underground is a non-fiction work from Murakami, After the Quake is a collaboration of six fictional short stories that all relate to the Kobe earthquake event. Murakami lived abroad until 1995 and it was after these events that made him decide to move back to Japan. Japan is a geological terror of a location as it is an epicentre for earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. It’s not a matter of if, with Japan, it’s a matter of when the next big event will happen (enter massive tsunami in 2011) and with climate change making matters worse, Japan sits in a precarious situation.

This novel contains six short stories, each of them set in the months following the earthquake and the sarin attack, with each story evoking a similar atmosphere of emotions created by the disaster. The first story follows a man whose wife abruptly left him after the earthquake. After taking some leave from work he is asked to deliver a mysterious package to one of his co-worker’s sisters. In the fourth, a woman is on a trip to Thailand when she realises she needs to let go of the resentment she has towards her ex-husband. The fifth is probably the most interesting of all the stories in that a man returns home from work to find a human-sized talking frog in his kitchen pleading with him that he needs his help to defeat a super worm in order to prevent a giant earthquake. While some stories carry more realism than others, each carries a heavy tone of longing, hope, sadness, regret, and relief.

Murakami uses these stories to capture the voice of Japan after the quake as well as using it as means to come to his own terms with the tragedy. The earthquake event is prolific in each story, though not always in the same manner. From news reports of the event, a disrupted relationship, to prophetic and metaphorical fights of giant frogs and worms. Murakami’s writing is, as always, poetic and mystical while engrossing readers with a unique story and feel.

A solid choice for Murakami fans who have not read this book yet and a good introductory to a tragic piece of Japanese history.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion . . . open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 508 pages.
Read from January 10, 2021 to January 18, 2021.

This book has been on my TBR list for years and while it was supposed to be a selection for the book club I’m in it was changed due to it being a bit too long for a monthly selection. I decided that I would still take the opportunity to read it as it had been on my list for so long.

My Name is Red is a unique piece that manages to interweave a murder-mystery plot with a love story, that takes place in a historical setting, that also pays tribute to the creation and development of Ottoman art and culture in the shadow of the West and influence. The result? A finely crafted piece of literature. The story revolves around a group of miniaturists, one of whom is murdered. One of the three remaining artists is responsible but you won’t find out who until the end. Miniaturists were artists that would work together to paint manuscripts and within the Ottoman empire, these works were often a collaboration with a head artist coming up with the plan and outline and passing off the remaining work to apprentices. These manuscripts, despite their beauty, were rarely signed by their creators which, differs greatly from the Western traditions of art. This is one of the main points of conflict in the book as some of the artists are under coming under this new Western influence. As the murder mystery unfolds, a love story also takes hold that counterbalances some of the violence in the story as well as the more factual artistic and historical references. Pamuk’s writing style and unique narrative approach are elegant, poetic, and complete with wonderful and memorable quotes that leave a lasting mark.

“Colour is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness.”

My Name is Red is an outstanding piece of literature that brings awareness to the culture and art of the Ottoman’s in the 15th century. However, if this is not an area you’re familiar with, it can make the book harder to appreciate or understand. Don’t let that stop you from reading this book though as it is a meticulously written novel that has a beautiful read with an immensely captivating story. Books like this one, help to turn attention to places that produced phenomenal art that was generally overlooked within the Western canon.

“In actuality, we don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is preciously what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

My three-star rating has to do more with my own reading experience as I wish I had done a little bit of prior research just before picking up this book. I would recommend these steps for maximum enjoyment before reading this novel. Knowing what a miniaturist is a good place to start as well as getting a visual for what types of works these artists produced and how they were used and read. Thankfully, Wikipedia has a decent summary that won’t eat too much of your time. A highly recommended read for historical fiction lovers and anyone with an art appreciation.

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

You finally get the back story on the elusive Sheepman.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 300 pages.
Read from April 20, 2020 to May 5 2020.

You finally get the back story on the elusive Sheepman in this book. Despite being a major focal point throughout the whole Rat series, little was known about him and he made few appearances through the series. The Sheepman even turns up in a book outside of the series in another one of Murakami’s works outside of this series but was published around the same time, The Strange Library, in a connection I have yet to determine.

If you’ve not read Murakami or a book in this series before you may be wondering how the heck a Sheepman fits into any story, even an absurdist reality as this one, well, it does. Strange, yes but that’s what Murakami does best.

Here’s an image of the Sheepman directly from the 1989 version of A Wild Sheep Chase.

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Why a sheep? I honestly couldn’t say but the title of this book is quite literal as the main unnamed male protagonist is blackmailed by a strange man representing a company that threatens him with losing everything if he doesn’t go and find this sheep that is in a photograph he published with his advertising company. The image, which he received from the Rat, his friend that disappeared a few years back and is detailed in the two previous books in this series, Hear the Wind Sing (The Rat #1) and Pinball 1973 (The Rat #2), is somehow tied to all of of this. On his search, much to his surprise, the protagonist finds others along the way who are obsessed with the concept of this Sheepman as well.  In the midst of all of this, the main character is going through the process of a divorce with his wife and meets a call girl with a strange allure. By all appearances she is very average, that is until you get a glimpse of her irresistible ears. While the story of his girlfriend trails off in this novel, it resumes in the fourth and final instalment of his series Dance Dance DanceDoes the protagonist find this Sheepman? And what will happen when he does find him? What will it all mean for him in the end?

Superior to the first two novels of the series, this story was by far more interesting and captivating. I really didn’t care much for the first two books, if I’m honest, but this one reads well and lends itself well to the final instalment of the series as well. I’d say this book is my favourite of the four because as a reader, you’re more connected to the protagonist in this story and you start to see the full spectrum of the story with the Rat the protagonist and the coming of age story that it really becomes. This novel, in a way, is like a peculiar vision quest that the protagonist takes with all the people he meets along the way playing a part in its conclusion and shaping who he becomes.

The Rat series is not one I would recommend a newbie of Murakami to. The first two books are some of the first he ever published and I feel he really comes into his craft a little later. For Murakami lovers, however, I feel that this an essential series to read to really get a feel for Murakami’s writing style and progress. The protagonist feels familiar because many of the other books Murakami write have similar characteristics to the one in this series, whether that’s with age, being a divorcee, and other personality traits and similarities. I feel that this series was likely the first one to establish this character that we, as Murakami readers, have come to love.

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