Listening to the car radio, I drive to the harbor. I want classical music, but I can't find a station that broadcasts it at night. Stupid Japanese rock music. Love songs sweet enough to rot your teeth. I give up searching and listen to those. They make me feel I'm in a far-off place, far away from Mozart and Haydn.
The Elephant Vanishes is a short story collection by one of the most popular contemporary Japanese authors, Haruki Murakami. Murakami is also a highly international writer and his novels and stories frequently mix American influences together with contemporary Japanese culture. This makes his novels and stories more approachable for a wider audience also outside Japan. Murakami's translators, Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin, receive their well-earned share of credit through their own, personal introductions below the author's blurb in the beginning of the book.
I think that Murakami has realized that there's no point in constantly trying to change a working concept and he does not hesitate to recycle his previous ideas that readers have obviously enjoyed. This doesn't mean that his novels or short stories are repetitions or copies of each other. They just often have a very similar feel or tone - a perfectly ordinary, everyday life is interrupted by something totally out of the blue, perfectly surreal and incomprehensible. It feels so familiar and somehow comforting to read his novels and stories that almost always have an ordinary, middle-aged man with a steady job, a pile of jazz records, bottles of wine and regular sex with his girlfriend... Then something uncanny interrupts the scene, often subtly, almost unnoticeably. Endings are often left open and the symbolism may be just complex enough to avoid logical interpretation.
For example, The Elephant Vanishes includes a story called "The Second Bakery Attack" in which a couple wakes up in the night so hungry that they find themselves robbing a McDonald's; or "Barn Burning", in which the author listens to the story of a man with an obsession to burn barns on a regular basis; or "Sleep", in which a bored housewife finds she can no longer sleep at night for weeks on end and spends her nights reading Anna Karenina over and over again.
Finland seems to be rediscovering Murakami. Two of his earlier novels, A wild sheep chase (Hitsuji o meguru boken, 1982) and Sputnik sweetheart (Suputoniku no koibito, 1999) have been translated into Finnish (Suuri lammasseikkailu and Sputnik - rakastettuni, both published in 1993). Both of these have been translated from the English translations of the original novels. Perhaps this was due to a serious shortage of Japanese to Finnish translators in Finland or perhaps it really was due to the outstanding translations of Birnbaum and Rubin - I'm not sure. However, as I said, Murakami is finally receiving some recognition in Finland when, after a gap of 16 years, a more recent novel, Umibe no Kafuka (2002) will be published next month under the title Kafka rannalla.
Haruki Murakami: The Elephant Vanishes. Vintage Books. 2003.
Stories originally published in Japanese
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum & Jay Rubin
NY Times: "From Japan, Big Macs and Marlboros in Stories"
Kirja.fi: Haruki Murakami