I’ve written several times in this space about the “discourse of fear” that gets attention in many settings these days—fear and a deep sense of foreboding. How to reckon with that discourse properly—without merely dismissing it impatiently as lacking historical perspective, but without giving into it, either?
The other day I came across a piece I wrote at the start of August 2002, in which I looked ahead to the first anniversary of 9/11, when we would be “bombarded with words and images in every conceivable media format, seeking to commemorate the events” of that day “and maybe even make a buck in the process.” I speculated that “maybe some of the best books to mark the occasion, if you are so inclined, will be books that weren’t written explicitly for that purpose. One such is Haruki Murakami’s slim book of stories, After the Quake.”
Murakami was at that time extremely popular among youngish American readers gravitating toward the arts and the intellectual life. For various reasons, Wendy and I often found ourselves (during those years near the end of the old millennium and early in the new one) in apartments inhabited by such young people in their twenties and early thirties. I formed the hypothesis (subsequently confirmed) that any such living space would almost certainly have one of the following three things on its shelves: a book by Murakami, a book by Philip K. Dick, or (often in LP format) Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. Some apartments would have two of the three, and some achieved a trifecta.
That was the context in which I was writing in 2002, when I recalled that Japan had
suffered two extraordinary shocks in 1995 in the space of only a couple of months. In January of that year, the port city of Kobe was struck by a devastating earthquake that killed more than 4,000 people and displaced several hundred thousand. The city, much of which had been rebuilt after massive destruction in World War II, lay in ruins. In March, while the nation was still reeling from that disaster, the apocalyptic sect Aum Shinrikyo sought to hasten the end of the world by releasing the nerve gas, sarin, in the Tokyo subway. While only eleven people died, more than 5,000 suffered from exposure to the gas, and the psychological impact on the Japanese people was incalculable.
What strikes me today is how remote these events (still very much present to my imagination) will seem to many readers, especially younger ones. Now back to August 2002:
Murakami, a best-selling Japanese novelist who had been living for some time in the United States, decided to return to Japan. In response to the Aum Shinrikyo attack, he interviewed many victims; he also interviewed current or former members of Aum. The two short books he produced as a result were published in one volume in English translation as Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (Vintage, 2001). . . .
In response to the quake, Murakami wrote a series of six short stories, each of which is set in February 1995. Published in Japan in 2000 under the title of one of the stories, “All God’s Children Can Dance,” the book has just appeared in English as After the Quake.
Certain writers have an indefinable gift for expressing the mood of their times. Murakami is one such writer. He has a winsomely quirky imagination that reminds me of the late Richard Brautigan, a taste for the outrageous in the vein of Tom Robbins (less winsome, to me at least), and some of the perversity that is so common in modern Japanese literature (Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, et al.), but more casual, nonchalant. His young people may be Japanese, but they are uncannily similar to many young people in America. Much of what gets called “postmodern” is fleshed out in Murakami’s fiction, above all the pervasive sense of arbitrariness and the absence of any stable system of belief.
How does such a writer respond to disaster? After the Quake is Murakami’s answer. Running through the stories is dissatisfaction with the unthinking materialism that is so powerful in Japan as well as in the United States. Dreams play a role in many of the stories; there are repeated intimations of other realities, of cosmic conflicts between good and evil (but perhaps the good and evil are somehow intertwined, interdependent). Above all, there are the virtues of love and commitment. . . .
The protagonist of “All God’s Children Can Dance” is the son of a devout Christian woman. It is interesting to see how her faith is treated. She is in some ways a figure of absurdity, yet she and other volunteers from her church have gone to help the quake victims while the protagonist gets drunk. The mother’s beliefs are presented in a caricature of popular Christianity (though you only have to turn on the TV or the radio to recall that such caricatures didn’t grow out of thin air), and at first the reader may suppose that this is nothing more than another dismissal of the faith as not simply untrue but downright ridiculous.
And yet as the story twists and turns to a characteristically strange ending—the young man alone in the middle of the night, dancing on the pitching mound in an empty baseball stadium—the last words are a cry from the heart: “‘Oh God,’ Yoshiya said aloud.”
“Oh God.” Is there a better response to Kobe, to Aum Shinrikyo, to 9/11?
I am not in the least advocating quietism in the face of the problems that beset our society and the world at large. But nowadays, even more frequently than in 2002, I find myself echoing that “cry from the heart.” It is not ultimately a cry of despair.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.