Vintage Murakami
Haruki Murakami
In the short story "Honey Pie," Murakami tells us that short stories are not worth writing. One of the character's editor says, "If he never wrote anything but short stories, he would just keep dealing with the same material over and over again, and his fictional world would waste away." This lies buried in the third short story in Vintage Murakamia, being a collection of five.

If your taste runs to people who burn down barns, monsters who create earthquakes, women who can peel themselves like an orange, and men who can peel other men like a tangerine --- then Murakami is your meat. Two years ago, we reviewed an earlier volume of his stories. Our conclusion: he's a good enough writer to be considered up there right along with Salinger, Hemingway, Anderson, Barthelme, and other classic masters of this exotic field.

One may suspect that Murakami does have a thing about peeling, though. The lady Nakao in "Barn Burning" peels herself in mime like "a Mandarin orange." And "Lieutenant Mamita's Long Story" shows us one of his military officers get his body peeled somewhere out there where Outer Mongolia meets Manchukuo. It's a place so deserted that "through such an utterly desolate landscape, an overwhelming hallucination can make one feel that oneself, as an individual human being, is slowing coming unraveled."

    The surrounding space is so vast that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep a balanced grip on one's own being ... The mind swells out to fill the entire landscape, becoming so diffuse in the process that one loses the ability to keep it fastened to the physical self.

The only change was the sun, going across the sky.

    And in the movement of the sun, I felt something I hardly know how to name: some huge, cosmic love.

Well, OK. But when the narrator and Yamamoto get caught by the Mongolian border guards who demand a secret paper that Yamamoto is carrying --- and when they don't get it, they stake him down in the sun buck-naked and peel him. Live. With a "special knife, designed for skinning ... The blade as thin and sharp as a razor."

    "They do a small area at a time ... They have to work slowly if they want to remove the skin cleanly, without any scratches" [the Russian commander tells Yamamoto.] "If, in the meantime, you feel you want to say something" (reveal the location of the document,) please let me know."

"Then you won't have to die. Our man here has done this several times, and never once has he failed to make the person talk. Keep that in mind. The sooner we stop, the better for both of us."

Remember that book called Peel My Love Like an Orange. Well, here it is, in fine detail. For the next two pages, Yamamoto slowly gets stripped of his epidermis as the narrator (Mamiya) and the reader (me), slowly get rather barfy.

If you have any doubts at all about the narrative powers of Murakami, let this resolve those doubts. It's starts on page 139. It's all over and done with on page 140. My tum and I almost gave up on page 139-½. It's one of those exquisitely awful passages that tests the mettle of the writer, not to say the innocent reader, along with poor old Yamamoto, stripped, one might say, to the bone.

After slogging though this harrowing scene, I found myself beset by doubts. Not about the Mogols and their colorful methods of extracting information. Nor about the absolute tip-top narrative ability of the author (and his translator, Jay Rubin). No, my doubts were about whether we needed this all-too capable set piece: the absolute isolation (which, I should remind you, the writer tells us, brings about "a huge, cosmic love"), the exquisite details (the way the just-peeled skin of Yamamoto's torso looks when the Mogol holds it up; how the ground was "a sea of blood;") and, later, how the narrator Mamiya returned to Japan, lived like "an empty shell:"

    I can't explain it very well, but as honestly and simply as I can state it, no matter why I have encountered, no matter what I have experienced since then, I ceased to feel anything in the bottom of my heart.

"Something inside me was already dead," he tells us. Figures.

§     §     §

These stories confirm Murakami as a brilliant fiction writer. There is but one reportorial piece --- about a survivor of the sarin attacks in the Tokyo subways. It doesn't play as well, perhaps in comparison to the three center-piece stories, "Barn Burning," "Honey Pie," and the aforementioned "Long Story."

The story of Mr. Frog which we praised at length from After the Quake didn't make it into this collection. Too bad. It's sweet madness would have made a nice counterpoint to your routine day-to-day entertainment that takes place alongside the Khalkha River, there in the wilderness between Mongolia and Manchukuo.

--- Akire Iriye
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