Saturday 24 November 2012

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is one of the most celebrated Japanese writers of all time, and upon the publication of his acclaimed novel ‘Norwegian Wood’, Murakami became a worldwide success. In this collection of short stories, Murakami pushes the boundaries of normality with every tale, exploring his usual issues of fate, coincidence and solitude through first person narrators who are often disconnected from the real world. Somehow though, the tone is never depressing and despite the often detached narration, each story fascinates in its own way. Saying that though, not every section in this anthology works, as is often the case with short story collections, so I’ve broken this review down story by story to better represent my view of ‘The Elephant Vanishes’ as a whole.

The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women

When I initially read ‘Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women’, I was disappointed by the fact that little happens but then this made sense once I learnt that this story eventually became the opening chapter to an entire novel, ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’. The drive for this story is the search for a missing cat, much like novel ‘Kafka on the Shore’, but the tone is far less surreal. I’m not a huge fan of this first story, although I like the odd teenage girl that the protagonist meets round the back of some houses in his neighbourhood.
The Second Bakery Attack

This is where things start to get a bit more random. A man who feels out of sorts with his life decides that only by robbing a MacDonalds will he get things back on track. I preferred this short to the first story but I struggled to identify with the protagonist and his partner in crime. Great idea though.

The Kangaroo Communique

To mix things up, Murakami writes here in the form of a letter from a worker responding to a customer complaint. Sound pretty dry right? But it’s Murakami of course, so instead of being a bureaucratic exercise in customer relations, this bizarre train of thought reveals the narrator’s sexual desires for the customer he has never met. I was not a fan of this one I’m afraid as both the protagonist and the situation were difficult to identify with.

On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning

As the shortest tale yet, this simple story within a story is sweet and charming. The emotional honesty reminded me of some of my favourite moments from Murakami’s classic novel ‘Norwegian Wood’. It’s hard to say much more about this one without spoiling it but the title kind of sums it up. My favourite story from the book so far.

‘Sleep’ is one of the few stories in this collection to be told through a female perspective and it’s also my favourite in the entire book. The story revolves around a housewife who struggles through boring, repetitive routines until one day, she suffers a horrific waking dream and suddenly finds she can’t sleep. Two weeks later and she’s still awake but is somehow feeling great. The ‘dream’ that triggers her insomnia is one of the most chilling things I have read in a long time, adding to the surreal atmosphere of the story but despite the odd tone, I still found this short strangely relatable and in my opinion, ‘Sleep’ could have easily been extended into a novella. My only qualm with this one is that I found the ending a bit unsatisfying and I would have liked to have learnt more before it ended.
The Fall of the Roman Empire, The 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler's Invasion of Poland, And The Realm of Raging Winds

I don’t have much to say about this one. The idea of linking the significance of small moments in one’s life to monumental points of history was intriguing but this story just didn’t do much for me. Luckily, it’s quite short. 


Here’s another odd little tale that I quite enjoyed. ‘Lederhosen’ is about a mother breaking up with her husband , finding herself after years of marriage but the exact reasons for why the divorce occurs remains a mystery, except that it has something to do with a pair of German Lederhosen… It’s bonkers but it’s classic Murakami. Love it.

Barn Burning

The protagonist of ‘Barn Burning’ is a typical Murakami hero. Odd. Quiet. Isolated. But then once we’ve been introduced to the main character, we meet another man even stranger, who loves to set fire to random barns. Not much really happens in this story and as is often typical of Murakami, nothing is really resolved but I still enjoyed this story and it definitely sticks in your mind.

The Little Green Monster

Now comes one of the shortest stories from ‘The Elephant Vanishes’ but also one of the best. ‘Little Green Monster’ is a dark supernatural fable about a housewife in modern Japan who encounters a monster trying to enter her home. Despite its surreal content, the little details that Murakami includes make it feel realistic somehow. The description of the monster is fantastic and the way that events play out is not at all what you would expect. ‘Little Green Monster’ is one of the shortest stories in the book but also one of the most memorable.
A Family Affair
This story is one of the more realistic tales included in this collection and shows off Murakami’s flair for characterisation. ‘Family Affair’ is about the relationship between a brother and sister in their mid-20s who live together. One is laid back and the other is far more mature and organised. The story is basically about the protagonist meeting his sister’s fiancĂ© but it’s a lot more interesting than this sounds, due to Murakami’s absorbing style. The whole thing feels a bit like an excerpt from a longer story but it is one that I would definitely want to read.

A Window

‘A Window’ is a sad story about a man who used to write anonymous letters to lonely men and women to support them. The idea of this might seem slightly odd but it becomes more interesting when the protagonist actually meets one of his past pen-friends in her flat. What’s great about this story is how much emotion it conveys in a short few pages.
TV People

Ok. So imagine for a moment that you’re sitting in your flat, minding your own business, when a few really short people suddenly appear, setting a brand new TV down in front of you. These TV people don’t speak or even acknowledge you and then they leave as quickly as they arrived. That’s the basis of this bizarre story, which randomly reminded me of both ‘Ring’ and ‘Willy Wonka’ at different points. Surreal but enjoyable.

A Slow Boat to China

I started off liking this story about a man’s three memorable encounters with different Chinese people but the final third suddenly became quite dull and I didn’t particularly enjoy the rant at the end. This was one of the most disappointing stories for me.

The Dancing Dwarf

Bear with me. So this story is set in a factory that makes elephants (somehow) and the protagonist is visited in his dreams by a dancing dwarf. This dwarf promises that he can make any girl fall in love with the man but only if he lets the dwarf possess him first. And he’s not allowed to speak the whole time. I loved this freaky story for its inventive premise and sheer strangeness. You’ll never read another story quite like it.

The Last Lawn of the Afternoon

After the last crazy ass tale, we’re back to slightly more realistic territory now, with the story of a young man who is slightly detached from the lives of those around him. Sound familiar? In his solitude, the protagonist takes great pride in mowing other people’s lawns to perfection but he no longer needs the money. The story is set on the day of the man’s last mowing job and focuses on his encounter with the lonely middle-aged woman who hires him. If you’re more a fan of Murakami’s character studies than his surreal flights of fancy, then this is another one that you will enjoy, with its peculiar feel set against a realistic backdrop.
The Silence
We’re coming towards the end now and it seems that Murakami has saved one of the best stories for last. This tale of a young male boxer who has become ostracised by everyone around him, for a crime he did not even commit, is a powerful read and can be interpreted as a critique of Japanese society as a whole. To strike out on one’s own is completely subversive of the Japanese collectivist mentality and so our protagonist struggles at first without that close-knit cohesion he was brought up with but ultimately, the experience only makes him stronger. ‘The Silence’ is definitely one of the most powerful stories in this collection and I wish that it had been placed earlier in the book to grab the reader’s attention straight away.
The Elephant Vanishes

So we’ve arrived at the final story in the collection and with it, we have returned to the bizarre realism that Murakami loves so much. ‘The Elephant Vanishes’ is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of an elephant who became a town mascot. The male protagonist is obsessed with the creature’s whereabouts, keeping newspaper clippings and discussing the subject with just about anybody. As is often the case with Murakami’s work, things are never quite resolved but for me, this is part of the charm of his writing and I enjoyed trying to fill in the gaps. However, if you are someone who needs to know all the answers, who must know exactly how the elephant vanished from the locked room, then this story may not be for you.      

Highlights; ‘Sleep’, ‘On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning’, ‘Lederhosen’, ‘Little Green Monster’, ‘The Dancing Dwarf’, ‘The Silence’.
This is not a book for everyone. If you want your stories to be realistic with everything resolved by the final page, then you will not enjoy ‘The Elephant Vanishes’. However, if you would like to read about dark lonely characters struggling to get by in this bizarre world of ours, then you might just get a kick out of Murakami’s writing. And for anyone worried about cultural differences, it’s important to note that a western influence is prevalent throughout all of Murakami’s work. If anything, it is the Japanese who may struggle more to identify with these tales. Finally, as is always the risk with short story collections, not every part works but for those willing to give it a go, ‘The Elephant Vanishes’ is a hugely rewarding read when at its best. Give Murakami a go. You might be surprised how much you like him!

Which is your favourite short story from this collection? Are there any other Murakami books that you would like to read about on ‘Be Careful! Your Hand!’ Remember to like, comment and share below if you’ve enjoyed this post. Thanks!


  1. Is there a relationship between the short stories??

    1. Great question! There are some thematic similarities like there are in much of Murakami's work but I don't think there's an explicit relationship between any of the stories.

  2. My interpretation allows me confirm that there IS a relationship. I think there is a pattern in the purpose in general. By that I mean that surrealism is used in these pieces of literature for similar reasons. I believe each of these "weird and strange" events and such depict our own subconscious effort to suppress our own "weird and strange" thoughts and feelings. These short stories simply reveal the creative potential of our subconscious fears and desires, such as in the kangaroo communique, where the narrator cannot censor his desire for intercourse with a woman he has never met, or in sleep, where a woman wishes to escape her routine, ordinary life through insomnia and eventually is attacked by what can be interpreted as her own dissatisfaction of her life, therefore she may be attempting to finish herself, even though the plot is clearly an attack from someone else and she is panicking, and in A Slow Boat to China, where the narrator is made to feel like he doesn't belong and he confronts this feeling by referring to the Chinese as the separate entity he can't quite ever keep a hold of or even reach. Maybe it isn't a direct relationship, but it is certainly something I could keep on making connections with the other short stories in the book.