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Short stories: why you can love Murakami even without reading his novels

Haruki Murakami’s stories are like soft shadows – the fainter of the footprints he has left behind.

In his introduction to the English edition of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, an anthology of 26 of his short stories, Haruki Murakami writes, “If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.” He doesn’t compare the two forms. In fact, he goes on to say that he enjoys writing both every now and then, and as readers, the least we can do for an author whom we like as much as we do him, is to gracefully accept the strange stories, both long and short, he loves to bewilder us with.

It’s no secret that his books are insanely popular worldwide. They sell more than a million copies at home and are translated into over 40 foreign languages from Japanese. They’re reviewed and mentioned in the most renowned publications of our time, and it’s not for nothing that he is expected to win the Nobel Prize in Literature every year.

But what about short stories?

So, if one truly reveres Murakami’s works, one must find it next to impossible to ignore the other works of fiction he experiments with. For the best example of these, turn to his three short story collections: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, The Elephant Vanishes, and After the Quake.

The New Yorker, which has been carrying Murakami’s essays, excerpts, and short stories for years now, as it does of several other acclaimed authors, published his latest story, Kino, recently. It is the story of a man named Kino who, after encountering his wife in bed with his friend, chooses to lead a solitary life by running a humble bar in a quiet neighbourhood. A strange man named Kamita becomes a regular customer, and both Kino and he begin to feel comfortable in each other’s silent company. Things develop and Kamita, amazingly aware that the place is no longer safe for Kino and that something fatal is going to happen, suggests that he go away:

“Here’s what you do. Go far away, and don’t stay in one place for long. And every Monday and Thursday make sure to send a postcard. Then I’ll know you’re O.K.”

Kino is uncertain, but he takes Kamita’s advice and agrees to his terms. He doesn’t challenge the impending catastrophe and is somehow certain of Kamita’s concern (even though he doesn’t know him well) and that he must obey it, lest something bad befalls him. We never get to know the practical details like why the bar wasn’t safe, or who Kamita was after all, but the very nature of intuition is dark and mysterious, and as humans, we’d do anything to escape the fear of the unknown.

First draft novels?

A significant aspect of Murakami’s short stories that any of his fans must be familiar with is that many of them are amplified into his novels. That is to say, there are apparent allusions to the short stories and their characters in his books. In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, for example, the protagonist’s trip to a hospital with his cousin is starkly similar to a section in one of Murakami’s earlier novels, Norwegian Wood, where Toru Watanabe recalls a similar trip he took with his friend some years ago.

It isn’t just these references that make Murakami’s short stories worth remembering. Each of them works around a single concept to achieve a level of profundity. The Year of Spaghetti is an utterly frank, to the point of being banal, story of a man obsessed with cooking spaghetti to counter loneliness. The Second Bakery Attack is about redemption and in a way, a tale of coming to terms with prickly guilt.

Samsa in Love is a stunning interpretation in reverse of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; here the ‘monstrous verminous bug’ wakes up to find himself in the human form of Gregor Samsa, and not the other way round. He is attracted to a hunchbacked woman locksmith who visits his house, the reference to the woman being a hunchback being a deliberate contrast to the animal instinct taking root in Samsa, the bug’s heart. It feels like an imaginary prequel to Kafka’s novella. Scheherazade is a modern rendition of the legendary Arabic queen’s story by the same name; besides being a storyteller, she’s a sensuous caretaker in Murakami’s version.

His short stories are as extraordinary as his novels. Of course, it’d be incorrect to say that all his stories are equally incredible, but there are several that stay with you for a long time. Almost involuntarily, on a dull summer afternoon, you may find yourself drawn to a story you had read a long time ago. And at times, while re-reading a story, you’d discover connotations that you overlooked in the first read. But if you need a definitive conclusion or specific closure, sadly, you’ll be waiting forever. As so many of Murakami’s people also seem to do.

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